The Ultimate Guide To Mai Chau and Pu Luong

Why did we group these 2 locations into 1 ultimate guide? They are separated only by 50 km (31 miles), by mountain ranges, terrace rice paddies and trekking paths. And how far are they from the capital, Hanoi? Approximately 140 km (87 miles), about a 4h drive southwest from it.

In this guide, we will present to you the beautiful green hilly areas of Mai Chau (formerly called Muong Mai) and Pu Luong. Both Mai Chau Valley and Pu Luong Nature Reserve are located in the North, a world away from the city hustle and are still less discovered than famous Sapa. Mai Chau is even nicknamed the “hidden sister” of Sapa. It has similar qualities, is closer to Hanoi and after the rice is harvested in Sapa there is still plenty to see in Mai Chau.

Both Mai Chau and Pu Luong are equally beautiful and might steal your heart. However, this is the only thing you should worry about because, with our guide, you will know how to go there, what to do and eat.

So now, get some rural Spotify soundtrack ready, because Spot On Vietnam blog, operated by Hanoi Voyages travel agency, is taking you off-the-beaten-path to the land of stunning landscapes, stilt houses, traditional weaving and brocade, fresh air, butterflies and warm people from ethnic minorities.


Mai Chau and Pu Luong location on the map of Vietnam

When to visit Mai Chau and Pu Luong?

Climate and weather

Mai Chau is located in Hoa Binh province, while Pu Luong only borders it and is situated in Quan Hóa and Bá Thước district of Thanh Hóa Province. However, the tropical monsoon climate in both places is affected by mountain ridges. In July temperatures reach 30°C (86°F) in July and a minimum of 14°C (57°F) in January.

Mai Chau Pu Luong Average Temperatures Graphic

Best time to visit: In our opinion, the best time to visit is when the weather is dry and there is a light breeze, from September to May. Moreover, you can see the rice turn from green to yellow in September, which is a sign for locals: “time to harvest!”.

February to May and September to November are great months to go trekking or cycling in Mai Chau and Pu Luong. Weather from October to November and February to May is still ok, just a tiny bit colder than previously mentioned period.

June to September is hotter but also more humid, you can expect rainfall, sometimes floods and temperatures of 25°C (77°F) to 35°C (95°F).

From November to the end of February it can get chilly and it is the least popular period to visit with temperatures around 14 (57°F) -16°C (60°F)

Generally speaking, the best time to visit both locations falls between these highs and lows. However, as an old Scandinavian saying goes: “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing”

How to get there?

Transport

So now you have an idea about when to go. But how to get there? As we said, both places are about 4-5h ride from Hanoi, depending on the traffic. With that being said, if you head here, you can choose from:

BUS

… which is the cheapest way. Tickets go for about 8 – 13 dollars and buses depart either from the centre (Hoan Kiem area) or from My Dinh bus station. You can look for tickets on websites such as Baolau.

 

Private car or a minivan

Some companies leave straight from the Noi Bai Airport and some that leave from Old Quarter or can pick you up at your hotel. The price depends on if you book a car or a van for four, eight or twelve people. Price for a 4-seater is around 100-150 dollars

 

MOTORBIKE

Motorbike is a good way to go there and enjoy the scenery if you are an experienced driver and have insurance (better safe than sorry, right?) The best thing is that you can also make stops on the way. A popular stop on the way to Mai Chau is Hoa Binh Lake. If you pick this way of transport, bike rental costs about 12-17 dollars a day. In case you are “in for a long run”, you can also buy a bike, travel through Vietnam and then easily sell it. Price for a Honda is about 400-500 dollars, the price for a Minsk varies from 100-300 dollars. We recommend you to check a blog called ‘Vietnam Coracle’ that offers first-hand tips for bikers

 

PRO TIP

If you plan on trekking too, the best is to hire a local travel guide or a local agency specialising in tailor-made trips, that will plan everything for you, from transport to accommodation. You can check a sample itinerary including Mai Chau and Pu Luong here.

