Last updated August 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
PLEASE NOTE: this guide is currently being extensively updated. My route map is complete, but I’m in the process of rewriting the rest of this guide. Thank you for your patience. Tom
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
This motorbike loop, spreading southwest of Hanoi, is only a few hours’ ride from the capital, and yet it takes in some of the most picturesque scenery in the country, and covers some very remote corners along the border with Laos. Much of the Limestone Loop travels through Thanh Hóa, a province of limestone pinnacles, rivers and rice paddies. Quiet roads meander along steep valleys cloaked in bamboo forests, and mountain passes twist skyward towards isolated Lao border crossings. Thanh Hóa is overlooked by most travellers in favour of neighbouring Ninh Bình, which is now extremely touristy. Thanh Hóa, on the other hand, is only recently starting to attract attention, in particular the stunning setting of Pu Luong Nature Reserve. All of this excellent scenery is more accessible than ever, thanks to upgraded roads, which make it possible to get from the urban chaos of Hanoi to the pastoral tranquility of Thanh Hoa Province within a few hours.
GUIDE: THE LIMESTONE LOOP
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 700-800km
- Duration: 3-6 days
- Route: southwest of Hanoi via Mai Chau, Pu Luong & the Lao border [MAP]
- Road Conditions: good back-roads & highways, some rough sections, light traffic
- Scenery: limestone peaks, lush valleys, terraced rice fields, minority villages
ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:
- SECTION 1: Hanoi→Mai Chau (via highways & back-roads): 150km
- SECTION 2: Mai Chau→Pu Luong→Canh Nang (plus side routes): 60-100km
- SECTION 3: Canh Nang→Quan Son→Muong Lat (the ‘Lao Loop’): 160km
- SECTION 4: Muong Lat→Mai Chau→Quan Hoa→Lang Chanh: 140km
- SECTION 5: Lang Chanh→Hanoi (via Mu & May waterfalls): 190km
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
I’ve written this guide in 5 sections going anticlockwise on the loop (although you can ride it in ether direction). The Limestone Loop is actually a figure of ‘8’, starting and ending in Hanoi, going via Mai Chau, Pu Luong, the ‘Lao Loop’, and the Ho Chi Minh Road. As a complete loop it’s a very rewarding ride, but you can also choose to ride just a couple of sections of it. The total distance is 700-800km, including a few optional side routes that I’ve marked in red. Each section of the guide below contains a description of the ride plus my recommendations for food, drink and accommodation along the way, all of which are marked on my annotated route map. To really make the most of the Limestone Loop, spend 5-7 days riding it, but for those with less time, 3 days is adequate. In general, there are gas stations at fairly regular intervals, apart from the Lao Loop (Section 3). There are some rough road conditions on the main route and on the side routes, but I have marked them as best I can on my map. The best weather conditions are usually spring (April, May) and early autumn (September, October). Bear in mind that the winter months (December-February) can be surprisingly cold and grey.
The Limestone Loop: Mai Chau-Pu Luong-the Lao Border | 700km
View in a LARGER MAP
Route: Hanoi→Mai Chau (via highways & back-roads) | Distance: 150km [MAP]
I like to think of Vietnam as a long dragon: its head is the northern bulge around the Red River, its body the long, narrow central stretch, and its tail is the Mekong Delta in the south. Thanh Hóa is located in the ‘throat’ of the dragon. It’s a transitional province between northern and central Vietnam. To the north is the heavily farmed and populated Red River Delta, to the east is the sea, to the south is the poor, rural province of Nghe An, and to the west is the mountainous border with Laos. However, in order to get to Thanh Hóa Province from Hanoi, it’s first necessary to face the long, soot-blackened crawl out of the capital and through the grim industrial suburbs. This is not a pleasant ride, but by combining the modern Thang Long Highway, heading west of Hanoi, with a couple of back-roads, it only takes an hour or so before the trucks, dust, and factories fade away. At Xuan Mai, turn west on Highway QL6 (also marked AH13).
Trucks still litter the road, but a few kilometres west of the Xuan Mai crossroads, a good back-road cuts a corner off Highway QL6, thus avoiding the city of Hoa Binh. By combining roads ATK and DT12B – via some lovely rural scenery, including clear rivers and limestone pinnacles – you can rejoin Highway QL6 south of Hoa Binh. Immediately after turning down Road ATK, fields, greenery and mountains begin to take the place of concrete and dust. The limestone scenery in this pretty valley is a taste of what lies ahead on this loop. There’s an inviting-looking, homestay-style guest house on Road ATK, called Nha Nghi Hoa Hong. It’s housed in a wood-and-thatch structure with access to a stream behind it for bathing. Hoa Hong makes a pleasant night stop if you left Hanoi late in the day and are running out of daylight. On the second back-road (DT12B) there’s a nearby hot springs (Kim Boi) and a waterfall (Tu Son), both of which can be visited as a quick stop or overnight.
