The Limestone Loop: Motorbike Guide

Last updated May 2018 | Words, photos and film 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 about 3 hours.

Rivers, rice fields and limestone mountains - Thanh Hóa Province
Rivers, rice fields and limestone mountains – Thanh Hóa Province

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GUIDE: THE LIMESTONE LOOP


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 700km
  • 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: HanoiMai Chau (via highways & back-roads): 150km
  • SECTION 2Mai ChauPu LuongCanh Nang (plus side routes): 60-100km
  • SECTION 3Canh NangQuan SonMuong Lat (the ‘Lao Loop’): 160km
  • SECTION 4Muong LatMai ChauQuan HoaLang Chanh: 140km
  • SECTION 5Lang ChanhHanoi (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 (well, figure of ‘8’) it is a very rewarding ride, but you can also choose to ride just a couple of sections of it. The total distance is 700km, but I’ve included a few side routes too (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 complete route map. To really get the best out 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.

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 Nghệ An, and to the west is the mountainous border with Laos. The latter is 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. Decent roads and gorgeous landscapes connect these places. I call it the Limestone Loop: it’s beautiful, easy to reach, and rarely explored by travellers.


ROUTE MAP:

The Limestone Loop: Mai Chau-Pu Luong-the Lao Border | 700km


View in a LARGER MAP

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SECTION 1

Route: HanoiMai Chau (via highways & back-roads) | Distance: 150km [MAP]

The industrial sprawl of Hanoi fades into the distance after an hour on the road. Fields, greenery and mountains begin to take the place of concrete and dust. Limestone crags north of the city of Hòa Bình offer a taste of what lies ahead. Things start to get really interesting south of Hòa Bình, where a series of spectacular passes wind their way up the southern-most slopes of the Tonkinese Alps. Although relatively low in altitude, these passes are steep and wide – it seems no natural obstacles were allowed to get in the way of their construction. As the road soars the air gets refreshingly cooler (or freezing cold if you’re travelling in January!). After passing dozens of freight trucks crawling painfully up the mountain, the road opens up to incredible views 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 great views down into Mai Châu Valley – a fitting introduction to Thanh Hóa Province.

Mountain pass near Hòa Bình - the border of Thanh Hóa Province
Mountain pass near Hòa Bình

 

Mai Châu valley in thin mist
Mai Châu valley in thin mist

After turning left at the bottom of the pass you enter the green embrace of Mai Châu Valley. 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, which is covered in a blanket of rice fields. Small, mostly wooden settlements cluster on raised ground near the river at regular intervals. The town of Mai Châu, however, is all concrete. It’s a small, rather ugly place, but has a lively village atmosphere in the mornings and early evenings, when good, cheap food is available from vendors.

 

Homestay in Mai Châu
Homestay in Mai Châu

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.

Sleep

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 on the bamboo floor
Sleeping on the bamboo floor

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

Home-cooking at the homestay!
Home-cooking at the homestay!

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.

Directions

Don't take Highway 6 out of Hanoi to Xuân Mai!
Don’t take Highway 6 from Hanoi to Xuân Mai!

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.

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SECTION 2

Route: Mai ChauPu LuongCanh Nang (plus side routes) | Distance: 60-100km [MAP]

Pù Luông Nature Reserve - amazing scenery, no tourists!
Pù Luông Nature Reserve – amazing scenery, no tourists!

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!

Homestay in Pù Luông Nature Reserve
Superb position: homestay in Pù Luông Nature Reserve

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.

The muddy Mã River
The muddy Mã River

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.

Bamboo raft on the Mã River
Bamboo raft on the Mã River

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.

The Mã River and limestone mountains sheltered Vietnam's first civilizaton
The Mã River and limestone mountains sheltered Vietnam’s first civilizaton

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.

Sleep

Nhà Nghỉ - good budget accommodation
Nhà Nghỉ = Guesthouse

(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.

Sông Mã Guesthouse
Sông Mã Guesthouse in Quan Hóa town

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.

A typical (and delicious!) meal at a Quán Cơm
A typical (and delicious!) meal at a Quán Cơm

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.

Directions

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.

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SECTION 3

Route: Canh NangQuan SonMuong Lat (the ‘Lao Loop’) | Distance: 160km [MAP]

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.

The 'Lao Loop' section is verdant and sparsely populated
The ‘Lao Loop’ section is verdant and sparsely populated

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 'Lao Loop' is long and lovely - take your time and enjoy it!
The ‘Lao Loop’ is long and lovely – take your time and enjoy it!

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.

Sleep

Hospitable villagers may invite you to stay
Hospitable villagers may invite you to stay

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.

Superb food is cooked in kitchens like this
Superb food is cooked in kitchens like this

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.

Fresh leaf green tea - the aroma of the north!
Fresh leaf green tea – the aroma of the north!

