Pu Luong Trek

Getting There

Created in 1999, Pu Luong National Park is one of Vietnam's newest nature reserves. It is set in forested mountains and fertile valleys populated by the White Thai and Muong hill tribes. Eco-tourism has developed slowly here, which is what the locals prefer, not wanting to lose their culture and traditional ways of life. Some say that it is like Sapa used to be before the latter became a must-visit location for every tourist coming to Vietnam. We wanted to find out and organised a 4-day trek through the area.

Thus we found ourselves heading southwest out of Hanoi in a 4WD with our driver and guide, Mr Linh, on a hazy day, passing through patches of fog and eventually out into a countryside of karst outcrops, paddy fields, vegetable gardens and sugar cane, on a 3½ hour journey to our starting point.

In the Mai Chau Vallley

Crossing a steep-walled mountain range, we dropped down into the valley of Mai Chau, the far walls almost vanishing into the haze. We had arrived in the heartlands of the White Thai people and stopped off at one of their villages, Pom Coom, for a long and leisurely lunch, followed by the local tradition of a siesta in a hammock, gently swinging in the languid warmth of the day.

Houses and paddies of Pom Coom Village

Day 1 - Van Mai to Ban Hang (3.5 km by boat and 7.5 km on foot - 220m ascent - 70m descent)

Landing on the Ma River

The Suoi Pung River

Rice paddies near Ban Hang

The seeting of Ban Hang in the Suoi Pung Valley

At 2pm we hopped back into the 4WD, together wih Ms Vuong, our local Thai guide and cook extraordinaire, to drive a little further on to Van Mai village on the banks of the Ma River. Here we board a small longboat for a 4km cruise down the fast flowing stream (an old Viet Minh supply route for the siege of Dien Bien Phu); green topped karst cliffs, the odd stilt house and gardens passed in and out of view as the distant mountains faded blue towards Laos.

By boat down the Ma River

At the next village we landed and our trek began, as Linh led us up to Ban Sai village to follow a road up away from the river. The earthern road followed the course of the Suoi Pung River upstream into an ever narrowing valley; river floor and lower slopes terraced with gardens and recently harvested rice paddies beneath lush green forested hills. This road wound and undulated its way for several kilometres, every corner opening up a beautiful rural vista.

Ban Sai Village

The mountains of Pu Luong fade away

On the road to Ban Hang

Evening falls on the hills of Pu Luong

As we passed through the village of Tan Phuc, smiling children appeared from houses and fields to call out "hello" or "xin chao" - it was a scene to be repeated at every village on our walk. Leaving the road, we headed lower down into the valley along a dirt motor cycle track, crossing the river to reach the villages of Ban Duom and Ban Hang, the latter our destination and first homestay of the trek.

The boys on the way home from school

Our accommodation was the house of the friendly Mr Nam and his family. It consisted of two large communal rooms built on stilts with views out the shuttered windows that you couldn't buy, of the valley and mountains beyond.

The house was set in a large yard, with aquaculture pond, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Chooks and ducks ranged as freely as an animal liberationist could wish for, while beyond lay the village rice paddies. Outside the yard we had passed pigs and cattle, the whole a picture of self-sufficiency.

Dinner with the Nam family in Ban Hang

The Nam family stilt-house - our home for the night

Enjoying a welcoming shot of rice wine and puff from a bamboo bong

Mr Nam greeted us with hot tea and an offer to smoke his bamboo water pipe; the former a welcome quencher after our walk, the latter we politely declined. Later we adjourned upstairs to join the family for a large and delicious dinner, prepared by Ms Vuong, served on mats on the floor of the larger communal room and washed down with several shots of rice wine (50 proof!!!). Tired after out first day, partly from the walk and partly from the efforts of communicating with our hosts without a common language, we were soon ready for bed. The dinner mats were rolled up and the bed rolls, blankets and mosquito nets appeared; the large room had transformed from dining room to bedroom in a matter of minutes, as it does every day in the life of the Thai people.

Day 2 - Ban Hang to Ban K'ho Muong (14 km - 540m ascent - 360m descent)

I write this as we overlook the rooves of stilted houses sitting beneath sheer green-clad walls of rock. Beyond, the mountains fade into the blue haze of the early evening light. Smoke rises lazily here and there, chickens run by peeping after their mothers, a platoon of ducks marches up the road, the pig below waits patiently for dinner to the rhythmic creak and splash of a tipping bucket rice mill. Above all this, drifting across the valley is the haunting alto melody of a Vietnamese folksong - community radio by loudspeaker. It could be a scene from a movie ........

