Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve

Last updated September 2018 | Words, photos and film by Vietnam Coracle

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The homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve are some of the most dramatically situated, atmospheric, and romantic places to stay in Vietnam. About 3 hours southwest of Hanoi, in Thanh Hoa Province, the scenery in Pu Luong Nature Reserve is sublime: rice terraces cascade down mountainsides into clear rivers, beside which wood-and-thatch homes perch on raised platforms, with limestone peaks poking above low-hanging cloud all around. There are several clusters of homestays scattered about Pu Luong Nature Reserve, most of which are now fairly easy to access. Some are more rustic than others, and there’s even a new trend in ’boutique-style’ homestays. But they are all great places to base yourself while exploring this beautiful corner of Vietnam, and a refreshing antidote to the mass tourism that’s threatening to spoil neighbouring Mai Chau and Ninh Binh.

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the links & search boxes on my site, like the ones on this page. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.

Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, northern VietnamPu Luong Nature Reserve, just a few hours from Hanoi, offers sublime scenery & atmospheric homestays

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GUIDE: HOMESTAYS IN PU LUONG NATURE RESERVE


In this guide, I’ve written an overview of the homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, including a map, a video, and some information about the location, transportation, specific homestay areas, and things to do (see the contents below). As there are many dozens of homestays spread across a large area, I have chosen to highlight several homestay ‘clusters’ (areas where lots of homestays are located) on my map and, within those ‘clusters’, pick out one or two that I particularly like. However, there are lots of others to choose from, so you can be quite independent and spontaneous when ‘homestay-hopping’ in Pu Luong Nature Reserve. My favourite times to visit are March-May and September-October. The months December-February can be surprisingly chilly.

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CONTENTS:

MAP:

Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve & Around

View in a LARGER MAP

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VIDEO:

My (old) short film of Ban Hieu homestay area in Pu Luong Nature Reserve:


Watch this video on YouTube


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About the Location:

Pu Luong Nature Reserve is located in the northwestern corner of Thanh Hoa Province, which is roughly 160km southwest of Hanoi. Although only a few hours’ drive from the Vietnam’s burgeoning capital city, Pu Luong Nature Reserve would live up to most people’s image of an idyllic Vietnamese landscape and rural life. Jagged limestone mountains enclose a fertile river valley, dotted with small settlements of wooden houses on stilts. Luminous-green rice fields extend from the waters’ edge to the thickly-forested slopes, which are streaked with waterfalls. Women in conical hats tend the fields, men herd buffalo and goats from one pasture to another, and children play with domestic animals in earthy courtyards, or take turns jumping from bamboo bridges into rivers. It appears – to the casual visitor, at least – to be a landscape where nature is almost entirely benevolent: a land so fertile that it sustains each household throughout the year. If you can imagine how an animated Disney movie set in rural Vietnam might look, then you get the idea: kind of like a Vietnamese Shangri-La.

Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Thanh Hoa Province, VietnamThe landscape in Pu Luong Nature Reserve is close to most people’s idea of a Vietnamese Shangri-La

The nature reserve is bounded on all sides by national roads: QL15 to the west, QL12B to the east, QL6 (AH13) to the north, and QL217 to the south. The stunning QL15C runs straight through the reserve, offering access to many of the homestays. There are dozens of smaller paved and dirt roads criss-crossing the reserve, often linking remote hamlets and homestays. Several small towns surround the nature reserve: Mai Chau, whose wildly popular homestay villages put this are on the map, is to the north, and the seldom-visited towns of Quan Hoa (also known as Hoi Xuan) and Canh Nang (also known as Ba Thuoc) are to the west and south of Pu Luong respectively. In the last few years, Pu Luong Nature Reserve has attracted more and more visitors, especially domestic travellers and expats from Hanoi looking for a quick escape from the city, and French tour groups. However, the nature reserve is still very quiet (with the exception of weekends and public holidays) and nowhere near as popular as nearby Mai Chau and Ninh Binh, which have become, in my opinion, far too crowded.