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.

At the top of Sơn Thủy Pass
At the top of Sơn Thủy Pass

Directions

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).

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SECTION 4

Route: Muong LatMai ChauQuan HoaLang Chanh | Distance: 140km [MAP]

Waterfall near Lang Chánh
Waterfall near Lang Chánh

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!

Bamboo forests around Lang Chánh - pick a path and get lost in them!
Bamboo forests around Lang Chánh – pick a path and get lost!

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.

The sun sets over the Lao border
The sun sets over the Lao border

Sleep

Châu Lương Guesthouse
Châu Lương Guesthouse in Lang Chánh 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.

Cháo (rice porridge) is classic, hearty, mountain fare!
Cháo (rice porridge) is classic, hearty, mountain fare!

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.

Bánh cuốn - fresh rice rolls
Bánh cuốn – fresh rice rolls

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).

Directions

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).

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SECTION 5

Route: Lang ChanhHanoi (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.

The Ho Chi Minh Road: 1800km, well-made, little traffic, great scenery
The Ho Chi Minh Road: 1800km, well-made, little traffic, great scenery!

 

The Bưởi (Pomelo) River - great for a swim!
The Bưởi (Pomelo) River – great for a swim!

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.

Quang Đức Guesthouse
Sign for Quang Đức Guesthouse

Sleep

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.

Nem Chua Thanh Hóa - Pork Sashimi!
Nem Chua Thanh Hóa – Pork Sashimi!

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.

Nem Chua - perfect roadside snack!
Nem Chua – sold in bundles

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.

Back in the capital - Hanoi
Back in the capital – Hanoi

Directions

From Lang Chánh to Ngọc Lặc continue south of Road 15 for 20km. At Ngọc Lặc turn left onto the Ho Chi Minh Road.

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.

From Quang Đức Homestay to the Thăng Long Highway it’s 100km. Turn right onto the Thăng Long Highway and follow it back into Hanoi (28km).

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.

TRAVEL INFORMATION:   

Gas  |  Bike Rental  |  Weather

Gas stations are preferable
Gas stations are preferable

Gas

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.

 

Rent a bike in Hanoi
Rent a bike from Hanoi

Bike Rental

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

The 'Crachin' (drizzling rains) from January to February
The ‘Crachin’ (drizzling rains) from January to February

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!

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83 Responses to The Limestone Loop: Motorbike Guide

  1. Jade says:

    Hey Tom,

    Your guides have gotten me from HCMC up to Phong Nha in one piece these past few weeks and I am so grateful, especially as a solo first-time rider! Thank you for all the work you continue to put into this incredible site.

    I was hoping you could give me some advice on how best to get up to Hà Giang from Phong Nha via part of the Limestone Loop. I’m thinking Phong Nha—Vinh—Thanh Hóa—Mai Châu—Yên Bái / Tuyên Quang—Hà Giang. For the bit between Thanh Hóa and Mai Châu, would you suggest going along the river on QL15 or through the reserve on QL15C if I only had time for one?

    If you have any recommendations on the entire route or better cities to stopover in, that would be much appreciated as well! Many thanks in advance.

    • Hi Jade,

      From Phong Nha continue due north on the Ho Chi Minh Road all the way to Ngoc Lac or Cam Thuy (don’t go to Vinh along the coast) – see sections 6 & 7 of this guide. Then turn west off the Ho Chi Minh Road toward Pu Luong Nature Reserve on either QL15 or QL217. The take QL15C from Canh Nang through Pu Luong which is a beautiful ride. From Mai Chau you’ll need to take QL6 to Hoa Binh and then head north towards Phu Tho and Tuyen Quang to join QL2 to Ha Giang – that’s a long ride but it’s worth it to get to the Extreme North Loop.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  2. Nic says:

    What’s the state of the full Lao Loop at the moment? Last year some people were complaining about the DT520 being bad.

    • Hi Nic,

      520 is excellent now – they’ve finished repaving the whole road and it’s great fun to ride.

      I’m in the process of updating this guide right now, and I’m planning to modify (or at least offer as an alternative route) the Lao Loop so that it starts from Quan Hoa and follows 520 all the way to Muong Lat then looping back towards Mai Chau on the currently unnamed road following the Nam Ma River. The latter is good for roughly 90% of the way back to QL15, but there are still a couple of sections that are bad due to dam and road construction. In good weather it should be fine to ride.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

      • Nic says:

        Ah, thanks for the update on the loop! Might try to do both versions of the it and end up doing the really scenic section of the 520 from both directions.

        Another thing I was wondering was if there are still cheap priced homestays in the nature reserve. Seems like the ones you’ve mentioned in the guide became popular and increased prices to fit demand. Will I still find a 200,000 sleep and eat spot around Ban Hieu or somewhere equally scenic?