After rejoining Highway QL6 south of Hoa Binh, limestone crags start to grow up around the rice paddies, looming over the villages. An Lac Hotel, near the junction of QL6 and QL12B, is a classic, old, northern-style accommodation that’s practically jammed beneath a limestone karst. It’s a big, echoey place – there’s almost something haunting about it – and, although the quarters are pretty basic, it’s an atmospheric place for a night if you don’t have time to get to Mai Chau before sundown. Things start to get really scenic when Highway QL6 (in excellent condition) veers west and ascends the wide, steep Thung Khe Pass. A couplet of sweeping switchbacks wind their way up the foothills of what the colonial French used to call the Tonkinese Alps. As the road soars, the air gets cooler (or freezing cold if you’re travelling in the winter months). Dozens of freight trucks, bound for the remote northwest of the country, crawl painfully up the mountainside, but because the pass is so wide and well-maintained, traffic isn’t usually a problem. From the roadside viewing shacks, there are incredible vistas over range after range of pointed limestone peaks that appear to be growing up around the Đà River (Black River). The top of the pass is often shrouded in a thin mist, which allows sunlight to seep through, creating an ethereal atmosphere. As you roll down the other side, there are famous views over Mai Chau Valley, with its carpet of green rice paddy growing within the tight confines of towering shards of limestone. It’s a fitting introduction to Thanh Hóa Province, which lies just south of Mai Chau.
Turning sharply at the bottom of the pass onto Road QL15, you enter the green embrace of Mai Chau Valley. Suddenly, the might and grandeur of the mountain pass is replaced by what feels like a bucolic and benevolent landscape (at least, in good weather). The road follows the course of a small, clear river as it runs through a disproportionately wide valley. The width means that either side of the river is flat, arable land, covered in a blanket of rice. Small, wooden settlements cluster on raised ground near the river at regular intervals. The town of Mai Chau, however, is all concrete. It’s a sprawling, rather ugly place, but has a lively village atmosphere in the mornings and early evenings, when good, cheap food is available from streetside vendors.
Just beyond Mai Châu village there is a right turn at the smart-looking Mai Châu Lodge Hotel. The lane leads to two collections of wooden stilt houses, all of which float over a sea of rice fields. These houses offer simple but comfortable accommodation, and good, home-cooked food. The houses are owned by a few of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority groups (in Mai Châu they are mostly White Thai). Mai Châu was one of the first places in Vietnam to introduce the homestay with ethnic minorities. It’s been a huge success. But, in recent years, the Mai Chau homestay area has become increasingly delicate. More tourists means, well, more tourists which, let’s face it, is never a great thing! But, on a more serious note, it also means more music – both of the so-called ‘ethnic’ variety and of global popular rubbish: at my last visit Gangnam Style was playing loudly into the late hours from Lác Village, all but drowning out the equally loud but infinitely more enchanting sound of frogs in the rice paddies. However, if you find yourself a quiet house with a view and a hospitable host family, then not much can beat dinner at dusk and breakfast at dawn while sitting on your patio looking over endless rice paddies, and mountains rising up all around.
Turn right at the Mai Châu Lodge Hotel for the homestay accommodation. There are two homestay villages right next to each other; Poom Coong and Lác. The former is the quieter and least touristy of the two. There are lots of houses to choose from, but the best-located are the ones at the edge of the cluster, because they have views over the rice fields.
Sleeping arrangements are simple but comfortable. A mattress is laid out on the bamboo floor and a mosquito net hung from the ceiling. Leave the wooden windows open at night for a cool breeze off the rice paddies and lovely views at dawn. Bathrooms are clean with hot running water. I’m always surprised at how noisy it is at night in the stilt houses: the humming of cicadas, the heavy rains hitting the rooftops, the throbbing chorus of frogs in the fields, the morning cockerel calls, dogs barking and babies crying, all before 5am – Saigon is quiet in comparison!