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Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Thanh Hoa Province, VietnamPu Luong Nature Reserve is a great antidote to the increasingly crowded areas of Ninh Binh & Mai Chau

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Getting There & Around:

On a Tour: The majority of visitors to Pu Luong Nature Reserve come as part of a tour, usually through travel agencies in Hanoi. For some reason, walking tours in the nature reserve are particularly popular with groups of middle aged French travellers. If you have booked onto one of these tours, all the transportation and homestay reservations will have been arranged in advance.

Independently: For independent travellers, it’s relatively easy to visit Pu Luong without a guide or a tour. For anyone with their own wheels – motorbikes, bicycles, or hired car and driver – or for those travelling on foot, most of the main homestay areas and sights can be reached via paved lanes and dirt paths. However, some roads and paths can become flooded, muddy, and treacherous in wet weather. I’ve marked some bad patches on my map, but the access roads in Pu Luong are in a constant state of flux, with repairs, renovations, and resurfacing ongoing. But, in general, access is improving all the time, and it’s a lot of fun exploring all the little side roads and trails around the nature reserve.


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With your own wheels, you can reach Pu Luong Nature Reserve from Hanoi in 3-5 hours, depending on the route and how you drive (see my guide to the Limestone Loop for some route advice). Another option is to hire a motorbike, bicycle, or car and driver from a nearby tourist hub, such as Mai Chau or Ninh Binh, and then travel on to Pu Luong Nature Reserve from there. To do this, inquire at your accommodation in Mai Chau or Ninh Binh: they should be able to help arrange it for you.

Riding over a bamboo bridge in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamGetting around Pu Luong Nature Reserve is fairly easy with your own wheels, but some roads are difficult

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Get the Map: There is an excellent map available of the nature reserve which has roads, paths, sights, and homestay areas marked on it. This is essential for independent travellers. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get hold of a physical copy of this map. But there are dozens of billboards dotted around the nature reserve with the map displayed on them: take a photo of the map on your phone or camera and zoom-in for reference.

*Note: At the time of writing, the road to Ban Hieu homestay area was under construction. Most of it was dirt and mud, but I would expect conditions to have improved at least a bit by the time you read this.


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Map of homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, northern VietnamThis map of Pu Luong, on billboards in the nature reserve, is very handy for independent travellers

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Homestay Areas & Booking:

Bookings & Reservations: There are dozens on homestays in Pu Luong, most of which are located in ‘clusters’ in certain corners of the nature reserve. There’s now quite a broad variety of accommodation among the homestays: ranging from cheap and rustic through to mid-range and boutique-style luxury. For the higher-end homestays (which tend to label themselves as ‘retreats’ or ‘eco-resorts’), it’s a good idea to book in advance. For most of the others, providing you’re not visiting on a weekend or public holiday, you should be able to just turn up and get a bed for the night. In any case, because the homestays are generally in clusters, if one is fully booked, the one next door will probably have a room available. For the homestays listed below, I’ve tried to include contact information whenever possible. However, even with a phone number, making a reservation can be tricky if you don’t speak any Vietnamese.

Wood and thatch homestay, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamBooking in advance is advisable for the ’boutique’ homestays, but for others, you can usually just show up


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Prices & Rates: At the typical homestays (of which the vast majority in Pu Luong are), the rates for sleeping overnight are incredibly cheap: between 50,000-100,000vnd ($2-$4) a night. This is because the sleeping arrangements are simple (but comfortable): usually a mattress on a wooden floor under a mosquito net in a communal dorm on the first floor of a stilt house, often with curtains or partitions for privacy, and a shared bathroom. But food and drink is extra (see below for details). However, the boutique-style ‘retreats’ or ‘eco-resorts’ have much higher prices, sometimes upwards of $100 a night (although these rates often include breakfast and/or dinner).