        • Hi Nic,

          Yes, there are still plenty of cheap homestays in Pu Luong – near Ban Hieu and all over the nature reserve. You’ll see the homestay maps on billboards as you ride through the park.

          Tom

  3. Tom says:

    Hi Tom,

    We’re back home now and have had an awesome trip through Vietnam.Thank you so much for your guides, it really helped us planning. We started in Hanoi and drove all the way to Hoi An usuing the Ho Chi minh highway. I want to give some updates regarding the status of the differents roads we took.

    Hanoi to Mai chau we followed section one from the limestoneloop. First part was quite crowded and busy(leaving Hanoi). The further we went the less trafic we saw. Some busy parts, but most of the road was pretty nice to drive.

    Mai Chai to Tam coc: Straight through Pu Luong (road CL15C). Great road to drive with an average pace of 40 km/h+. After CL15C we took CL217, which was a nice road to drive), to the east driving to CL12B. CL12B was the worst road we’ve seen on the entire trip. Loads of constructions, dust everywhere, full of trucks, people should avoid this route if possible. The last bit we took AH1 to Tam Coc. The entire day took us from 9AM to 5 PM+-.

    Tam Coc to Phong Nha: Took AH1 all the way to Thanh Hoa (+-1hour drive). From Thanh Hoa we took CL47 untill we reached the Ho Chi Minh highway again. CL47 was a really nice route to drive. Roads we’re quite empty, in really good condition and plenty of good looking parts. Would surely recommend this route.

    Rest of the road is known and just like your guide. All well paved roads and perfect to drive. The part from Phong Nha to Khe sanh was absolutely the best part of our entire motortrip. Would recommend it for sure. I think it will be best to not drive this part alone, because somethimes you won’t see anyone for hours. We brought some extra fuel, but did not need it.

    So once again, thanks for all your information!

    Greetings,
    Tom

    • Hi Tom,

      Great to hear that you had a good time on your road trip.

      Thank you for the updates. Sorry to hear about road QL12B, but QL47 sounds like a good and interesting ride.

      Yes, I agree about the section between Phong Nha and Khe Sanh – incredible ride.

      Thanks again,

      Tom

  4. Ale says:

    Hi Tom, first of all thank you so much for this website; I did to Tomb Rider route today and it was fantastic :-).
    Quick question: in few days I’ll be in Ninh Binh and then I was thinking of doing the first part of the loop (in reverse) by driving through the QL15c and then up to Hanoi via Mai Chau. From Ninh Binh G-maps is suggesting to take the QL45 then the QL217: do you have any update regarding the road conditions ? (Especially of the latter…).
    Thanks a lot for your help!

    • Hi Ale,

      I last rode QL45 a long time ago – back then it was fine back pretty potholed. I would imagine they’ve upgraded it since then, but if they haven’t it would be a fairly bumpy ride. QL217 up to the Ho Chi Minh Road was OK last time I rode it, but again some potholes. However, I would hope they’ve repaved that too by now. After crossing the Ho Chi Minh Road, QL217 was undergoing repairs last time I was there (October 2017). If you want to avoid that, you can take QL15 instead. QL15C through the park is still good, and then joining QL15 to Mai Chau is fine, but there’s one horrible bit just after you join from QL15C as it meets the Ma River.

      If you do this ride, any updates you can send would be much appreciated.

      Tom

  5. Claudia says:

    Hi Tom,
    first of all thanks so much for this awesome website. It makes it possible for a less experienced rider like me to still make this very special travel experience. I am loving it!
    May I ask for one more advice? Do you have recommendations on which roads would be best to connect the Limestone Loop and the area around Sapa? I would like to avoid going into Hanoi or its suburbs.
    Cheers from Phong Nha, Claudia

    • Hi Claudia,

      Yes, there are several ways to connect Mai Chau with the Sapa area, but the most direct and reliable are either QL6 (AH13) via Son La and Dien Bien Phu, or cutting across on QL37 to meet QL32 up to Sapa via Nghia Lo. Either way it’s a pretty long ride (at least two days), but these are the roads that are generally in good condition. There are many other options – criss-crossing between these two main roads – but road conditions are notoriously unreliable.