BONUS: Have you binh? If you are visiting Ninh Binh as well, there is a bus connection. By connecting 3 of them – Ninh Binh, Pu Luong, and Mai Chau you will get the full natural experience. We recommend asking your hotel for a timetable, though. Mai Chau and Pu Luong areas are still developing and there are not that many connections as Sapa for instance, so better plan ahead.

 

How to get around?

Transport

Get a bike or get a guide!

To be honest, this is the area where you can turn your mind and phone off and just walk around. This is the best way to explore those places. However, if you want to do more trekking than morning yoga and just chilling and sampling the food, and you won’t hire a guide, you will literally end up walking around between the villages, without “diving deeper.” There are many guides out there, we recommend checking Tripadvisor forums for recommendations or Facebook travel groups. Or just contact a local agency that has a long-lasting relationship with reputable drivers and guides and you will be all set. If you arrive on a bike, you can discover Mai Chau and Pu Luong that way too. Again, we recommend using the ‘Vietnam Coracle’ blog as a reference.

 

What to see in Mai Chau and Pu Luong?

Top Attractions

1. All things nature

The pace of living is much slower here. Bike, walk or trek along Mai Chau’s or Pu Luong’s dirt roads and get amazed by the scenery changes, from villages with stilt houses, lush rice paddies, to the jungle, and caves. And in Pu Luong Nature reserve (Khu bảo tồn Thiên nhiên Pù Luông), do not miss out on water wheels. This non-electrical invention made out of bamboo brings life to rice fields (rice grown here needs to be submerged under the water) and makes them amazingly green.

Mai Chau rice paddies and mountain view
source: Vietnam Coracle

2. Flora and fauna

For example, we recommend tea plantations and fruit trees in and around Moc Chau town, located about 40 km from Mai Chau. Spring is your go-to time. If you will find yourself here between March and April, the Hoa Ban flower (Bauhinia variegata) – a typical tree of Northwest Vietnam, usually blooms. And in the winter, the town of Mai Chau is surrounded by blooming peach trees and marigold and mustard flowers. Look them up.

Mai Chau flowers
Mai Chau flowery scene

3. Authentic stilt houses and homestays

Never stayed in a setting like this? Worry not. Stay in these wooden buildings on stilts, in rooms with reed mattings, dreaming on a thin futon. All safe and comfy and most importantly, authentic. Due to the house being on stilts – fresh breeze comes in and in the rainy season, there is no risk of flooding. Mosquito nets, double futons (mattresses) for couples, tasty home-made food are available everywhere. But bring mosquito repellent, if they are attracted to you. Most of the places already have western toilets as well. There is no AC, duh, but you will have at least one or two fans so all will be… FANtastic.

Mai Chau typical stilt houses
Mai Chau typical stilt houses

4. Ethnic minorities

Mai Chau district has about 50 000 inhabitants, including seven ethnic minority groups — the Thai, Hmong, Zao (Dao), Muong, Tay, Hoa and Viet. Thai (referred to as White and Black Thai) ethnic people occupy the majority.
But with any ethnic, and especially their traditional dresses, crafts and dishes are a must-see and try. On Sunday, you can visit Mai Châu town’s morning market and see them dressed in their finest traditional clothing. You can also witness folk games, weaving, and dances (look for Xoe performances). If you will fall in love with it all, we recommend Pom Coong village (Pom means hill and Coong is the drum) or one of the festivals: Xen Muong Festival (in August), Cau Mua (April), Xen Xo Phon Festival (April/May), Xec Bua Festival (in Spring, during Tet)… The exact dates depend on the Lunar calendar. Feel free to contact us for details!

Mai Chau Xen Xo Phon festival
source: dulichnhanvan.vn

5. Traditional weaving and silk brocade making

Both Lac 1 and Poom Coong villages of Mai Chau are overflowing with shops selling textiles, paintings… Many of the goods are shipped in from China, but some of the textiles are made on-site and you can watch the locals weaving a scarf or a textile using a loom at some of the outlets. We recommend Ban Lac 2 and visit Hoa Ban+ shop. Hoa Ban+ is a social enterprise providing vocational training facilities and job creation for the disabled. Many people say that the Lac village is a tourist centre of Mai Chau district so do not miss it. We also recommend Pa Co Market, full of Hmong culture, lying between Mai Chau and Moc Chau, happening on Sunday mornings. TIP: As there is a loom in each family in Mai Chau, we especially recommend these hand-made products, if you contemplate buying a souvenir because you will support the local community at the same time.