Sleeping on a mattress on the floor, Pu Luong homestays, VietnamThe price for sleeping at most typical homestays in Pu Luong is incredibly cheap: a couple of dollars

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Homestays & Clusters: As there are dozens of homestays in Pu Luong, I can’t list them all. Instead, I’ve grouped some of the homestays into several ‘clusters’ (see below) and then picked out one or two specific homestays in each ‘cluster’:


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Ban Hang Homestay Area [MAP]: In the northwest of the nature reserve, Ban Hang is accessed via a steep gravel road leading off the main QL15C road through Pu Luong. The road descends to the river valley and continues along the banks, where a cluster of homestays (including Hieu Yen Homestay: 0168 204 5782) offer beds, food, drinks, and local excursions. The homestays here are popular with young Vietnamese road-trippers and some tour groups. The general standard is typical of homestays in Pu Luong: wooden houses on stilts with access to the pretty river, forests, and surrounding countryside. Because its location is low (down in the valley) the views aren’t as spectacular as other homestay areas, and the local hamlet (Ban Hang) is perhaps not quite as tidy and attractive as others in the nature reserve.

Kho Muong Homestay Area [MAP]: Perched on a kind of mini-plateau in the southwest corner of the nature reserve, Kho Moung occupies a spectacular position with extraordinary views over a vast valley of terraced rice fields bisected by a glistening river with limestone peaks rising all around. The homestay area at Kho Moung sprawls from the side of road QL15C down into the valley. The most famous accommodation is Pu Luong Retreat [Book Here], an absurdly picturesque collection of thatched huts on a steep hillside dotted with areca palms. This is a luxurious ’boutique-style’ homestay, which, of course, isn’t a homestay at all, but a resort with a gorgeous, Instagrammable infinity pool. Rates are high but it’s worth it. However, continue further down the hillside and as the road deteriorates you’ll find Pu Luong Treehouse [Book Here] and Nature Lodge [Book Here] among other homestays, which are all fantastically located and excellent value for money. Many visitors come and never want to leave.

Kho Muong homestays, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamKho Muong homestay area is very picturesque, with boutique-style & typical homestays on the hillside

Ban Hieu Homestay Area (1 & 2) [MAP]: Located towards the southeast of the nature reserve, homestay areas don’t get much more dramatic than the ones at Ban Hieu, a small but spread-out collection of thatched bamboo houses on stilts, built on a steep, jungled mountainside beside a gushing cascade with terraced rice paddies continuing high into the clouds. There are two distinct homestay clusters here, both reached via a muddy road which deteriorates into a steep pathway (although this route is currently being resurfaced). The first cluster of homestays (Ban Hieu 1) features about a half dozen cheap and atmospheric lodgings in wood-and-thatch homes, including Ba Yen Homestay (0167 978 1988). The second cluster (Ban Hieu 2) boasts a couple of higher-end, ’boutique-style’ homestays, including Les Bains de Hieu (notoriously difficult to contact) and Ban Hieu Garden Lodge [Book Here], as well as a couple of cheaper, more rustic options (try Pu Luong Holiday Homestay [Book Here]). Les Bains de Hieu, in particular, is extremely tasteful balance of rustic and chic. Hiking and biking are excellent here, but the centerpiece is Hieu Waterfall (thác Hiêu), which descends the mountainside in stages, flowing quickly at first, then collecting in a series of perfect rock pools at regular intervals, as it makes its way down to the river at the bottom of the valley. These gin-coloured pools are great for bathing, and they give the impression that the course of the stream has been ‘terraced’ according to the contours of the slope; in the same way that the surrounding rice paddies have been terraced: it feels as though you’ve stumbled upon the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Ban Hieu homestays, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamThe homestays in Ban Hieu are probably the most spectacularly situated of all the ‘clusters’ in Pu Luong


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Lung Cao/Ban Nua Homestay Area [MAP]: Right in the middle of the nature reserve, Lung Cao and Ban Nua are little hamlets spread over a wide area around the flood plains of a pretty river valley. The homestays, including Ban Nua Homestay (0125 755 0703), tend to be very nice but basic. Some of the homestays can be accessed by the paved road along the valley, but others require a good motorbike, 4×4, or going on foot. I’ve not had time to explore this area for more than a couple of days, but I’m sure there’s a lot to discover if you have some time to spare.

Other Homestay Areas [MAP]: To the east of the nature reserve, at the top of an extraordinarily steep and fabulously scenic road, is Pu Luong Camping, including hammocks and tents. Unfortunately, the location on my map is not exact, but it’s somewhere before the intersection with road DT432A at Lung Van. There are also several other well-known and not-so-well-known homestay areas around Pu Luong Nature Reserve. By far the most popular is Mai Chau, located just to the north of the nature reserve. However, these days Mai Chau is a firm fixture on most travel operators’ tours, so it can get very crowded and feels a bit ‘touristy’, even though it is still a beautiful place to visit. However, in the same area, just northwest of Pu Luong, there are also a handful of homestays in the remote, peaceful area of Cun Pheo.

Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Thanh Hoa Province, VietnamThere are several different homestay ‘clusters’ within Pu Luong & several more outside the nature reserve

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Accommodation: When it comes to the level of accommodation, there’s ‘typical’ and ’boutique’. The former represents the majority of homestays in Pu Luong: sleeping in a wood-and-thatch house raised on stilts, in a communal room upstairs, with mattresses on the wooden floor under mosquito nets, with curtains or partitions separating guests, and a shared bathroom. Boutique accommodation is only available at a few places, including some of the ones mentioned above. These offer a kind of high-class, fancy riff on the traditional homestay style, usually incorporating some modern touches and a much higher level of comfort, including cushioned loungers on the veranda, and soft lamp lighting, for example. It’s very tasteful and very attractive.

Sleeping on a mattress on the wooden floor, Pu Luong homestays, VietnamAccommodation at the typical homestays is comfortable & simple: a mattress on the floor under a net

At the ‘typical’ homestays, there’s no fancy furniture: just a bench and a wooden table on the ground floor, perhaps with a pot of artichoke tea on it. The life of the homestay hosts revolves around their land and animals. Roosters, chickens, chicks, and dogs have the run of the living area and courtyard downstairs; cattle reside in the bamboo cowshed and pigs squeal in their pens; vegetables are grown in the shadow of areca palms, jackfruit, and clove trees; and bees are busy making honey in their wooden hives. Toilets are usually ‘Western-style’, with separate shower cubicles. At the ’boutique-style’ homestays, however, the emphasis is on relaxation and accommodation: there’s no ‘real life’ to witness. 

Wood and thatch homestay house, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamThis is what a typical homestay in Pu Luong looks like: a wood-and-thatch home raised above the ground

For me, the most romantic time of day in a homestay in Pu Luong Nature Reserve is at night. Lying on the thin mattress on the wooden floor, the mosquito net rippling in the breeze coming in through the open windows, staring at the intricate wooden rafters, and just listening. There’s magic in the chorus of life out there beyond the wooden house: the frogs’ low, throbbing croaks, cicadas keeping rhythm, high-pitched bird calls, cockerels piercing the night, gurgling water from the streams, light rain tapping on the broad leaves of an areca palm, the jingle of cow bells as the animals shift in their sleep, and numerous other, unidentifiable sounds from the fields and the forests, that seep in through the open windows as you lie awake, listening, enchanted.

Wood and thatch homestay house, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamHomestays in Pu Luong can be incredibly romantic: at night, there’s a chorus of animal sounds outside

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Food & Drink:

Because Pu Luong Nature Reserve doesn’t have any sizable towns in it, and because most of the homestays are in fairly remote hamlets in the countryside, there are rarely any shops, food stalls, or restaurants nearby. Instead, the host families cook delicious meals – usually over an open fire in the household hearth –  for their guests. These meals, which typically include an enormous spread of different local dishes, using local ingredients, are a highlight of any homestay experience. However, it’s still a good idea to bring some snack food with you, to keep you going between meals.

Family-style meal at a homestay, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamHome-cooked meals, eaten ‘family-style’, are a highlight of any homestay in Pu Luong Nature Reserve

The price of sleeping in a homestay (see above) doesn’t include meals. In fact, because sleeping arrangements are usually simple – mattresses on a wooden floor under a mosquito net – the cost of meals is often twice or three times that of sleeping. But it’s well worth it, and there’s no real alternative anyway. Most guests choose half-board: dinner and breakfast. Prices range from as little as 30,000-70,000vnd per person for breakfast, to 100,000-250,000vnd per person for dinner. So expect to pay roughly 200,000-250,000vnd ($10) per person for half-board, which, considering the quality and quantity of food, is very good value.

