I knew a typhoon was heading towards north Vietnam, but having freed my schedule for a long weekend of treks and bike rides in the region I was praying for the storm to move into another direction. It didn’t, and my original booked flight to Hanoi was cancelled. The second (booked) flight was delayed, then cancelled, and finally the third flight got confirmed. I landed in Hanoi after a long delay, but was happy to make it there.
Most people reading the headline will think that I am going to write a story about Sapa, the famous northern mountain town near the border with China and home to ethnic minorities. That is not what this story is about. Instead I would like to introduce you to a new trekking and mountain option: Mai Chau in Hoa Binh province. The city of Mai Chau is not of much interest to visitors and the surrounding hills have seen tourists for many years, but most of you will probably not know the valleys leading to and from Mai Chau, and this is what my story will focus on.
The valley of Pu Luong is a 4-5 hour drive southwest from Hanoi on rural and mountain roads. Leaving the busy and bustling city, which is changing at lighting speed (but the old town is still charming and interesting as ever), the highway gives way to rural roads through small towns and then snakes its way over the Ma river into the Pu Luong valley. Historians will remember the French air base of Pu Luong that was located on top of Pu Luong Mountain, and served as a base during the Indochina war.
While the Pu Luong valley has some homestay accommodation, a Vietnamese entrepreneur has just opened the first lodge type resort overlooking the valley. He has secured the best location with a stunning view, and has built a small retreat he named “Pu Luong Retreat’. I loved it the moment I stepped in. A comfortable eco resort true to its name, Pu Luong Retreat is very small and offers only 9 bungalows with magnificent views, a large house with dormitory style accommodation with shared bathrooms, a small pool and a restaurant.
The Pu Luong valley is home to the Thai and Hmong minorities who have lived here for centuries, and built their villages up in the mountains and along the river banks. They are a friendly people who are eager to share their culture, and live off the land – planting rice and vegetables as well as rearing live stock. Many houses have fish farms, probably making them one of the only mountain ethnic minority groups in the world to breed fish.
Thankfully the valley is not Disneyland, and mass tourism has not “invaded” the region. The minority groups here don’t wear traditional costumes, but they follow a traditional lifestyle of farming with family values and village harmony – the core moral principles in their lives. However, a part of modernity that has made the way here is the mobile phone – most own this gadget!
The hikes from Pu Luong Retreat can either be short walks of 1-2 hours with moderate elevation or soft adventure hikes up to 5 or 6 hours duration. The views are breath-taking, the shades of green from the rice fields and other crops rival those in the South Pacific, and photo opportunities are abundant. For professional photographers looking for postcard fairy tale shots, this is the place to be.
After a good night’s sleep I left by car for an hour’s drive into the direction of Mai Chau. As I wanted to avoid the regular tourist walks and bike treks of Mai Chau I stopped mid-way in Mai Hich village. There are no hotels or lodges in this place, but there is a lovely homestay run by a family whom you would want to hug when you leave. If you can make do with a night of simple dormitory style accommodation in a traditional wooden house built on stilts complete with mattress, privacy curtains, clean linens, towels and spotless shared facilities, you should not miss this place.
I set off on a wonderful three-hour walk from the homestay over flat terrain, through rice fields with limestone rock formations and hills as the backdrop, and along rivers and canals. One idyllic village gives way to another with friendly locals and children waving at me from every second house.
The homestay also offers some biking options. The bikes are Chinese made of average quality without gears, but since the area is flat and there is no traffic it is a really nice and relaxing way to see the countryside.
Our homestay family cooked some of the best food I ever had in Vietnam. The entire family, as well as neighbours, joined in the meal with the evening ending late with lots of laughter and a bit too much rice wine.
The next day I travelled to Mai Chau, a 30-minute drive away, for some inspections. I worked with our team on new walks, as well as trekking and biking options that we want to offer for a more authentic experience in the Pu Luong and surrounding valleys.
Asian Trails has supported community-based tourism in Vietnam for many years, and we constantly try to find additional income for the homestay families. Even if their core activity is to offer dormitory style accommodation we support them in offering lunches during walks or treks, we rent their bikes, hire the family members as guides, and give them the opportunity to sell drinks and snacks. Nobody knows the area better than these local people, and they are as happy to interact with visitors as the visitors are in spending a few hours with them. For the more discerning visitors who prefer more luxurious accommodation we offer overnight in the lodges in the Mai Chau area, and then arrange for walking, village and biking experiences together with the homestay families in the Pu Luong and surrounding valleys.
To travel planners and product managers reading my story I would strongly recommend this part of Vietnam as an authentic mountain experience, and as an alternative to the more crowded Sapa region.
Plan for your clients to arrive in Hanoi for a night stay, then travel to Pu Luong/Mai Chau for 2-3 nights with activities suitable to their fitness level, with soft adventure options for those who are younger and fitter. Return to Hanoi or continue to Ninh Binh, which is only a 3½-hour drive from Mai Chau. Experience the limestone rocks and villages near Ninh Binh by bike and boat and, after one night in the lovely Tam Coc Garden Resort or the extravagant Emeralda Resort, continue to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise.
The Asian Trails Vietnam team will be happy to work with you on the ideal north Vietnam journey for an authentic ‘real Vietnam’ experience away from the large tourist crowds.
Photo: Laurent with Mr. Binh, manager of Asian Trails Hanoi office