Mai Chau Silk making and weaving
source: http://www.veo.com.vn/

6. Local markets

Sunday morning, wakey wakey eggs and bakey or… wakey wakey rise (or rice) and shine! See points 4 and 5.

Mai Chau Women on a local market
source: blogdulich.com.vn

7. Thung Ke Pass

Also called White Stone Pass, it might look dangerous but it is very beautiful. It is located at Highway 6, Hoa Binh province, between Tan Lac and Mai Chau, with the peak at about 1000 meters above sea level. You will have Mai Chau valley at your feet. It is also a great place to stop for a break, breathe in some fresh air, buy snacks or souvenirs and snap a picture.

Mai Chau Thunk Ke Pass
Thung Ke Pass - a sight to behold

8. Village life

Want some action after hiking and breathing deep on a hike? Ethnic White Thai villages are a short walk from Mai Chau town: Ban Poom Coong, Ban Lac 1 and Ban Lac 2. Ban Lac 1 is the most developed, with more gift shops and a busier nightlife. Pu Luong is still calmer, so in case you are not into souvenirs, stay there for more calm breathing and relaxation 🙂

Mai Chau Ban Lac traditional Village
source: maichautourist.com

9. Gò Lào Waterfall & more

Go Lao (or Go Mu) is located about 15 km from Mai Chau town. You can also visit Mo Luong Cave inside the Phu Ka Mountain or Chieu Cave. The entrance is quite magical, beside the ancient giant Xa Pung tree. There is always something to see in Hoa Binh province! Black River (Da river) is close too, so haggle with locals if you are up for a boat trip. It is also dammed and this dam is the biggest reservoir in Vietnam.

Waterfall in Mai Chau Area - Go Lao

10. Doi Cave (Bat Cave)

The largest cave in Pu Luong. It is located in Kho Muong village and there is a min. 5 species of bats living there. However, there are several caves in the area, if you are into this, ask your guide.

Mai Chau area's largest cave, in Pu Luong
source: puluongtourism.com

What to do in Mai Chau and Pu Luong?

Top 3 activities
Mai Chau scenery with animals

1. Trekking

As mentioned, to dive deep into the wilderness and explore, trekking is the best. There are several routes and levels. Consult a travel agent, your accommodation or a guide. Most popular routes cover Mai Chau, Lac Village, Na Phon Village or Pom Coong village. If you have more than 3 days, you can move from Mai Chau valley to Pu Luong and this way you will see both Thanh Hoa province and Hoa Binh province. And if you fell in love, continue to Cuc Phuong National park, which is already located in a different province – Ninh Binh province. Find out more about Ninh Binh, called Halong Bay on land.

Mai Chau Trekking
Mai Chau Trekking

2. Cycling

Discover one of the most beautiful countrysides of Vietnam on two wheels, ecologically. Pedal around rice fields, limestone mountains, rugged scenery, farms, houses of locals, ponds with fish.

Tourists cycling in Mai Chau
Cycling is one of the "sporty" things to do here

3. Wining and dining with a local family

But be careful with the rice wine 🙂 From more exotic deep-fried cicadas to typical chicken or pork with rice, your tummy will be happy. Read more on what to try in Mai Chau and Pu Luong in the following section.

Mai Chau Family Table

Bored?

As the famous saying says, only boring people are bored. There are many things to do and see, depending on your taste and time. But there is one thing every visitor does to protect and develop this beautiful place: See some trash? Pick it up. Take only pictures, leave only footprints. Respect the culture and nature. And make memories. See a smiling local? Does not matter if they do not speak English or only partially. Smile, try to say “Xin Chào” and enjoy your stay here. However, as a courtesy, always ask for permission or a smiley nod before taking a portrait pic of someone.