      Please bear in mind that the Limestone Loop guide on this page is due an update, which I’m currently in the process of doing.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  6. Kent Chi says:

    Hello Tom
    I am planning to visit Mai Chau and Pu Luong by myself in Oct 2018, could I know is there any transportation rum between Mai Chau and Pu Luong there since I don’t know how to ride the motorbike
    Many thanks
    Kentchi

    • Hi Kentchi,

      There probably is a local public bus between Mai Chau and Canh Nang/Ba Thuoc (close to Pu Luong Nature Reserve), but I doubt it takes road QL15C, which is the one that goes straight through the park. However, it’s probably quite easy to arrange transportation in Mai Chau yourself: for example, a local motorbike taxi (xe ôm), or at least your hosts in Mai Chau homestays will be able to suggest means to get to Pu Luong.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  7. Nick says:

    I fly into Hanoi early on March 9, I’ll leave Hanoi late on March 25th. I will try to do most of the Limestone Loop clockwise and then connect from MAI CHÂU to Sìn Hồ, where I will do a conglomerate of your different routes. What’s the best route from MAI CHÂU to Sìn Hồ?

    • Hi Nick,

      Please note that I’m currently updating the Limestone Loop guide. There are some changes: for example, road QL15C through Pu Luong Nature Reserve is complete and a very beautiful ride.

      From Mai Chau to Sin Ho there are many different combinations of roads to take. Two nice routes are: Road QL6 to Nga Ba Co Noi then turning east on road QL37 all the way until it joins QL32 and take that all the way until it meets QL4D at Binh Lu. Or continue on road QL6 from Mai Chau all the way to Muong Lay, or cut across on roads DT106 or QL279 to meet QL32 to Binh Lu. However, road conditions can be a problem in the northwest. Of these routes, the first one (via QL37) and the second one (via QL6) are usually the best in terms of road quality, but there’s no guarantee. The more time you have for these routes the better.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  8. Gary says:

    Your website is very impressive and full of insight. In a few months, a friend and I are going to spend 35 days riding the country from South to North. I watched a video recently from Tigit motorbikes where it was recommended to take the train from Dong Hoi up to Hanoi because the riding was not very great. This limestone loop seems to suggest otherwise (as well as the 100 km from Phong Nha to Pheo). If we do opt to ride into Hanoi rather than take the train, which section of the limestone loop do you recommend riding (assuming we could only choose one part), the western half or the eastern half? I was leaning towards the western half since it would allow us to possibly ride the “Lao Loop” as well. I wanted to hear your suggestions because its clear that you are quite knowledgeable about riding throughout the country. In your opinion is there anything from this part of the country that absolutely must not be missed? (with regard to beautiful scenery and fun roads) Thanks from a fellow motorcycle and travel enthusiast from Minnesota.

    • Hi Gary,

      As long as you have the time there is plenty of good riding between Dong Hoi and Hanoi. In particular, as you say, the ride from Phong Nha to Pheo is superb. After that stay on the Ho Chi Minh Road all the way to Ngoc Lac or Cam Thuy, which is a very agricultural, lush, easy, smooth ride, although not spectacular scenery (unless you turn off west on Road QL7A towards Con Cuong and Pu Mat National Park, but that’s going a bit out of the way). There’s also the possibility of taking one of the boats around the ‘floating’ tea plantations (Doi Che Bac Son Thanh An) in Nghe An Province before reaching the intersection with Road QL7A – it’s just a short side trip.

      The Limestone Loop is great – very scenic and some good riding roads. I was there recently and am now updating this guide, including the route: it should be finished before you arrive in Vietnam. But in general, the best roads are QL15C and DT520. After that you can either continue on the loop to Mai Chau and hit Highway QL6 back toward Hanoi (the first part out from Mai Chau is scenic) or loop back to the Ho Chi Minh Road to Hanoi instead (the section from Cam Thuy to around the Perfume Pagoda is great), but inevitably the last hour or so into Hanoi on either route is grim.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  9. Tom says:

    Hi Tom,

    First of all I want to thank you for the informaton you’ve provided on your website. It’s extremely helpfull for planning my motorbike trip with a friend.

    We want to do a trip from Hanoi to Hoi An. We don’t want to take highway 1, but want to take some nice routes.

    Starting from Hanoi we will take section 1, then we will take section 2. After section 2 we will drive to Tam Coc using CL217 and CL45. We want to make a stop in Tam Coc for 2 nights (1 full day). After Tam Coc we will drive from Tam Coc to Phong Nha, using the Ho Chi Minh Highway. In Phong Nha we will explore some caves and will stay a total of 2 nights probably (1 full day). From thereon we will drive to Hue, where we will sleep for 1 night. After Hue we will go to Hoi An using th Hai van Pass. Finish in Hoi An. We got a total of 10 days to go from Hanoi to Hoi An. We got a total of 8 days on the motor, and 2 days where we will not drive at all (1 day in tam coc and 1 day in Phong Nha).

    We’re quite experienced drivers and wil have solid bikes from Tigit Motorbikes, which should save us some time.

    The planning is a bit thight, im fully aware of it, but we want to see as much as possible and don’t take highway 1.

    Do you think my suggested route is possible? Do you have any suggestions to improve our plan?

