Homestays in Vietnam offer some of the best value accommodation and food that’s available anywhere in the country. More often than not, homestays are located in parts of Vietnam that are ‘comfortably remote’: off the beaten track, but not too far from an easy transport or tourist hub. The homestays in Bản Hiêu, a village in Pù Luông Nature Reserve, are some of the most atmospheric and romantic you could hope to find.
Located in Thanh Hóa Province, about 3 hours southwest of Hanoi, Pù Luông 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 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.
VIDEO: Bản Hiêu homestays in Pù Luông Nature Reserve:
There are many homestay options in and around Pù Luông Nature Reserve. By far the most popular is Mai Châu, located just outside the nature reserve. However, these days Mai Châu is a firm fixture on most travel operators’ version of ‘The Northwest Loop’, so it can get a bit crowded. Here are a selection on Mai Chau hotels on Agoda:
For a more isolated, rustic, and spectacular homestay, head into the nature reserve. Homestays don’t get more atmospheric than in Bản Hiêu, a small but spread-out collection of thatched bamboo houses on stilts, built on a steep mountainside. Bản Hiêu is situated in the east of Pù Luông Nature Reserve. The landscape here is superb: steep, jungled mountain slopes, gurgling fresh water streams, waterfalls and bathing pools, terraced rice fields continuing high into the clouds, dense, misty forests of giant tropical trees, and precipitous valleys. There are two homestays to choose from here: Mr Si’s and Mr Ba’s:
Mr Si’s Homestay:
Mr Si’s homestay (01238180616) can be found at the end of a steep, dirt path, that winds up a sharp incline beside a gushing mountain stream. The clear water descends in stages; flowing quickly, 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. The rock pools are dripping with foliage, as are the bamboo stilt houses that are scattered across the mountainside: it feels as though you’ve stumbled upon the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Mr Si’s homestay is a sturdy-looking wooden house on stilts with a thatched palm-leaf roof. Its location – on the mountainside, looking down into the valley – is fantastic. Considering its remote position (and compared to the standards of homestays in the area), the level of comfort here is quite luxurious. Downstairs, in the open-sided living room, there are cushioned sofas and swinging chairs with views over the valley. Upstairs is an ‘open-plan’ bedroom, with mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets hung from the roof-beams. Very clean toilets and showers are outside in well-made bamboo compartments. Food is all local, fresh and delicious (as with all homestays). Mr Si and his family are welcoming, polite and gracious hosts. Clearly, Mr Si – or someone in his family – knows what they are doing, because they’ve managed to incorporate a few modern touches and bits of furniture, without intruding on the ‘rustic’ nature of the homestay: this is as close as homestays get to being ‘boutique’. And, the family’s charm and attention to detail is working because they have a constant flow of guests; therefore it’s a good idea to call ahead.
Mr Ba’s Homestay:
If a ‘boutique homestay’ is not real enough for you, head further up the mountainside to Mr Ba’s house (01676406177). Accessed by a very steep, 2km dirt track, that runs along a spectacular (if a little scary) precipice, Mr Ba’s homestay feels even more remote than Mr Si’s, and it’s certainly more ‘rustic’, although still very comfortable.
The wooden house is in the same style as Mr Si’s: sleeping is upstairs on the wooden floor, and the living area is downstairs with views over the valley. But, unlike Mr Si’s, this homestay feels much more like a working farm. There’s no fancy furniture, just a bench and a wooden table with a pot of artichoke tea on it. Roosters, chickens and chicks have the run of the living area and courtyard; 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. The only obvious concession to foreign visitors is the separate shower cubicle and Western-style toilet, which Mr Ba has politely provided as an alternative to his squat-toilet facilities.
The food is excellent and extremely, erm, ‘fresh’, which means that some visitors might find witnessing (or even just hearing) the preparations disturbing. However, once all the fresh meat and vegetables have been cooked over the wood-fuelled hearth, the result is the best homestay food I’ve ever tasted: spicy, herby pork patties, delicate, aromatic spring rolls, and an earthy cabbage soup for dinner (accompanied by some honey-infused, home-brewed rice wine), and then for breakfast, a very interesting kind of ‘pancake’ made from rice flour and duck eggs and then dipped in honey – just right for a cool, misty morning in the mountains. Mr Ba and his wife are good, sensitive hosts: they are astute enough to know when to leave their guests alone or when to get involved. Their house, land and lifestyle does not appear to have been ‘diluted’ to suit foreign visitors: this definitely feels like a home-stay.