Rates vary a bit and it’s always worth bargaining politely for a better price. A night without any home-cooked food is very cheap – from 40-80,000VNĐ ($2-$4). But you’d be mad to miss out on the food here, especially dinner. I usually pay for a night with dinner for between 150-200,000VNĐ ($7-$10) per person.
Eat and Drink
Dinner on the patio overlooking the rice fields at dusk is a highlight of a homestay in Mai Châu. The food is fresh, delicious and cooked over a wood fire. Beef rolled in aromatic betel leaves, rice paddy crab spring rolls, green beans in garlic, silken tofu in tomato sauce, and fragrant steamed rice was my last meal here. It all had that extra something; it was all home-grown and home-cooked.
For breakfast, I prefer to leave the homestay and go into Mai Châu village. Here, you can find good food from vendors who set up stalls around the market. You can fill up for less than a dollar (20,000VNĐ). At night, the Mai Châu Lodge Hotel serves cocktails – something that’s in short supply on the rest of the Thanh Hóa Loop.
Take the Thăng Long Highway (Đại Lộ Thăng Long) out of Hanoi (28km). Turn left at the end of the highway for the crossroads at Xuân Mai (12km). Note: Avoid taking Highway 6 out of Hanoi to Xuân Mai – it may look more direct, but it’s a horrible, dusty and busy road.
At Xuân Mai you can choose which way you want to do the Thanh Hóa Loop: Head straight on (south) for the Ho Chi Minh Road, or turn right (west) for Hòa Bình on Highway 6 (also known, confusingly, as Highway 13). Note: The rest of these directions will be given as if you had turned right for Hòa Bình on Highway 6 (i.e. anticlockwise on the loop, just as the Road Trip is written up in this article).
Continue on Highway 6 to Hòa Bình town (36km). You can choose to go straight through the town or take the bypass on the left just before it. After Hòa Bình continue on Highway 6. The road goes over some mountain passes until there’s a left turn for Road 15 at the bottom of the last pass (60km). The left turn is clearly marked for Mai Châu. Take this road for a few kilometres until Mai Châu village. A couple hundred metres out of the village there is a right turn at the Mai Châu Lodge Hotel. Take this lane for the homestay accommodation.
Route: Mai Chau→Pu Luong→Canh Nang (plus side routes) | Distance: 60-100km [MAP]
In Mai Châu ask your hosts for a map of Pù Luông Nature Reserve. This map is produced by the local tourist authority, but it’s difficult to get your hands on: Ask to borrow your host’s map and head down to Mai Châu village to make a couple of photocopies. Pù Luông Nature Reserve is directly south and east of Mai Châu, situated around a tributary of the Mã River. It’s breathtaking scenery: The river is clear and rice fields continue right to the water’s edge. Bamboo bridges cross streams and bamboo water mills dip into the river and send water down irrigation channels to the rice. Small hamlets of wooden stilt houses cluster together on raised islands of earth in the middle of crop fields. When the land gets steeper the rice paddies are terraced and the houses become more dispersed, clinging to the hillsides. All around the valley, in a circle, like a gigantic Stonehenge, are the forested limestone pinnacles. The nature reserve is accessible by foot, bicycle or motorbike, and dotted with homestay options in superbly-located stilt villages. I rarely meet other foreign travellers in Pù Luông. Yet, this kind of landscape and living – where nature appears to be entirely benevolent, crops plentiful, concrete a rare sight, and people happy and hospitable – is the rural Vietnam that most foreigners dream of but never find. And here it is, only 150km from Hanoi!
The map is indispensable as it is the only resource I know of that has roads, paths, places of interest and homestay villages marked on it. A newly paved road goes straight through the nature reserve. Starting near Thanh Mai (12km south of Mai Châu on Road 15) and ending at Cành Nàng town (30km in total), this road is empty of traffic and very beautiful. You could easily spend a few days to a week ‘homestay-hopping’ in this area. Pu Luong Nature Reserve makes a superb and easy detour from the Limestone Loop.
If you don’t turn off at Thanh Mai for Pù Luông Nature Reserve, keep heading south on Road 15 from Mai Châu. The road meets the Mã River and follows its steady, muddy progress through the valley. The brown water pushes its way through limestone crags; clear water tributaries occasionally changing the river’s pigment. This is the river that’s sustained human life in Thanh Hóa Province for millennia. Small boats still navigate its sluggish waters: barges shift building materials upstream, and long bamboo rafts float silently along the current, heading downstream, where the rafts will be disassembled and the bamboo loaded onto trucks, bound for furniture factories in the Hanoi suburbs.