    Thanks in Advance,

    Greetings, Tom

    • Hi Tom,

      I think your itinerary is fine, but you might be pushed for time, especially is anything doesn’t go according to plan – which often happens on these trips: for example, a section of road that’s in bad condition which slows you down, or bad weather etc.

      For the first two sections to Pu Luong Nature Reserve, from Mai Chau to Canh Nang take road QL15C straight through the nature reserve – it’s a wonderfully scenic ride and the road is in decent condition now. Please note that I’m in the process of updating my Limestone Loop guide so some of the information may change.

      From Pu Luong to Tam Coc, QL217 was quite rough last time I rode it, and I’m not sure of the condition of QL45. If you do take these roads if you could please let me know of any updates on their condition that would be great.

      From Tam Coc to Phong Nha is a very long drive (around 500km) for one day. It’s a much better idea to drive it in two. From Phong Nha to Hue in one day is fine, and also Hue to Hoi An. I assume, if you want to avoid Highway 1, you will be following the Tomb Rider and Hai Van Pass guides, in reverse of course.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

      • Tom says:

        Thanks for your reply Tom.

        We will go in march, so let’s hope the weather will be good to us. I will let you know what the road conditions are. When will your updated guide be availible?

        Thanks for the tomb rider guide tip. The Ho Chi Minh highway close to the Laos boarder is the road i had in mind. We will drive from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh, depending on the time we will sleep in Khe Sanh and then continue to Hue. Or do you think the Tomb Rider route is better?

        Thanks again.

        • Hi Tom,

          Oh, I see: I just assumed because you were tight on time you’d be taking the coastal route in Tomb Rider. But the Western Ho Chi Minh Road from Phong Nha to Khe Sanh is fabulous so definitely take that if you have the time: but again it’s a long ride so overnighting in Khe Sanh makes sense. I’ve written about that route in detail is section 5 of this guide – but again you’ll need to follow it backwards 🙂

          I have all the new information from a recent trip for the Limestone Loop, I’m just trying to get other things finished before I write the full update for that guide. But I don’t know exactly when that will be – hopefully within a month.

          Tom

          • Tom says:

            Hi Tom,

            Thanks for the reply once again. Depending on our timeschedule we will choose between the Tomb Rider route or the hcm highway.

            Last question: Do you think it is possible to drive from Mai Chau to Tam coc in 1 day? Going the route I talked earlier about? And assuming the weather will be good to us?
            Thanks

            • Hi Tom,

              Yes, it should be possible to ride that in one day. However, it does depends on road conditions and weather, but the distance (it’s under 200km) is not too far for one day – it’s still a good idea to leave at a decent time in the morning so that you have plenty of time to get there.

              Tom

  10. Marie-France says:

    Thanks for the web site and nice road to explore!
    I just came back from a part of the Limestone Loop. Pu Luong is amazing, but the road at the moment are in very bad condition because if the rain. The main road is fine, but the dirt track are a nightmare. On the way to Ban Hieu, it’s really muddy and extremly slippery. A part of the road just felt in the River. They are building a small bamboo bridge that I guess should be temporary to cross the River. Vietnameses guys told me I was crazy to try to get there and in fact, with those condition, if was almost true! Finally, I didnt slept there, the price were too high… (Mr. Si ask for 400 000 D. Without dinner for a room in is niece house). With the heavy rain of yesterday night, I don’t think it would have been possible to drive back today.
    Also, between Canh Nanh and Quan Hoa, the River pass over the bridge at 2 places… I had water to the knees when I was driving those part…
    In Quan Hoa, at Nha Nghi Song Ma, the lady was asking 300 000 D for the night, which I think it was pricey. I went just the road next to the gas station and find a ok place for 150 000 D.
    So I hope those informations will help the people that are on their way there!
    Thanks again!

    • Hi Marie,

      Thanks very much for sharing your experience on this route – the road and price updates are very valuable information for me and for other readers.

      Sorry to hear about the bad weather conditions – it sounds like very difficult riding conditions.

      Tom

    • Nicolas says:

      Hi Marie-France! Thanks for the details.
      May I ask if the “main” road of Pu Luong is paved or is it also mud? I’ll be there in 2 weeks and all I’ll have is a scooter.
      My route goes from Mai Chau to Puluong Retreat.

  11. Francois says:

    Hey Tom,
    Followed your advice and branched out of the HCM road to go through Pu Luong nature reserve. Wow ! The ql15c is in ok shape on some parts, terrible in others. But the scenery was amazing ! I think this might be my favorite ride so far since leaving Saigon. Thanks so much for the advice i would never have taken this road otherwise !