For me, the most romantic time of day to be in a homestay in Bản Hiêu 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.
Bản Hiêu is in the east of Pù Luông Nature Reserve. Most people come to Bản Hiêu homestays as part of a walking tour group, with a Vietnamese guide. However, it is possible to find and reach Bản Hiêu independently, either on foot or by motorbike. There is an excellent map available of the nature reserve which has roads, paths, sights and homestays marked on it. This is essential for locating Bản Hiêu. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get a hold of this map. Try asking the host families of homestays in the Mai Châu area if they have one, then you can go into town and make a photocopy of it. The map is also sometimes available at the nature reserve headquarters, a couple of kilometres west of Cành Nàng town. Failing this, there are dozens of maps displayed on wooden or concrete panels dotted around the nature reserve. Take a photograph of one of these maps and just zoom-in on it for reference. (For more information on Pù Luông Nature Reserve and Mai Chau homestays read THIS)
Once you have a map, head to the modest market village of Phố Đoàn – this is easy to spot as it is one of the only villages in the nature reserve that consists mainly of concrete buildings, rather than wooden stilt houses. The road to Bản Hiêu is to the right, just after Phố Đoàn. The road quickly deteriorates: going from dirt track, to trail, to narrow pathway. This route is more suited to walkers than riders, but locals drive their motorbikes up and down the mountain paths and, in dry weather, there’s no reason why you can’t too. However, it’s advisable to take note of current weather conditions; heavy rains will make the steep, muddy paths almost impossible to drive up or down, and you’ll be stuck until they dry-out – mind you, there are worse places to be stranded!
Note: if you are travelling without a guide, after the Phố Đoàn turn off it’s very easy to get lost on all the dirt paths – you’ll need to have plenty of ‘travellers’ determination’ to keep asking locals (or using sign language) until you find the homestays. (For more information on how to drive to Pù Luông Nature Reserve, read THIS).
If you plan on walking through the nature reserve to Bản Hiêu then make sure you have a map (see Directions for details). If you’d like a guide, you can find one by asking around in the Mai Châu homestay area or at the nature reserve headquarters. (For more information on Mai Châu, read THIS).
You might be able to find motorbikes for rent in Mai Châu too, but you’re better off renting from a reputable place in Hanoi and driving down to Pù Luông Nature Reserve from there. Signs saying ‘Motorbike for Rent’ litter Hanoi’s Old Quarter, so you won’t have any trouble finding a bike. However, the best place to rent from is Rent a Bike Hanoi (www.rentabikehanoi.com): here you’ll find well-maintained bikes, friendly and informative staff, as well as useful extras such as saddle bags and good helmets. Generally, daily rental from most places is between 150-200,000VNĐ ($7-10) with significant discounts if you rent for a week or more. (For more information on the drive from Hanoi to Pù Luông Nature Reserve and how best to do it, read THIS).
Accommodation & Food:
There are very few things you can do in Vietnam that come close to the experience you get from a homestay in this area. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Bản Hiêu has two very good homestay options: Mr Si (01238180616) and Mr Ba (01676406177). There are one or two other homestays in the Bản Hiêu area, as well as many more in other parts of Pù Luông Nature Reserve (see your map of the nature reserve for details). Because Bản Hiêu is quite remote, there are no shops or restaurants nearby. Instead, delicious meals are cooked for you by the host family. This is a highlight of any homestay, but it’s still a good idea to bring some snack food along with you to keep you going between mealtimes.
Prices are 70,000VNĐ ($3) for sleeping on a mattress on the wooden floor; about 100,000VNĐ ($5) for dinner; and around 50,000VNĐ ($2) for breakfast (all prices are per person). Generally, it works out at 200-250,000VNĐ ($10-12) per person for a bed, dinner and breakfast – this is among the best value you’ll find anywhere in Vietnam, and in one of the best locations in the country. One thing to note is that, although Bản Hiêu is off the beaten track and quite remote, it is part of many travel agencies’ walking tours of the area. This means that, unless you call ahead, you could find yourself without a bed for the night. Last time I was there, I felt as though I was in the middle of nowhere, only to be met by a large group of aging French walkers who had completely booked-out the homestays! However, it’s still only a handful of travellers that make it here, and, compared to the homestays in Mai Châu, Bản Hiêu is way off most tourists’ radar.
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, is all fascinating to witness, especially if, like me, you come from a big city. There are also some good treks in the area, including one to a nearby waterfall.
More hotels & resorts in this area on Agoda:
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