I’ve always loved the Mã River. Its slow progress through the ancient limestone valley makes me think of the vastness of geological time. Research suggests that Mã means ‘Mother’, which seems fitting as the river has provided for some of the first known human beings in Vietnam, and later helped sustain the revered Bronze Age Dồng Sơn civilization. The Mã River was the ancient southern boundary of Vietnam, until the Vietnamese conquered the Kingdom of Champa and pushed further south. The maze of limestone pinnacles, which the river cuts through, has afforded shelter to many a guerilla army, not only in the 20th century. The French, who called these mountains simply the Calcaire (Limestone), had a hard time pacifying Vietnamese resistance here in the late 19th century. Even centuries before the French arrived in Vietnam, armies and emperors had been using the limestone peaks as a natural defence. One of Thanh Hóa’s most celebrated sons is Lê Lợi. Born in the late 14th century, Lê Lợi led a revolt against the Ming Chinese occupation of Vietnam from 1418-28. Lê Lợi was vastly outnumbered by Chinese forces, so he and his army practiced guerilla tactics; ambushing Chinese troops and then retreating to the safety and cover of the Calcaire and the Mã River. In 1428, Lê Lợi defeated the Chinese and became emperor of Vietnam. Today, every town and city in the country has a road named after him.
45km south of Mai Châu on Road 15 is the small town of Quan Hóa (also sign-posted as Hồi Xuân). It’s a dusty town in a scenic location on the banks of the Mã River and in the shadow of looming limestone peaks. There’s a pleasant, friendly atmosphere here and some good food. If you’re not opting for a homestay in Pù Luông Nature Reserve, then Quan Hóa has a few decent guesthouses that make it a natural overnight stop before the long, scenic drive up to the Lao border the next day.
(For more information about the homestays in Pù Luông Nature Reserve click HERE). After the homestay accommodation in Mai Châu and Pù Luông Nature Reserve, most places to stay on the Limestone Loop will be small, family-run guesthouses. These sometimes have signs in English saying ‘Hotel’ or ‘Guesthouse’, but most of the time the signs will be in Vietnamese. Therefore, you should write down and remember this word, ‘Nhà Nghỉ’. This is Vietnamese for ‘guesthouse’. Nhà Nghỉ vary considerably in quality, but in general they are friendly, clean, comfortable and cheap places to stay that are dotted all over Vietnam. Read more about Nhà Nghỉ HERE.
In Quan Hóa there are a few Nhà Nghỉ, but I wouldn’t look further than Nhà Nghỉ Sông Mã (Mã River Guesthouse) located on the main drag. (Tel: 037 387 5017 Mob: 097 903 6666) There’s a sign ‘HOTEL’ in English out front. It looks shabby from the outside, but there’s a newer building behind it with clean rooms for 200,000VNĐ ($10). Rates include Wi-Fi, cable TV, secure parking and other hotel-style ‘comforts’ such as bathroom accoutrements and a modest minibar.
Eat and Drink
After the delicious feasts on offer at the homestays in Mai Châu, really good food on the rest of the Limestone Loop is more difficult to find. Just as with accommodation, it helps to write down and remember a couple of Vietnamese words: ‘Quán Cơm’ and ‘Phở’ – these words roughly translate as ‘Rice Eatery’ and ‘Noodle Soup Kitchen’. Learn them and you’ll find some great meals in places you’d never expect. There are signs saying Quán Cơm and Phở all over Vietnam. You’ll hardly find any English menus outside of Mai Châu, so be willing to try whatever’s on offer and come with an adventurous palate. In general, meals at Quán Cơm are cheap, hearty and big. Reckon on 30-60,000VNĐ ($1.50-$3) for a big bowl of steamed rice, a meat dish (usually pork), a green vegetable dish and a soup made from whatever ingredients are in season. For more on Quán Cơm read THIS.
Food in this area is often enlivened by Dân Tộc (ethnic minority) ingredients and methods – curried mountain goat meat (Thịt Dê Núi) rolled in sesame seeds is a standout of the region, as are the free-range chickens (Gà Đồi) that you’ll see running around all over the province.
In Quan Hóa there’s a great Quán Cơm located opposite the Sông Mã Guesthouse. Like most good rice eateries, it doesn’t look great from the outside. But don’t let that put you off. It’s popular in the evenings and the friendly staff should be able to help you choose something delicious from their kitchen. They also do a good beef noodle soup (Phở) for breakfast.