  12. Alex says:

    I forgot to give an advice for the people who wants to spend one night in Lang Chanh with a tight budget in my last post.
    We wanted to stay at Chau Luong Homestay, but the girl at the reception asked 400 000 vnd for one night for a room. We thought it was very expensive and we tried to negociate the price without success. So, we decided to find another place for the night and we found a decent Nha Nghi located on the south road. As you leave the town, turn right just after the bridge. The price for one night is only 150 000 vnd and the owner is really friendly. He offered us jack fruit, tea and rice wine. The name is Nham Tuyet Nha Nghi and it is located near the rice field, good for an evening walk to meet (very friendly) people in the villages around after a long motorbike ride.

    Thanks,

    Alex

  13. Alex says:

    Hi There,
    We did the limestone loop last week. We really enjoyed that trip. The scenery is gorgeous and impressive all along the way. We took six days to do it and I think it’s a perfect time to discover this region.
    I just want to notice that the road along the Ma river is a mess due to the traffic, there are a lot of trucks, and the road conditions are very bad sometimes. The Lao loop is amazing, but the first part of the trip is a nightmare. The road DT 520 is under construction (over almost 20km) and sometimes is very difficult to drive with a scooter because of stones and mudd. So, you can’t really enjoy the scenery.
    I hope it can be helpful for next travellers.
    Thank you again Tom to share your trips, because we really enjoyed this one. We have discovered a new beautiful area in Vietnam.
    Sincerly,
    Alex

    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks, it’s great to hear that you enjoyed your trip. It is a beautiful area, indeed. And thank you for the valuable road updates – I’m sure that will be very helpful to other readers who are thinking about riding this route. I hope they finish upgrading the roads soon.

      Tom

  14. Mathias Malfait says:

    Hi Tom, i am thinking to make this loop in combination with Ninh binh an 2 days ha long …. how many days would we need for that starting from hanoi ?

  15. Hi Tom

    Me and my friend are going to do the limestone loop tomorrow, we are coming south from tan ky and intend to do it backwards from the ho chi Minh road but once we get to point B head south to vinh for a day or two and then into Hanoi, i have downloaded your maps but i noticed on the overall map there aren’t the hotel locations etc, you wouldn’t have all the different section maps with the hotels and attractions on would you ? Just because we are doing it backwards and from a mid point.

    Thanks
    Alex

    • Hi Alex,

      No, I’m sorry I don’t. But you shouldn’t have too much of a problem finding places to stay in the main towns along the Limestone Loop, especially in nhà nghỉ (local guesthouses).

      Also, please bear in mind that this guide is due an update, so I can’t guarantee that all the information will be accurate.

      I hope you enjoy the ride,

      Tom

  16. Silver says:

    Hi, Tom. I can’t open the Limestone Loop maps. I can see them on the webpage but they won’t open with the app. I tried with two different deviced. Is it just me? Thanks!

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  18. Guy says:

    Hi there,
    I will be coming to Vietnam next week for the sixth time. This time with my 9 years old daughter for 12 days. North only.
    We plan to go to either Yen Bai or Ha Giang and also Mai Chau.
    How is the roads condition these days? Do u think Tom, that once we’re in Mau Chau, we can rent a motorbike and wander all the way to Moc Chau and find a place to sleep there (we’d love to skip advanced booking).

    Cheers,
    Guy

    • Hi Guy,

      Road conditions are pretty good now in Mai Chau and Ha Giang. Last time I was in Yen Bai, some roads surfaces were not great, but perhaps they’ve been repaved by now. However, because it’s the rainy season, if there’s been heavy rains in the mountains, landslides are common and can block roads for hours. So just keep an eye on the weather.

      Yes, you should be able to rent a bike from Mai Chau. But you may have to negotiate for a while in order to keep it for an overnight trip up to Moc Chau. In general, you should be able to do it by leaving a copy of your passport and visa, and maybe also some collateral.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

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  21. Ross says:

    Hi Tom,

    Have been really enjoying your website. I’ve actually been reading with the intention of cycling one of these routes. The Limestone route is of particular interest. I’m looking at riding late December/early January. Can you suggest if this is a good idea? I am wondering how intense the elevation will be and whether the weather will be manageable at this time of the year (and also be good for scenery) Thanks for your time!

    • Hi Ross,

      Well, winter isn’t a great time for that loop because the temperatures can get quite low – especially on the mountain passes. And there’s often a mist and little rain hanging around. But there are also nice days too, of course.

      There are some very steep climbs on this route: the pass between Hoa Binh and Mai Chau is big, and the roads inside Pu Luong Nature Reserve are very steep too. But it’s certainly doable by bicycle and very scenic too.

      On the whole I think this is a good, if challenging, cycling route. However, the long crawl out of Hanoi won’t be too fun – consider putting your bike on a bus to Hoa Binh or Cam Thuy and starting the ride from there.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

      • Ross says:

        Thanks Tom, that is great advice! Factoring in elevation, weather and scenery what would be your recommended route? I’ve been through so many different options (even other countries) and it is hard to lock in a decision. A loop would be best so my friend and I can just hire bicycles. From what I have read maybe the Golden Loop is a better option then?

