We left Cuc Phuong in the morning and started the beautiful drive towards Pu Luong Nature Reserve. The Pu Luong area is well-known for minority village homestays, primarily in the village of Mai Chau. However, Mai Chau is now far too popular and on the bus tour route, and apparently has turned from a quaint village in the mountains to a place where tourists are treated like a walking ATM. The Vietnam Coracle talks about another village inside the nature reserve, so we decided to try and stay in Bản Hiêu.
The Coracle’s website mentions two Homestay options, but one has since turned into a fancy eco-lodge that is out of our price range, so our plan was to try and find Mr. Ba’s Homestay, or somewhere else to spend the night. As we reached the nature reserve we turned off the highway onto a dirt road leading up into the mountains. All we had to follow was a google maps point from the Coracle, but it pointed us in the right direction. We reached the general village and were riding through the stilt houses when Hoai chased us down on his motorbike. He asked if we needed a place to stay, and proceeded to take us to his family’s house.
Hoai lives in a traditional stilt house: These houses are built up high to allow storage space underneath and to protect against flooding. The house is one large room inside with bamboo flooring and and a palm leaf roof, there is an outhouse and a separate kitchen outside. Hoai’s house only got electricity a few years ago as is costs $100 to buy the wire to connect your house to the grid, but now they have a small refrigerator, TV, and a single light bulb. Apparently the electric bill is only $5/month. They have no running water in the village, but Hoai was lucky to have a good well they dug in 2007 so they had clean water available. They kept a can of water filled from the well next to the squat toilet and you pour a bucket of water in the toilet when you’re done to flush.
Bản Hiêu is a beautiful village in a river valley between mountains. We spent the afternoon hiking around the village with Hoai as our guide and seeing their traditional way of life. There are rice patties everywhere, and the patties without a stream to feed them water use an ingenious bamboo waterwheel to lift water from the river into bamboo irrigation pipes.
As we hiked up the mountainside, we saw villagers dragging bamboo behind their scooters, it turns out growing and selling bamboo is one of the major industries in the village as bamboo is greatly valued for construction. We saw one woman carrying huge pieces of bamboo out of the forest and Amanda tried to pick one up, I think the villager found us weak westerners quite amusing!
Hoai’s family was excited as their cow was pregnant, and if they can raise the calf to a healthy adult they can sell it for a significant amount of money. A grown bull is worth around $700, enough to buy a new motorbike! Bản Hiêu is a Thai minority village, so the locals are ethnically Thai despite living in Vietnam. They speak Thai among themselves, but they also learn Vietnamese in school.
It was time to get cleaned up for dinner after joking around the village, and since they don’t have a shower that means a nice swim in the river. Some of the local children were practicing their English with us while we bathed in the river: most children know a few basic phrases like “What is your name?” And “How old are you?”.
The dinner was a feast of pork, vegetables, spring rolls, and sticky rice. It was going to be hard to finish all the food, and then they brought us another plate! Hoai’s father joined us to share his homemade rice wine, which packs quite a punch.
After dinner Hoai played some guitar, and we watched a Chinese drama that the family enjoyson the TV. Finally it was time for bed, so the rock-hard mattress was laid on the floor and the mosquito net hung up. We got to have the house to ourselves while Hoai and his parents slept in the kitchen and underneath the house, respectively.
The next morning we had another delicious but way too large breakfast, along with several more shots of rice wine (apparently they drink with breakfast and we had to finish the bottle). After saying our goodbyes, we set off on the road to Hanoi.
Hoai had told us the best route to take, and it was a lovely drive through mountains with village after village. However, it was also the steepest mountain pass we climbed during our entire trip. Amanda had to walk good portions of the climb while I drove the bike as the motorbike could barely climb the hill with both of us and our luggage. At the end of the day, we braved the insane Hanoi traffic and made it to Vietnam’s capital after a month on the road.