Today we had started out at 9am; the local Thai people start their day before dawn, lazy westerners much later. It was a cool morning and a heavy fog greeted us when we emerged from the house. However, by the time we set off, fueled by Ms Vuong's enormous breakfast, the fog was lifting. Mists veiled the mountain tops, giving them an ethereal appearance as we headed eastward into a partly shrouded sun. We quickly left the rice paddies of Ban Hang behind to wade across the river, meeting up with an English family of four doing a similar trek to ours - we would cross their paths several times during the day before we finally diverged.

Leaving the paddies of Ban Hang ...

.. to wade the stream in a forested gorge

Misty morning in Pu Luong

The terraced rice paddies

Once over the river, the valley narrowed into a tight jungle clad ravine, before once again opening out into the terraced paddy fields of the neighbouring community. We started a steep and steady climb up through the paddies, houses and gardens on these heavily-cultivated slopes; a fascinating journey through the micro-technology of a self-sufficient society - water flowing via complex systems of canals and bamboo pipes, driving tipping bucket mills and tiny electricity-generating turbines, flowing into and out of aquaculture ponds then from one azolla-filled paddy to the next to be used over and over again on its descent down the mountain slopes.

Farmers were working the paddies with water buffalo pulled ploughs, clearing weeds, mending banks, tending vegetables and fruit trees, women were carrying large baskets of firewood or produce on their backs supported by headbands. We passed cattle and pigs, chooks scurrying around the houses and flotillas of ducks dabbling in the paddies. Here was everything you need to be self-sufficient and satellite TV to boot; isolated, yet not, in their beautiful valley settings.

Tipping bucket rice mill


Water buffalo in Eo Ken village

The rain forest of the pass between valleys

Looking across to the northern ranges of the National Park

Pu Luong landscape in hazy blue

Finally our climb brought us to the village of Ban Eo Ken and the rough cobble road that links the local communities. We followed it eastward, gradually climbing and passing through Ban Ba Pa and Ban Dong Dieng to reach the 700m high pass at the head of the Suoi Pung Valley.

Siesta time for sleepy Nellos

Descending quickly through a richly forested landscape, we reached our lunchstop at the village of Ban Pa Kha, followed by a 30 minute siesta; how quickly one can adapt to local customs.

Road down through the rain forest

The rugged profile of Pu Luong's mountains

On the road again

Looking down from the heights of Ban Kha Pa

The terraced paddies of Ban Kah Pa

Then it was steeply downhill, ahead a beautiful sheer-walled valley and behind the blue profile of the mountains. The terraced paddies descended the slopes like a giant's staircase - postcard stuff.

Evening reflections in the paddies of Ban Kho Muong

A giants staircase of rice paddies

Ban Kho Muong village in its setting of Karst mountains

Finally we reached the village of Ban Kho Muong in its incredible setting beneath the steeply walled karst mountains. Here we stopped for our second homestay in a typical stilted house of the White Thai people. Our host was Mr Nam, the village policeman - we could sleep well tonight!!

Our home for the second night - in Ban Kho Muong

Ms Voung and our White Thai hostess

Yet another feast with the locals

..... the creeping cold breaks our reverie above the village and it is time to get our jackets. Dinner awaits upstairs with Linh, Ms Vuong and the family and I can hear the clinking of the rice wine bottle. Now that should help with the communication!

Day 3 - Ban K'ho Muong to Ban Hin (8.5km - 300m ascent - 540m descent)

The house began to stir at 5 am, as our Thai hosts prepared for their day - the rooster had already been crowing for an hour and soon the ducks and chooks below us were clucking and quacking over their breakfast. The reality of the idyllic image of village life from yesterday evening was becoming clearer.

Early morning at Ban Kho Muong

Here, life is demanding; by the time that we farewelled our host family and headed off, the men had already been out tilling the rice paddies for several hours, the women were off collecting heavy basketloads of firewood and the children had done their household chores before setting off on a journey of several kilometres to school. It is a simple life and a physically hard life, but a lifestyle that the locals do not want to lose.