You can download useful apps to help you with Vietnamese. Or find useful phrases and tips for Vietnam here. Do not know what to pack? Check our article or feel free to contact us.

What to eat in Mai Chau and Pu Luong?

Specialities

1. Crickets or cicadas (Ve sầu chiên)

Let’s start off with something unusual and crunchy, shall we? At some homestays, you can snack on these crispy, fried bugs.

Try cicadas in Mai Chau
source: songmoi.vn

2. Chicken

The most famous being Ga Doi. The chicken here are not as big as the normal chicken (max 1 kg), one would even say they are quite athletic as they run up and down the hill all the time but that makes the meat firm and delicious. And also as organic as it gets. We highly recommend the chicken legs. They are usually prepared on charcoal and have a natural earthy mouthwatering taste.

Mai Chau Chicken
source: kenhhomestay.com

3. Buffalo

If you want to try something new, Muong people cook buffalo too, usually with the “lom” leaves. Look up “Thit Trâu Lá Lồm”, however, it is only made on special occasions or festivals, Tet (New Year) or sold to visitors as gifts.

Buffalo dish in Mai Chau
source: kenh14.vn

4. Pork

Also cooked slowly and on the charcoal, you will love it. Look up a dish called “cham cheo”. Most of the pork here comes from Muong pigs, also called “Mán” pigs, a very special type of pigs in Vietnam – long body, thin legs, small ears, long and hard hair. Kind of a boar but it is not. And it is definitely not bo(a)ring. Apart from bbq, pork can be boiled or pickled as well. If you would like to try the pickled one, it is called “Thịt Lợn Muối Chua”

Mai Chau Cham Cheo Pork Dish
source: voso.vn

5. Mai Chau glutinous rice

This is more of a festive dish but you might be lucky to find it. After 4-5 hours or rice being soaked (so it softens) and drained, it is boiled in a pot. You can even get it in 5 colours, just look for Xôi Ngũ Sắc. Green, yellow, white, orange, and black – you will want to come back 🙂

Mai Chau glutinous rice in five colours
source: vietnamvoluntourism.com

6. Bamboo shoots

Fried, boiled, stewed or grilled, shoot it in your mouth. There is even a speciality dish- Stir-Fried Wild Bees With Bamboo Shoots. Yes, bees. Do not “bee” afraid to try it!

Try bamboo shoots when visiting Mai Chau or Pu Luong

7. Sour meat (Thịt ướp chua)

Sour marinated meat is a delicacy here. Pork or buffalo are mixed with galangal (sometimes mistaken for ginger)

One of Mai Chau dishes: sour meat
source: dacsanvina.vn

8. Rice wine (“Rượu”) or Can wine (“Rượu Cần”) 

First one you can get everywhere in Vietnam. But the latter is special for this part and kind of festive and a special drink. It is made from grains such as cassava, seeds, glutinous rice, and nuts. After adding herbs, ginger, fruits and many types of forest leaves it is put into a pot or jar and left to ferment, the longer the better. Fun fact: no cups or bowls are used to drink it, but one-meter-long bamboo sticks pierced through the intestine and bent into the wine bottle. An unusual experience, right?

Mai Chau can wine
Can wine

9. Loong Soup

A unique dish of Muong people is made from the wild banana tree, boiled meat water, bones and “lốt” leaf and crushed Doi nuts.

Loong soup from Mai Chau area

10. Rice cooked in bamboo – Com Lam

We decided to end our list with a signature dish of Mai Chau. What are the spices and flavour like? Usual seasoning is salt, sesame, and peanuts. Since it is wrapped in a banana leaf and bamboo and cooked over charcoal, you can also feel that. It can be eaten hot, or cold. Just break the bamboo cover and enjoy the sweet-smelling rice, hot or cold.

 

So… ready to head to the land of silk, ethnic minorities, yellow and green rice paddies, mountains covered in mysterious fog and authentic Thai homestays?

Mai Chau's dish called Com Lam - rice in a bamboo

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