From Mai Châu, head south on Road 15. Just after the hamlet of Thanh Mai (12km) there is a left turn signposted for Bá Thước. Take this road for Pù Luông Nature Reserve and homestays. To continue to Quan Hóa (sometimes signposted as Hồi Xuân) just carry on south from Thanh Mai on Road 15 for another 30km.
Route: Canh Nang→Quan Son→Muong Lat (the ‘Lao Loop’) | Distance: 160km [MAP]
The most spectacular part of the province. Here, the sluggish Mã River cuts its way through limestone pinnacles, its flow increasing in volume as clear-water tributaries run off forested mountains to meet it. These water sources have provided a lifeline for human beings for thousands of years: This area is probably where Vietnamese civilization began – evidence of humans goes back 30,000 years, and Thanh Hóa is the cradle of the Đồng Sơn Bronze Age culture, which has gained almost mythical status in Vietnam. There are a few small towns around the Mã Valley and many picturesque wooden hamlets belonging to ethnic minorities.
3km north of Quan Hóa there’s a bridge over the Mã River. This is Road 520, which follows a lovely, clear-water tributary of the Mã all the way to the mountainous border with Laos. The road is being slowly upgraded which can make it dusty at times, but nothing can detract from the verdancy of this valley – full of crisp green rice paddies and bamboo growing along river banks, their thin branches brushing the sparkling water; like a scene from a Chinese ink painting.
This is the ‘Lao Loop’ section of the road trip. It’s a long, but gorgeous day’s ride out to the Lao border, over a new mountain pass, and back along another river valley, before rejoining Road 15. It’s 150km in total and until recently most of the roads weren’t even marked on maps. There aren’t any good places to stay that I know of on this loop, but most villagers will be happy to put you up for a night in their home for a small fee. However, I’m quite content to drive this loop in one day (ending up in a guesthouse in Cành Nàng town), especially if the sun is out. There are waterfalls and rivers to cool off in, there are sublime views around every bend, there’s not a tourist in sight, there’s no traffic, and hardly any concrete buildings. After a long day driving this loop it becomes quite dream-like. Lying in my bed in Cành Nàng town I’m left with a kaleidoscope of colours, landscapes and rural Vietnamese life. Start early in the morning, take a picnic, and spend the day wallowing in this fantastic corner of the country.
The town of Cành Nàng is a convenient stop for a night at the end of the Lao Loop, but other than some good food, there’s not much to keep you here long. As I mentioned earlier (in SECTION 2), you can also enter Pù Luông Nature Reserve from Cành Nàng. Just turn right over a bridge a few hundred metres west of town. This is the southern section of the same road that enters the nature reserve from Thanh Mai (12km south of Mai Châu). It’s very scenic and with your map of the nature reserve it’s easy to find your way to one of a handful of homestays in the area.
There’s little or no accommodation on the Lao Loop between Quan Hóa and Cành Nàng. However, there are a number of villages along the way where you’ll find people willing to put you up for the night in their homes. This is bound to be an experience, but be sure to establish a price before agreeing to stay. But, the best way to do it is to leave Quan Hóa early enough to give yourself plenty of time to complete to whole Lao Loop in a day, finishing in Cành Nàng town, where there are a few decent Nhà Nghỉ (guesthouses) on the main drag.
Eat and Drink
Even in remote areas you can find great food. People eat early in rural Vietnam: breakfast at 6am, lunch 11am, dinner 6pm. You stand a better chance of finding good food if you eat at these times.
On the Lao Loop there are Quán Cơm and Phở places in the villages. But, it’s a good idea to stock up on picnic supplies from Quan Hóa market before you set off.
A delicacy of the region is Thịt Chó – dog meat. You’ll see signs for it all over Thanh Hóa. I like dog meat, and the dogs here are, well, ‘free-range’, which makes them especially delicious. Try it (if you dare) and you might like it.
Cành Nàng town has lots of eating options (apart from dog) on the high street. Walk around and choose a busy place.
Something that I notice whenever I visit northern Vietnam is the presence of Trà Lá Tươi and Thuốc Lào (fresh leaf green tea and Lao tobacco). No café, eatery or restaurant is complete without a tea and tobacco station in the corner, which consists of a large, metallic teapot stuffed with local, fresh (not dried) tea leaves, a thermos of hot water, a dozen tiny teacups, a long bamboo pipe resting in a plastic bucket, a wooden box of Lao tobacco and a box of matches. Customers partake of tea and tobacco before and after a meal. All this is free; a part of the dining experience as essential as chopsticks and a bowl. People come and go freely (some not ordering any food) to share some tea and have a smoke and a chat before going about the rest of their day. I don’t smoke, so I can’t vouch for the special qualities of Lao tobacco, but it does smell good. The tea, however, is exceptional. I love all kinds of tea, but I’ve never had such a fragrant, citrusy, flowery tea as Trà Lá Tươi. Once you get a taste for it you can smell the tea leaves all over the northern provinces. The distinctive aroma has come to define the north for me.