The limestone cliffs Pu Luong

Linh led us across the stream that flows through the village to follow it into a large basin of paddies surrounded by a cirque of steep-walled mountains. Where could it go from here? The only way was underground, soaking into the fissures of the limestone bedrock to re-emerge several kilometres away on the far side of the karst walls. We deviated slightly to climb up to the opening of an enormous cavern, almost hidden by the trees and vegetation and known only to the locals until recently. Hang Doi, the Bat Cave, is home to four species of bat and a colony of swallows - 24 hour per day insect protection for the surrounding rice paddies below.

Entry to Hang Doi - the Bat Cave

View back across the paddies and karst cirque from the spur

Our route onwards lay at the end of the cirque; a steep zig-zagging footpath leading straight up into the mountains. The air was still and the sky was covered with thin cloud, keeping the moisture in. By the time that we reached a small plateau from which to stop and admire the views back over the cirque, we were soaked in perspiration.

The steep climb continued, entering dense jungle vegetation and crossing a rocky cleft in the mountain range, before plunging steeply down its eastern face. Our descent beneath the lush green canopy of the rain forest was even steeper and more direct than our ascent until we reached the line of karst cliffs, when it took a shallower and more contoured route.

The climb and descent through the rain forest as we crossed a rocky spur of the Pu Long Mountains

Out of the forest at last

Eventually, we broke out of the rain forest to emerge once again in a bowl of rice paddies with a small cluster of stilt houses. We had reached the hamlet of Ban Pon and a break to recuperate some energy and contemplate the tranquility of our surrounds was in order.

Rural setting - Pu Luong

View back across the paddies to the range we just crossed

30kg of cassava per basket!

From here, we followed a newly made road that cut a slash of maroon, red and pink clay through the rich green tapestry of vine clad forest. On the way, we were passed by three young women, each carrying a 30kg basket load of cassava, on their backs supported by headstraps, to the next village. It put our achievement into perspective.

Passing beneath the big bamboo

New road carved into the pink clay slope

Stopping at the next village, Ban Nua, a Muong hills tribe community with a pleasant lake, we met the women again while having our lunch and obligatory siesta. Their cassava was being weighed at the shop and they would receive 3,000 dong per kilo (less than 20 cents) - cash is a hard won commodity here. An old turbanned lady watched the proceedings as she smoked her bamboo water pipe, blowing clouds of smoke from purple-stained teeth, legacy of a lifetime of chewing betel nut. There is always something interesting happening on this walk.

The three cassava girls

Rinsing the vegetables

Minding the ducklings

An old water wheel

Fishing in the local pond

Carting a log to be sawn in planks for the new house

Bringing the water buffalo home

We were now in the fertile valley of the Suoi Cham River, with its broad flats and narrow fingers of rice paddies cutting into the steep forested mountains that framed it. From Ban Nua it was but a short stroll down the road to Ban Hin, our last overnight stop of the trek. Here we stayed at the home of Mr Doanh, the village chairman (we were definitely moving up in the world!). It was mid-afternoon, but by the time we finished the welcome ceremony, Mr Doanh and his son-in-law had plied us with half a dozen shots of rice wine to accompanying toasts of "zo" and "can chen" (loosely translated "cheers"). The cold shower that followed not only cleared away the dust and humidity of the track, but also helped clear our heads.

The Suoi Cham River valley at Ban Hin

View across the paddies to our stilted hut ...

... and close-up of our home for the night

Refreshed, we wandered out into the middle of the paddy fields to sit and watch the ducks dabbling in the muddy water, water buffalos and cattle heading home for evening and rural life playing out its slow and purposeful role in yet another beautiful village setting. Soon it was time to return for dinner - Linh had caught us a couple of large carp in the pond, once again superbly cooked by Ms Vuong. Tonight we slept in a stilted annex, built partially over the water - it was strange dozing off to the sound of frogs croaking directly beneath.

Day 4 - Ban Hin to Ban Xom (12km - 880m ascent - 160m descent)

Today was an early start, as we needed to meet our transport back to Hanoi at 1.30pm. It was a grey and foggy morning and a quick breakfast of sticky rice and peanuts that greeted us. The mountain tops were hidden in the mist, which was probably just as well, as the climb of yesterday had only been a practice for the big climb of today, a 700m ascent of the jungle clad ranges of Pu Luong.