        Thanks again!

        • Hi Ross,

          Yes, there are lots of good loops. The problem is the weather in December/January – it’s best in the south at that time of year. Anywhere north of Nha Trang can experience changeable conditions, and anywhere north of Danang can be pretty bad. But this is always just a chance you take.

          If you want guaranteed good weather then stick to the south: have a look at my Tet Lunar New Year Classic, for example.

          The Golden Loop is great too. But there’s a bit more of a risk with the weather in that region. Having said that, I had perfect conditions there in January a few years ago.

          For more about Vietnam’s complicated climate see this.

          As for elevation, unless you stick entirely to the coast, you are going to have to deal with some pretty big climbs. But the reward is fantastic scenery.

          Personally, if I was to choose a cycle route for December/February in Vietnam it was be in the south, probably the Lunar New Year Classic, or at least parts of it. You can browse all my southern routes here.

          I hope this helps,

          Tom

  22. Chris says:

    I hardly recognized Mai Chau from the time I was there 5-6 years ago. It’s just a disaster now in my opinion 🙁

    Sorry, that is not really a helpful comment, but it was something I wanted to say.

    I will say I really enjoyed the ride from there to moc chau, especially the first third or so. In fifteen minutes I had escaped to a new world of freshness and open road. If you are in mai chau and not visiting the north, you can get a quick taste by riding out an hour towards moc chau and returning.

    • Hi Chris,

      Yes, I know what you mean – Mai Chau is kind of a victim of its own success. But it is still a beautiful position and once you find a homestay you really like it still has plenty of charm.

      However, Pu Luong Nature Reserve is the place to be right now in that area.

      I agree, the ride to Moc Chau is great – although it’s rained all but one of the times that I’ve ridden it! 🙂

      Tom

  23. Chris says:

    I stayed at a guest house in Na Meo about five or six years ago if anyone is interested in staying there. On the Laos side there was no place to stay, basically just one noodle hut and eight or so people selling goods on the ground. A truck came by at some point and we loaded up in that. Can’t recall where we went but had a place to sleep.

  24. Reed Bernstein says:

    I’m at the Valley View Hotel in Mai Chau. This was my first stop from Hanoi and I am torn between going through the Limestone loop and Pi Luong or going up north making my way to Sapa and Ha Giang or staying down here and exploring this area before turning towards the Ho Chi Minh road and beginning my journey South to HCMC. It’s June 15 now and my schedule is open until early August. This is my first time doing something like this and I guess I am looking for feedback and suggestions.

    Thanks

    Reed

    • Hi Reed,

      Both of those routes are good. If you go north to Sapa and Ha Giang then you’ll be in the mountains all the time. But if you go to Pu Luong and then south on the Ho Chi Minh Road you with be in the south sooner and therefore have more time for coast and beaches. So it just deepens what you want to spend more time doing: mountains or beaches.

      With the amount of time that you have, you should be able to ride north to Sapa and Ha Giang, and then start heading south back to Mai Chau and Pu Luong and onto the Ho Chi Minh Road too.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  25. Antek M. says:

    QL15 along the river is terrible now (almost all the way to Mai Chau) – they are widening it considerably, and at the moment there’s no asphalt on most of it (very dusty) and although the views are very beautiful at times, most of the time you can admire terrible environmental damage caused by this heavy construction

    I would definitely recommend skipping it for Pu Luong at the moment

    • Hi Antek,

      Thanks for the road update. Yes, other readers have commented about the bad state of Q15 at the moment. However, it will be nice when it’s finished, because that road really did need widening 🙂

      Tom

      • IjonTichy says:

        Just did Road 15 south to north – sure, the road is wide and smooth after Quan Hoa, but the industrial mess around is a horrible eyesore. It’s like a war zone or an open wound gone bad almost all the way from Quan Hoa to Mai Chau. Looking at the state of it it now it will be so for at least some years to come. Avoid, if possible.

  26. Rob says:

    We travelled part of this route last week to enter Laos. QL217 was paved but bumpy from Cam Thuy past Canh Nang. After QL15 split off, QL217 was perfect with brand new pavement all the way to the Laos border. There were a few short sections where the construction hasn’t finished, but overall it was a beautiful drive on great road to the border. We had no issues bringing a Vietnamese bike with blue card (not registered in our name) through the Na Meo border into Laos.

    • Hi Rob,

      Thanks for the updates. Great to hear that the road to Laos is in good condition and also that you had no problems getting your bikes across the border.

      I hope you enjoy riding there too.