3km north of Quan Hóa town there is a bridge over the Mã River. Take this and bear right on the other side for Road 520. After 40km turn left for the mountain pass (signposted for Quan Sơn). Follow this road for 30km until it meets Road 217. Turn left on this road (away from the Lao border) and continue for 65km until the Bá Lộc intersection with Road 15. Turn right and bare left at the next intersection (3km) for Cành Nàng town – sometimes sign-posted as Bá Thước – (10km).
About 1km west of Cành Nàng town there’s a right turn (if you’re coming from the direction of town) that goes over a bridge on the Mã River. Take this to go back into Pù Luông Nature Reserve and for the homestays. This is the southern section of the same road that enters the nature reserve from Thanh Mai (12km south of Mai Châu).
Route: Muong Lat→Mai Chau→Quan Hoa→Lang Chanh | Distance: 140km [MAP]
To continue on the Limestone Loop head south out of Cành Nàng town towards Lang Chánh (30km). I have a soft spot for this bustling little town set in a valley surrounded by bamboo forests. It’s busy with rural commerce and there’s good food and accommodation available. Nearby, there are a couple of waterfalls located deep in the mountains and forests. It makes sense to base yourself in Lang Chánh for a night or two while making trips out to the waterfalls and getting lost on some of the back roads through the dense bamboo. Ask at your guesthouse for directions to the waterfalls. Not much English is spoken, but if you write this word – thác (waterfall) – on a piece of paper then people will know exactly what you’re looking for. Try to avoid visiting the waterfalls on weekends when they can get rather crowded. On weekdays you’ll have them all to yourself. The furthest waterfall is about 20km west of town. The drive there is very scenic and feels really remote. At the end of the road there’s a wooden hamlet where you can park your bike for a small fee and walk down through bamboo to the falls. Remember to bring your swimming things!
All around Lang Chánh there are small dirt roads leading deep into the bamboo forests, which cover most of the mountainsides in this area. These tracks are used for collecting wood and other forest resources, which are then either used locally or packed onto old Dodge-style trucks bound for factories and workshops. It’s well worth exploring some of these tracks, especially in the late afternoon when it can be magical. The first time I came to this area I took one of these paths just south of town. It was like entering Narnia: I could have been in any century since rice cultivation began here back in around 3000BCE. The only signs of the 21st century were a few motorbikes. The track took me right into the bamboo forests which stretched as far as I could see, along thick brown rivers, and through minority hamlets of stilt houses. There was absolute silence, yet whenever I stopped to take it all in, after a few seconds there was always some sign of human activity nearby – the echo of an axe chopping bamboo, a furl of smoke from within the forest, cow bells tolling as cattle were herded along a path, the splash of a fishing net. I found a spot to watch the sunset and brewed a coffee on my camp stove. The sun opened its eye and lit the underside of the clouds a mango-skin yellow. The light seeped through the diaphanous, delicate and endless bamboo forests, climbing over the mountains to Lao, ridge after ridge disappearing into the distance. Thunder rumbled from a storm that had skirted the town.
Lang Chánh has a few Nhà Nghỉ (guesthouses) that are comfortable enough for a night, and cheap too. My favourite one is called Châu Lương (Tel: 0373 578 474). It’s on the main street opposite a small motorbike garage. It’s a family-run place, but the real boss is the 14 year old daughter, called Phương Mai. She speaks more English and has better people-skills than the rest of the family. She’ll tell you how to get to the waterfalls and where to eat in town. Prices are between 200-250,000VNĐ ($10-$12) a night. Get a room at the front for a small balcony with a view. There’s also a rooftop, which is a good place to take your own coffee and watch the sunset.
Eat and Drink
Lang Chánh has a few places to eat, and there’s a pretty good market at the crossroads where you can find supplies for a picnic to take to the waterfalls. Look for Quán Cơm and Phở signs in town.
