Pu Luong Nature Reserve
You want to see the breathtakingly beautiful rice terraces, towering limestone mountains and tropical forests but you're short on time to go to Sapa? Then good news is that I got an alternative for you.
Located in Thanh Hoa and bordered with Hoa Binh, Pu Luong Nature Reserve is a hidden gem in the North of Vietnam that not many people, even the local, know of. Pu Luong has pristine landscapes of mountain ranges, paddy fields and tropical jungle. It is also the home to Muong and Thai people, two ethnic minorities in Vietnam with very rich culture. Only 160 km from Hanoi, Pu Luong has become an increasingly popular choice for trekking and weekend getaway.
When is the best time to visit Pu Luong?
To see the best of Pu Luong, you need to go there in the right season.
Late May and early June: when rice crops have been planted and you will get to see the green paddy fields running on hillsides. This time of the year is dry and cooling, a lot more pleasant than summer months when it's usually boiling hot.
September and October: this is when the rice crops are ripe and it's the BEST time to visit. The golden colour of paddy fields cascading on the hill will blow your mind away.
I was last there in December after the harvest season. The landscape still looked amazing but it didn't feel right not seeing the rice crops.
How to get there?
Here are a few options to get there:
Scooter: A lot of young Vietnamese people travel there by scooter because the scenery is stunning between Hanoi and Pu Luong. I'm not a great scooter driver so that is a no-no for me. If you're confident in your scooter driving skills, then here is a common route from Hanoi: drive to Ban Lac in Mai Chau, head to Co Luong, Dong Dieng and then turn to 15C to drive along Ma river to Pu Luong. Remember to take rest on the way. Thung Khe pass and Da Trang (white rock) pass are two great stops as you can enjoy some nice view in the fog. Also make sure you're well equipped before the trip, bring your helmet, food and drinks…
Car: If you're not keen to drive a scooter like me, then you can drive there by car. Pu Luong is accessible from Hanoi via Ninh Binh or Mai Chau.
Private tour: if you're going in a group, it may work out cheaper to book a private tour that includes transportation. We paid around £70 per person for a weekend trip, which included private transportation for 4 people, accommodation at an eco-resort, and food.
Public transport: I believe you can take a coach from My Dinh coach station, Hanoi toward Ba Thuoc -Thanh Hoa. Get off at Cành Nàng (Bá Thước, Thanh Hóa), then take a taxi to Pu Luong. Coach ticket is around 120k vnd (£4) per person and taxi ride is around 300k vnd (£10).
Where to stay?
The most common choice of accommodation is homestay as there aren't many hotels or hostels in Pu Luong. When I went there in Dec 2018, there was only one resort which was Pu Luong Retreat, which is where I stayed
The most well-known dish is Co Lung (Cổ Lũng) duck but honestly, even a simple dish in Pu Luong like boiled vegetables tastes delicious because the food quality is so high. Everything is fresh and organic and sourced directly from the farm.
What to do?
The simple answer is trekking.
Pu Luong peak: Pu Luong in Thai language means the peak (when I say Thai language, I mean the language in Thai ethnicity in Vietnam - my understanding is that they are originally from the same ethnic group as Thai people in Thailand but they travelled to Vietnam a very long time ago so the language has developed differently over the years). The peak of Pu Luong is 1700m, a very popular trekking destination. It takes 6-8 hours in good weather to trek to the peak. From there you can enjoy the spectacular view of the villages from the above.
Villages: Kho Muong village, Don Village, Hieu hamlet are popular choices for trekking. In these villages, you will see the life of the local communities. They live at very slow pace without much material possession but you can tell that their life is very peaceful. As you trek through villages, you may see wheels for irrigation and come across people riding buffalos to carry goods from one place to another.