      Tom

  27. Antek M. says:

    I did slightly modified sections 1,2 and 4 and oh man, this was amazing! Thanks for bringing my attention to this less known part of Vietnam, was fantastic finishing of my Saigon-Hanoi trip (I thought that after Phong Nha I saw the best parts already, but I was wrong!). Pu Luong is amazing, I did a trip across the whole reserve (https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zqqWp7oQqYc0.kGGNtBCbnd44&usp=sharing), and it was probably the best ride I had since leaving Saigon (and it says a lot).

    I really recommend taking at least part of this trip, especially as a finisher for Saigon-Hanoi (so you will have some very strong accent for the end)

    • Hi Antek,

      Yes, it’s a great way to cap off a south to north road trip. Pu Luong is fabulous, especially now that some of the roads running through the nature reserve are now paved – not all of them though, as you discovered!

      Tom

      • Antek M. says:

        Ya, there was a moment when I stopped to think if I’m really doing the right thing to go that way or not. Then I saw a girl going down, which gave me a relief for a moment (I thought it must not be so bad), just to witness her crashing into some other guy

        But the views and nice people who live there were definitely worth any trouble and hardships 🙂

  28. Miriam says:

    Hi Tom,

    I’ve been frequenting your site now for a while and have kept coming back to it after researching and planning a trip to Vietnam for months, sifting through MANY blogs and agencies and travel guides. Thanks – like so many have said – for for providing such a quality source of information!! SO INVALUABLE.

    My question is simple: how long did it take you to do this trip? I know everyone’s pace might be different, but I was wondering what yours was. Did you just break up each section into a day? (Sorry if this question has already been asked!) Any help would be much appreciated.

    Miriam

    • Hi Miriam,

      Happy to hear you’ve enjoyed reading my site.

      The Limestone Loop is best done in 3-5 days. You could easily take a week if you had the time. However, there have been reports (see above comments) that the section between Mai Chau and Quan Hoa is currently under construction, so check with locals before you ride this section.

      Yes, you could make each section a day, but you can remain pretty flexible for most of this loop. The only section that you really need to do in one day is the Lao Loop because there’s no accommodation on that section and it’s relatively long.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  29. Gabby says:

    Hi, thanks for this information! I’m planning a North-South trip and your website has been extremely helpful.

    About the homestays, when you do these trips, do you just show up in the town in the afternoon/evening, and find a homestay to stay at? Or is there somewhere where you can find phone numbers and call ahead? Mai Chau will be the first stop on my trip and i’d really like to stay in a homestay. I found some phone numbers on Travelfish for guesthouses, but the article was written over a year ago and things change fast in Vietnam!

    • Hi Gabby,

      Yes, in general I do just show up and find a homestay. In Mai Chau there are so many that it’s not necessary to book in advance, unless perhaps if you are travelling on a weekend or public holiday.

      The homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve are not as frequented as those in Mai Chau, but they do sometimes receive groups of walkers, who can take up all available space – but you’d be unlucky for that to happen.

      I hope you enjoy some ‘homestay-hopping’ in this area 🙂

      Tom

  30. Alexandre says:

    Hi Tom,
    We would like to do this loop next April, and we would like to know how many days you would recommend to do it.
    Thanks a lot for your help and for sharing your travel experiences on your blog! We did the Ha Giang loop last year and it was wonderful!

    Alex

    • Hi Alex,

      Ideally, 5 days to a week would be a good amount of time to have when doing the Limestone Loop. The distances aren’t that big, but half of the roads are small and windy.

      Also, before you go, check on the road conditions from Mai Chau south to Canh Nang and Ngoc Lac (Road 15) because there have been some reports of road works as they are upgrading the route (see above comments).

      Weather-wise April is hit and miss – it can be great, but also damp and misty at times.

      Tom

      • Alexandre says:

        Hi Tom,

        Thank you for your reply. I’m going to try for finding informations about the road conditions.
        Thanks again to give us the opportunity to discover Vietnam by your own experience.

        Alex

  31. petr says:

    we just finished the whole loop few days ago and I would not recommend to take it at this time. the road from Mai Chau to Quan Hoa is a mess as well as the second part of the lao loop. the whole road 217 is under construction and it is real pain to get through on scooter. lot of mudd and stones so you cannot really enjoy the scenery. according to the signs the road should be finished in 2016 so it will be a great ride when it is done 😉

    anyways,thank you for all your posts. very inspirative

    • Hi Petr,

      Sorry to hear that. I was last there in September 2014 and it was OK. Thanks very much for your valuable update. I’m sure other travellers will benefit from this information. I look forward to 2016 when it is finished.

      Tom

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  35. Danny says:

    This is a great loop and a well thought out guide to it. Good to follow. Nice work.

  36. Wow, it is indeed a nice place. I do love the whole thing. Thanks for sharing it.

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