My favourite place is a squat but elegant wooden house that’s set back from the main street. There’s no name, just a sign outside saying ‘Cơm’, but Lang Chánh is a small town, so if you drive up and down a couple times you should see it. There’s one table outside on the porch and one inside, which is actually the owners’ living room. The owners are a friendly elderly couple, both 80 years old. Inside their beautiful house there is a whole dissertation’s worth of ‘Vietnamesia’: Two wooden altars (one for ancestor worship, the other for a flat-screen TV), framed photographs of the couple alongside framed certificates from the Party congratulating them on their old age and various achievements in service of their country, and gaudy paintings of rural scenes from Chinese epic poems. But the star of the show was on the tea table where I sat down with the husband, whose name is Bình. As I leaned on the table to pour his artichoke tea, two plastic budgerigars started to tweet and peck from their position at the end of the table. Bình said it was a present from China. He tapped the table and they stopped chirping. I put the tea pot down on the table and they started up again. Bình had spent his life in the army. He’d fought the French, South Vietnamese, Americans, Cambodians and Chinese. He had 8 children, five of whom he said were ‘born at the wrong time’ and died in the war with South Vietnam and the U.S.
While I was eating my dinner (good, hearty food cooked by the wife) the TV news announced that today was the 57th anniversary of victory at Điện Biên Phủ. Bình wasn’t paying attention until he heard the words ‘Điện Biên Phủ’, then he looked up at the TV. ‘Were you there?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘You were 20 years old?’ He nodded again. Then he was lost in fascination with his Chinese present – hitting the table again and again to start and stop the tweeting budgerigars. Meals are between 40-100,000VNĐ ($2-$5).
From Cành Nàng to Lang Chánh (30km) go back south on Road 217 for 10km, until the intersection with Road 15. Turn left onto Road 15 and follow it for 20km to Lang Chánh. (It’s quite easy to accidentally drive past Lang Chánh on the bypass, so keep a look out for signposts or ask a local).
Route: Lang Chanh→Hanoi (via Mu & May waterfalls) | Distance: 190km [MAP]
From Lang Chánh it’s only 20km south on Road 15 until you meet the Ho Chi Minh Road at Ngọc Lặc. The Ho Chi Minh Road has quickly become famous among motorcyclists. It’s one of Vietnam’s most ambitious engineering projects: the road runs 1800km north to south along the Trường Sơn (Annamite) mountain range, which is the ‘spine’ of Vietnam. Construction has almost finished along the entire stretch. The road is well-made, sees little traffic and passes through some fantastic scenery. The first 50km north of Ngọc Lặc is among the most scenic; it goes straight through Cúc Phương National Park. Read my full guide to the Ho Chi Minh Road HERE.
I like to break the long journey back to Hanoi on the Ho Chi Minh Road by staying at a guesthouse located on the Bưởi River in Cúc Phương National Park (35km north of Ngọc Lặc).
After the road cuts through a hill it enters the national park. Here the road follows the Bưởi River as it ploughs its way through the limestone crags of Cúc Phương. It’s gorgeous scenery and the river looks very inviting. There’s a wooden guesthouse (Quang Đức Homestay) on the left just after crossing a bridge over the river. For a nice swimming spot take the dirt road on the left just before the guesthouse. Follow this for a hundred metres or so and there’s a little track down to a weir. The water is cool, clear and good for swimming. The water colour is distinctively turquoise, which is how the river got its name – Bưởi means ‘Pomelo’, which is a large fruit with green-blue skin and flesh. Come between March and June for the best turquoise waters – after that the heavy rains start to turn the river a mud-brown. Back up the dirt track, the Quang Đức Homestay is a great place for food and a night’s accommodation while exploring the river.
The next day, head north on the Ho Chi Minh Road and enjoy the scenery for as long as it lasts until Hanoi’s industrial suburbs take over, and you hit the Thăng Long Highway back into the capital.
There are many small towns with guesthouses on the Ho Chi Minh Road from Ngọc Lặc back to Hanoi. By far the best place to break the journey is Quang Đức Homestay (Tel: 0378 914 727), sitting all by itself at the merging of two rivers in Cúc Phương National Park. Quang Đức Homestay is 35km north of Ngọc Lặc on the Ho Chi Minh Road. It’s a wooden and brick house on stilts on your left just after crossing a bridge over the river. Sleeping is on mattresses on the wooden floor – just like other homestays. Per person, per night it’s only 80,000VNĐ ($4). The food is very good here too (see Eat & Drink for details). The homestay is within walking distance of a waterfall where two rivers meet and a good swimming spot. The only drawback is the noise from the road at night – there isn’t much traffic, but the odd passing truck is enough to disturb your sleep.
