Unspoilt Splendour

A trip to Pu Luong nature reserve takes you through some of the most pristine countryside found in Vietnam.

By Grant J. Riley on August 15,2018 09:53 AM

Unspoilt Splendour

photo: Grant J. Riley

If, like me, at times you feel like you need the whole world to yourself, then maybe Pu Luong is the place for you to be.

According to Google Maps, Pu Luong is a mere four hours’ drive from Hanoi. It’s 160 km south to be exact, but I drive slowly and stop for iced tea and food quite regularly, so it takes me the best part of a day to get there. The exits from the capital are often quite grisly and hard work, if not alarmingly dangerous. Once beyond the city’s peripheries, one is often bombarded with heavy traffic on truck-laden highways and dual carriageways. However, the route south-west of Hanoi can quite quickly be deviated from, and by opting for the lesser roads (AH13 in this case), you can escape the urban density and the monotony of the highway relatively soon. Before long you’ll be pootling along on a green and pleasant back road.

Pu Luong Nature Reserve straddles Quan Hoa and Ba Thuoc districts in north-central Thanh Hoa province and is bordered by Mai Chau, Tan Lac and Lac Son districts in Hoa Binh province. The nature reserve itself is located along two parallel karst mountain ridges that run from north-west to south-east and are separated by a flat, central lowland. Pu Luong is endowed with great biodiversity; its flora and fauna are closely associated with the Cuc Phuong National Park, which is just 25 km to the south-east.

Whether trekking with a guide or marching out on your own, Pu Luong comes with the highest recommendation. You really will find yourself off the beaten track; the tourism infrastructure that has already blighted many of Vietnam’s beauty spots is yet to occur here. Local people are curious and wonderfully friendly, but be careful not to accept every glass of rice wine you might be offered around lunchtime en route or you may never reach your destination.

Unspoilt Splendour

This is some of the cleanest and untouched stretches of countryside I’ve come across in Vietnam. Classical rice terraces are framed by old-growth jungles, paddies irrigated by bamboo water wheels, rabbles of butterflies and magnificent waterfalls. I want to go back there right now as I write (sigh).

Anecdotally, my own arrival in the nature reserve was most memorable. As the road towards the mountain range narrowed, rice was being harvested from the fields. The route is infrequently busy with farmers and their farmhands carrying hefty bundles of recently-scythed grain from their paddies, which are then fed into small and somewhat antiquated threshing machines. The consequence for fellow road users is getting a face full of dusty detritus as you drive past.

Having survived a few blasts of the threshed rice, we press onwards and upwards and embrace the gorgeous and exhilarating ascent into the reserve. Yet, as we leave the intense heat of the plains below, the effects of convection are soon easily observed. The temperature drops quickly, the skies blacken, and what happens next for us becomes obvious. The first few drops of rain appear as we level off on the summit. Then within seconds, the intensity rapidly develops, we dive for cover and are welcomed by friendly shopkeepers and are invited in for tea. Strikes of lightning hit impressively close by, followed by glorious cracks of thunder.

We had intended to delve further into the park that evening but, plans abandoned, we sought other options. There is not a lot up here on these mountain ridges, but a quick Google search and we find the promise of accommodation in the near vicinity. And not long after the deluge we find the Maison du Bambou. New stilted and bamboo roofed abodes are emplaced amidst this exquisite landscape. Indeed, dense bamboo forests of varying stages fill the surrounding countryside. Our new hosts at first seem surprised to see us and, with a little difficulty, we explain we are after beds and dinner for the night. I got the impression we were among their very first customers. However, we are treated like Kings and enjoy our outdoor feast with a striking sunset over the adjoining peaks.

The following morning is a spectacular descent down onto the plains below. Pausing momentarily on the verge of the ridge overlooking such splendour, the world below untouched by modernity appears Tolkienesque. As we drop away I can envision Mongol Hordes ready to invade the valley below. Whatever your fantasy, this is the type of scenery to inspire the most torpid of imaginations.

The lowland below is managed by traditional hardworking farmers; this is a land that time forgot. Thai and Muong ethnic minorities live throughout this region but are not so easily identified as other minorities elsewhere in Vietnam, simply because they no longer wear their traditional garb. However, this does not detract from the timelessness of this region. To us at least, the people were extremely friendly and we were made most welcome wherever we explored.

My companion was on a return visit to Pu Luong and knew of a very secluded homestay up in the hills. Up and up muddied tracks we go. Surprisingly we are overtaken on numerous occasions, for up until now this has been an almost solitary ride. We plod on as cautious Westerners but it appears many local young men are heading towards the same destination. Its Sunday lunchtime and a great feast is to be had at the homestay we are heading for. A great lunch is soon followed by a refreshing shower in a rampant waterfall that runs through the middle of some paddies.

My final recommendation for this glorious route is to exit via ‘The Rice Road’. It’s great for walking but I must add caution to any unconfident or inexperienced motorcyclist. It’s a rough and raw track, and if you come off its very unlikely anyone will be around to assist you. Yet, this departure is a truly splendid one, if not pretty damn exhilarating.

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