As we left we met our new guide, a village woman, who was taking a 20kg load of bananas on a shoulder-pole over the pass to sell at the next village for less than $ 3 - suddenly we didn't feel so tough about the task ahead. Still, the fact that our local guide was hiring a local local guide to lead us on our way did indicate that we were heading off the usual tourist route.

And so we set off, two trekkers and three guides, leaving the village of Ban Hin to follow the paddy banks winding up a narrow valley into the low foothills. Soon we reached the end of the paddies and started the serious climb, directly upward on a narrow footpath, passing small cropped patches and reaching a small banana plantation just beneath the white karst cliffs.

Narrow route across the paddies

Morning mists enveloping the Suoi Cham Valley

The track then began to traverse less steeply upwards beneath the rock face. Below us the fingers of paddy fields stretched into the tree-covered hills and mist rose up valleys giving definition to the grey profile of the mountains on the opposite slopes of the Suoi Cham Valley.

A steep climb up the mountains

Gradually we headed into the rain forest and into the clouds that still hid the peaks - the humidity was so high that our clothes were wet and our brows dripping as tall trees appeared ghost-like in the mist. Passing the cliff-line, the track headed on a more gentle climb directly into the ranges, following a natural gap. The forest became denser and the surface rockier, as we picked our way across the landscape of sharp edged eroded limestone rocks. On the track, these rocks had become polished smooth by centuries of use and many were slick with moisture - the going was slow in the dim light beneath the dark green canopy.

Our "local" local guide

Pause on the rocky ascent

In the dense mists of the cloud forest

Slowly emerging above the cloud layer

Track through the rain forest

We walked along, always climbing to the accompaniment of the sweet bellbird like piping of hidden forest birds. Eventually, the rising cloud cleared away and the forest became more defined, yet still a dark and brooding place. One last climb up a steep section of jagged rock path brought us to the pass at a bit over 900m.

The descent from the pass

We had been dreading a descent of the same degree, so were greatly relieved to look through the gap in the forest to houses perched between hills covered with bamboo forest and open grassland; unlike yesterday, where the descent was greater than the climb, the path was emerging onto a type of plateau. We only descended 50 odd metres on a slippery rock track, before contouring around the slopes to emerge in the open area, wandering across the paddy banks and climbing slightly again to the cluster of stilt houses. Out of the rain forest, a cool wind blew and slowly dried our perspiration soaked clothes - it was a pleasant relief.

We were on the outskirts of Ban Bâ village, and another descent down a slick wet clay track brought us out to the main village for lunch. As usual, the setting of Ban Bâ, on the sides of a hill beneath a conical karst dome was exquisite. However, unlike the villages in the valleys, there were no loud "hellos" as we passed; the children hid shyly, giggling when we had gone, another indication that westerners were not a common sight in this part of the world.

The ruggedness of the Pu Luong landscape

Out of the forest and into the paddies

Passing through a bamboo forest

Overlooking Ban Ba village

Lunch over, we pushed on heading along a wider road that took us through a narrow gap and slowly down from the plateau. The last couple of kilometres proved somewhat anticlimactic; it had rained heavily overnight on this side of the mountains, turning the paddy fields into terraced cascades and the road into a long greasy slick of sticky clay.

At work in the paddy

The intense green of newly planted rice shoots

Trudging down the red mud road

Our pick-up vehicle could not make it to the designated meeting spot giving us an extra kilometre of sticky mud to walk through. As we trudged on, our boots became heavier and heavier with accumulated geological strata of red and black clay and gravel on their soles. It was a relief to see the 4WD waiting where the road began to firm up, not far from the village of Ban Xom.

Flooded paddies after the unseasonal rain

Vuong and Linh

Soon we were winding our way down the mountain, and after dropping Ms Vuong off to catch a bus back to her home at Mai Chau, were off on the 3 hour drive back to Hanoi. Arriving in the amazing circus of Hanoi traffic at peak hour, inching our way forward amongst a sea of honking scooters seemingly surging in all directions at once, only reinforced the huge contrast between rural and urban life in Vietnam. It made us appreciate even more those four tranquil days amongst the spectacular scenery and quiet villages of Pu Luong. Thanks, Linh and Ms Vuong for being excellent guides and good company, and to our White Thai hosts who made us welcome each night, "Cam on nhieu!!"