Eat and Drink
Thanh Hóa Province is one of a handful of places in Vietnam that’s famous for a delicacy called Nem Chua. I had a hard time translating this for a friend who wanted to know what it was before eating it. I settled on ‘Pork Sashimi’. It may not sound appetizing, but this little snack is full of subtle flavours and very delicate. Nem Chua is a kind of raw, cured pork patty – but that doesn’t do it justice. They come in small, bite-sized portions wrapped in banana leaves. The pink patty has a fragrant aroma of garlic and chilli. The flavours – sweet, sour, salty and spicy – combine with the smooth texture of the meat to make it very moreish. From Lang Chánh to Ngọc Lặc you can find Nem Chua hanging in green bundles by the side of the road. A bundle costs around 20,000VNĐ ($1), but you’ll want more than one! Nem Chua from Thanh Hóa Province is the best I’ve tasted. This is the perfect road-side snack.
The Quang Đức Homestay has good food with some Dân Tộc (ethnic minority) specialities. A big meal for 2-4 people, including fresh-caught fish from the nearby river, is around 200,000VNĐ ($10). North of Cúc Phương National Park, around Yên Thủy, there are lots of large road-side restaurants advertising fresh mountain goat (Thịt Dê Núi), chicken (Gà Đồi) and other animals. The food is good and these places are conveniently located for a lunch stop.
From Ngọc Lặc to Quang Đức Homestay (Bưởi River) it’s 35km on the Ho Chi Minh Road. The homestay is on the left just after the road cuts through a hill and goes over a bridge over a river.
Note: Avoid turning right onto Highway 6 at Xuân Mai junction: although this road also takes you back to Hanoi, it’s busy and dusty. It’s much better to go straight over the intersection at Xuân Mai and continue north for 12km until you can turn right onto the new Thăng Long Highway.
There are gas stations at fairly regular intervals for most of the Limestone Loop. Gas is also available from road-side shops that either display it in glass bottles or have a rudimentary pump outside. Generally, I prefer to fill up at the gas stations – I’ve heard that the quality of the road-side pumps can be bad. However, some parts of the Limestone Loop, especially towards Laos, are quite remote, so your only choice might be these road-side places.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is full of places advertising motorbikes for rent. You can also find rental agencies online by googling ‘motorbike rental Hanoi’. Daily rental is around 150-200,000VNĐ ($7-10), but you should get a discount if you rent for a week or more. Rent a Bike Hanoi (www.rentabikehanoi.com) has a good reputation and a great website. They will provide you with helmets and saddle bags, and can also offer travel information about the Thanh Hóa area if you mention you’re going there. Some places require a copy of your passport or other documentation (a driving license is sometimes – but not always – necessary). Take a contact number for the rental agency, so that if you have any problems on the road you can call them. Some bike rental places are reluctant to let you drive out of the city. I don’t like lying, but sometimes the only way to secure a bike for a week or more is to insist that you won’t leave Hanoi. If you do have to lie to secure your bike then get it washed (around 20,000VNĐ [$1]) and looking nice and sparkling before you take it back to the rental place; this will (hopefully) appease them.
Weather in the north of Vietnam is a problem. Unlike in the south, where there are two distinct seasons (a wet and a dry), the north is subject to some very strange and unpredictable patterns. The best time to do the Limestone Loop is between mid-March and mid-June. The weather is hot, mostly dry, and the rice fields and forests are green. The wettest months are from mid-June to October, but, if you have enough time to sit-out the downpours, there’s still plenty of good weather in-between. Mid-November through February can be quite cold. The north has real winters. Daily temperatures in the mountains hover around 10 degrees Celsius. The months around the Vietnamese New Year (January/February) are famously grim. The French even gave these months a name, Crachin, which means ‘drizzling rain’. The Vietnamese call it mưa bóng mây, which means ‘rain, shadow and cloud’….. – you get the idea! However, while this weather is bleak it’s not actually that wet. Also, I think that in bad, cold and cloudy weather conditions, mountains appear higher, rivers more furious and forests more mysterious – all of which lend to the romance of a road trip off the beaten track……just remember to bring suitable clothing!
- Sapa-Sin Ho Scenic Motorbike Loop
- Ha Giang Extreme North Motorbike Loop
- The Harvest Route: Mù Cang Chải
Selected Resources for Travellers & Expats: What's this?