Last Update: September 2020
5 minute read
Psst, listen up! I will let you in on a secret, but promise me to keep it to yourself!
In the North of Vietnam, about 90km Northwest from Ninh Binh and close to the Laos border is a Nature Reserve named “Pu Luong”. You can reach it from Ninh Binh by motorbike via the most incredible scenic route.
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Believe me when I say that this route offers some of the best views you will ever see in your life. Don’t stay on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, but instead use the secret in between roads only known to specialized guides and a handful of people in the know.
White Tai Hilltribe
Pu Luong is mainly inhabited by the ‘White Tai Hilltribe’. Yes, their ethnicity is related to Thai. No, they are not white, just some of their clothes are. Over hundreds of years the White Tai cultivated the mountains and hills to make it suitable for growing rice.
Not an easy undertaking if you consider the immensity of the area and the labor intensity of rice terrace construction. But the result is as adequate as it is gorgeous. Picture perfect mountain slopes clad with rice terraces as far as the eye can see.
Rice terraces? In the mountains you say?, that’s not unique. Why should we go there if we can see all of this in Sapa a few 100 km up North?
Well, that’s exactly my point. That is why you have to keep this to yourself. Look, Sapa and its surroundings are absolutely beautiful. However, with so many tourists visiting every year, Sapa is hardly the unbeaten path it used to be. The hilltribes abandoned their ancient lifestyle and are now fulltime occupied with tourism. You do know they wear their folklore outfits just for you, don’t you?
Souvenirs offered by the numerous stalls and street vendors are far from home craft. Instead they are produced in factory like sweatshops with modern machinery to increase production. The factory workers spend their wages on smartphones and a new satellite dish to watch the daily Vietnamese soaps on their flat screens.
You think they live in the wooden stilted houses you saw? No, the only reason these houses are still standing is so you can take photos for your instagram.
Don’t get me wrong, the rice terraces at Sapa are beautiful, but I’m telling you, it’s all make believe. For all we know rice might not even be in their diet anymore. Who is to say they are not having chicken nuggets for lunch and deep pan pizza for dinner?
Ha, I’m exaggerating of course. The area around Sapa is gorgeous and the hilltribe people are real, but the truth is that the tourist masses are creating a problem. It has become a highly commercialized attraction.
Harassment by touts trying to sell you anything is a big nuisance. We booked a 15 km trek and local kids were following us with their rubbish souvenirs for the whole 15 km! Worst part is of course that these kids are probably being exploited. Furthermore, we were not just trekking in a group, but in a parade of groups. 3 groups in front of us and 4 more behind us. How’s that for an authentic experience?
Untouched Pu Luong
Back to Pu Luong…..untouched…..pristine. Walk around in Pu Luong and you will find that no one is trying to sell you anything. Instead, friendly smiling locals walk up to you and grab you with both hands uttering ‘Xin Chao, welcome to Vietnam!’ Small groups of kids get all excited when they spot you shouting ‘Hello, how are you?, ‘I love you’ in the little English they know.
Wandering through the fields and small villages you can witness the locals harvesting and planting rice like they have done for centuries. Plowing, herding buffalo, catching rats, fishing, weaving, wood carving, it’s all on display.
The tour guide we used operates from Hanoi and Ninh Binh. If you need his info, let me know through the contact form. I do highly recommend him, because of his excellent knowledge, high service and his ability to provide a safe, unique and authentic experience. One (friendly) all-in price including transport, all meals, accommodation, treks and guided village tours. And no, there’s nothing in it for me by endorsing him.
Homestay in Pu Luong
In Pu Luong you can experience a real homestay. Not the guesthouse or hostel posing as a homestay to excuse the complete lack of facilities. Also not the kind of homestay where the host family desperately needs the money, but is actually reluctant and therefore shies away from any social interaction. No, a real homestay. The family prepares a feast and everyone joins in for dinner, including grandma.
The moonshine rice wine keeps on coming and the host gives an emotional speech about how happy the family is with your stay at their home. They are all incredibly curious and ask a million personal questions. How old are you? How many children do you have? Why not more? How much money do you make? Do dogs really sleep on the bed in your country? Why do you smell so bad?…ouch!
At 8pm it’s time for bed. They lay out your bed on the bamboo floor and you go to sleep in the only room of the house, together with the whole family. It’s all so cozy and comfy. During the night I went for a pee and woke up everyone, because of the squeaky bamboo floor. It’s all part of the charm.
Pu Luong has to stay the way it is, I’m sure you understand. Pu Luong should not end up like Sapa where unfortunately the authenticity is lost. That is why this idyllic place has to remain a secret and you should never tell anyone about Pu Luong.
How to get to Pu Luong
To get to Pu Luong is not that easy. There are no direct buses from either Ninh Binh or Hanoi. Your best option is to go through a local tour agent. We opted to go on the back of a motorbike, which was a fantastic experience, except for the numb bum that is.
Other than transport, a local agent will also be able to arrange an authentic homestay if that’s what you’re after. Otherwise, a guesthouse/hostel posing as a homestay is easiest to find in and around the village of Ban Hieu.
Update September 2020
When we visited Pu Luong we noticed a new road being constructed through the mountains to open up Pu Luong. Travel sites are increasingly touting Pu Luong as a must visit attraction and now we hear that tourists are starting to trickle into the area.
Public transport is still lacking, although there’s talk of a shuttle bus from Ninh Binh to Pu Luong for about $20. Maybe it’s just talk, but if you booked your accommodation ahead, perhaps ask them?
Coming from Hanoi, public transport can bring you as far as Mai Chau. From there you will have to arrange a car or motor bike taxi. Try the transport portal from 12go.asia below.
Apparently you can still have an authentic experience here, tourist numbers remain relatively low for the time being. Let’s just hope that Pu Luong will prosper without ever losing its charm and authenticity.
Btw, I sure hope that the increased popularity of Pu Luong is because of the new road and not because you let out the secret….
Note!: You should know that healthcare in Vietnam is among the worst in South East Asia. Any serious ailment or injury will most likely involve medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore. Evacuations cost a fortune, payable upfront without proper insurance. Read about travel insurance here, or get an instant, non-committal quote here.
Here’s a thought: Do you think that pioneering travelers are indirectly responsible for the decline of ‘off the beaten path destinations’? Let me know how you feel about this in the comments below or use the contact form in the contact page of this site’s menu. I might write an article on this topic and I would really appreciate your input.
If you’re traveling to Vietnam, make sure to check my article “the ultimate Vietnam scam”. Better safe than sorry.