Family-style meal at a homestay, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamMeals, which are very large, cost from 50,000vnd-200,000vnd per person for breakfast/dinner

The food is almost always excellent and extremely, um, ‘fresh’, which means that some visitors might find witnessing (or even just hearing) the preparations disturbing. (Yes, I’m talking about live animals being slaughtered for their meat, and the squealing of pigs and chickens before the knife falls: but this is still part of daily life for most people in Pu Luong, and, indeed, for millions of people across Vietnam.) However, once all the fresh meat and vegetables have been cooked over the wood-fueled hearth, the result is the best homestay food I’ve ever tasted. An example from one of my recent stays in Pu Luong is spicy, herby pork patties, delicate, aromatic spring rolls, fried fish fresh from the local stream, and an earthy cabbage soup, accompanied by some honey-infused, home-brewed rice liquor, of course. And, for breakfast, a very interesting kind of pancake made from rice flour and duck eggs and dipped in honey: just right for a chilly, misty morning in the mountains. Most hosts are accustomed to having foreign visitors, but they are still honored and excited to be hosting you. Generally, the hosts immediately strike a good rapport with their guests: sensitive and hospitable, and astute enough to know when to leave their guests alone and when to get involved. This, however, might not be the case once the rice wine starts to flow.

Family-style meal at a homestay, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamHomestay meals consist of multiple dishes & are typically eaten on cushions on the wooden floor

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Activities & Things to Do:

Taking in the views and observing the daily routine of a largely self-sustaining piece of rural Vietnam should be enough to keep most people interested for at least a couple of days. The livestock, herb and vegetable gardens, tropical fruit trees, food preparation and cooking over an open flame, and the irrigation systems that channel water from mountain streams, through bamboo pipes, and into the wet rice fields, are all fascinating to witness, especially if, like me, you come from a big city.

Relaxing in Pu Luong Nature Reserve, VietnamRelaxing in the rural surrounds & observing the life of your homestay family is fun & engaging

However, there is also excellent trekking, biking, mountain-biking, and motorbiking all over Pu Luong Nature Reserve. Some of the trails even reach as far as neighbouring Cuc Phuong National Park to the east, in Ninh Binh Province. Treks range from gentle strolls to scenic spots and caverns in the mountains, to multi-day hikes to remote waterfalls, peaks and forests, staying in different homestays along the way. Pu Luong and its immediate surrounds is dotted with some extremely picturesque waterfalls, cascading through the jungle and over limestone terraces, where the water collects in luminous pools that are perfect for bathing. Hieu Waterfall (thác Hiêu) is particularly striking and conveniently located close to the two homestay clusters at Ban Hieu. But, further east, May (thác Mây) and Mu (thác Mu) falls are also reachable on foot or bicycle or motorbike and equally beautiful. Most of the homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve can organize and advise on all of the above activities. Really, you could easily spend a full week in Pu Luong and never once get bored. (To explore the wider area around Pu Luong Nature Reserve, take a look at my guide to The Limestone Loop).

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the links & search boxes on my site, like the ones on this page. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.

Playing in Thac May Waterfall, Pu Luong, VietnamThere’s plenty to see & do in Pu Luong, including waterfalls, hiking, biking, bathing & wildlife watching

Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like these homestays and I want my readers to know about them. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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48 Responses to Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve

  1. Bianca says:

    HI Tom,

    We are looking for an authentic traditional style family homestay in Pu Luong that is affordable. Can you recommend any in particular and do you have the contacts?

    Cheers, Bianca

  2. Rob says:

    Hi Tom,

    Stupid question. I have been in Pu Luong for three days in February and loved it. I was with a guide there, but was thinking of going on my own this time. However, for what I remember of the place, it looks like it would be difficult for me to go hiking or trekking on my own without getting lost. Would you hire a guide to go explore the place on foot? Could you check for the guides rates on the spot (my last guide took me there from Ninh Binh)?

    • Hi Rob,

      I think you could find guide rates etc on the spot in some of the homestays, especially the ones in Kho Muong and Ban Hieu. I think it’s perfectly feasible to walk from one homestay to the next on roads, lanes and paths independently. The area isn’t that large so you’re never that far from a homestay. With a decent sense of direction, a photo of one of the park maps, and some Google map checking I would think you’d be OK.

      Tom

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