Mai Chau, Pu Luong, Cuc Phuong, Ninh Binh –
spectacular tropical peaks, valleys, rice fields, rainforests & wildlife, hidden waterways
Mai Chau, Pu Luong, Cuc Phuong & Ninh Binh – from peaks to hidden waterways
At a glance
Great backroads riding in Mai Chau, Pu Luong, Cuc Phuong and Ninh Binh — close to Hanoi but so far away — in a fully guided motorbike tour.
This is the perfect short break tour. No other short tour offers such diversity, beauty, spectacular scenery and fabulous back roads coupled with easy access from Hanoi.
Enjoy some of the best lowlands roads for motorcycle touring, through three very different rural landscapes.
Mai Chau is gorgeous rice fields in a broad valley set among steep limestone hills. Relatively developed, there are some good resorts with great local fare to relax in and use as a base for exploring the valley.
Pu Luong is all craggy rainforest-clad mountains, winding roads & passes, deep green valleys and pretty ethnic hamlets. It’s amazing how remote it feels compared to Mai Chau and Ninh Binh. There are some great places to stay with wonderful views and terrific off the beaten path touring. One of our favorite places.
Discover the wilderness rain forest of Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s oldest National Park. Home to the Muong hill tribe, it boasts an incredible diversity of flora and fauna.
The hidden waterways and steep limestone cliffs of Ninh Binh are UN World Heritage, and one of the most spectacular and extraordinary places you will visit in Vietnam. There are good resorts to relax in here too. With a little knowledge you can mostly escape the crowds and explore great small roads amid stunning landscapes.
It’s the combination of excellent touring through such contrasting places that makes this trip so good. See the itinerary below for more details.
There is travel that fits within the expected and then there are journeys that go beyond. At Other Path Travel, we specialize in small group tours that will take you to a Vietnam that most travelers never see, extraordinarily beautiful, amazingly diverse, off the beaten path.
From astounding natural beauty to scooter-packed streets in vibrant cities, we offer a range of experiences to suit your interests and travel style whether that’s exploring extraordinary scenery by private car or motorbike; cruising spectacular islands by boat From astounding natural beauty to scooter-packed streets in vibrant cities, we offer a range of experiences to suit your interests and travel style whether that’s exploring extraordinary scenery by private car or motorbike; cruising spectacular islands by boat From astounding natural beauty to scooter-packed streets in vibrant cities, we offer a range of experiences to suit your interests and travel style whether that’s exploring extraordinary scenery by private car or motorbike;
cruising spectacular islands by boat From astounding natural beauty to scooter-packed streets in vibrant cities, we offer a range of experiences to suit your interests and travel style whether that’s exploring extraordinary scenery by private car or motorbike; cruising spectacular islands by boat
- Ride great less traveled roads from Hanoi through rolling countryside, along the edge of stunning Hoa Binh lake to beautiful Mai Chau valley
- Explore fabulous back roads, walk or bike through gorgeous rice fields and search out delicious authentic food
- Discover remote and tropical Pu Luong, with spectacular scenery and some of the best lowlands motorbike touring in North Vietnam. Ride challenging trails, or trek through stunning rice terraces and ethnic villages, or kayak a peaceful river, or just relax at a resort with a beer and a view
- Experience Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s oldest and largest National Park, and its magnificent wilderness forests. Observe extraordinary wildlife at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre
- In Ninh Binh, glide on small sampans along hidden waterways, twisting through the spectacular karst mountains and caves of Trang An Landscape Complex – one of the wonders of Vietnam and a UNESCO World Heritage site
- Cruise beautiful roads threading through idylic rice fields and lakes
- Take in some of the oldest and best Buddhist temples in Vietnam
What our travelers say
“Amazing motorbike riding. Mai Chau was beautiful, a small gem, while Pu Luong was spectacular, vast and much less traveled.”
“The waterways of Trang An, hidden between incredible limestone mountains, were breathtaking, astonishing and a highlight of the trip. “
Arrival and airport transfer
If you have requested an airport transfer, an Other Path Travel representative will meet you at Hanoi airport, and take you to your hotel in the Old Quarter or city center.
If you are spending time in Hanoi before the start of the tour, you might be interested in exploring Hanoi off the beaten path with one of our half-day Insiders’ Tours.
Afternoon before day of tour departure
In the afternoon of the day before the tour departure, we will gather at a pre-arranged time for a welcome refreshment, introductions and a pre-trip briefing where we will walk through the itinerary, discuss riding a motorbike in Vietnam and answer any questions you might have. We will also provide some panniers and talk through packing.
On the day of the trip start, we will get together around 8am (after your breakfast at your hotel), where will allocate motorbikes to people and give everyone a chance to get familiar with their bike and riding on the streets of Hanoi before we depart.
Hanoi & Red River Basin countryside
We wind our way through the bustle of early morning Old Quarter traffic, heading north towards the calmer streets of Tay Ho, bordering West Lake, Hanoi’s largest and arguably most beautiful lake. Tay Ho – where many Westerners live -- is a fascinating neighborhood, mixing old Vietnam and western cultures in a unique blend.
Leaving Tay Ho, we continue north along the banks of the mighty Red River, the ancient birthplace of the Vietnamese people and still a major working river. Heading west on small roads we reach a beautiful group of pagodas and temples that are among the oldest Buddhist shrines in Vietnam, dating back a thousand years. We stop to explore and take a coffee break.
South – fields, forested hills, Hoa Binh lake to Mai Chau
Turning south we ride through open countryside, following mostly less-travelled roads that twist through fields and forested hills. Away from the occasional section of major road, the traffic is mostly light and the riding great.
We stop for lunch at a pleasant café, and then follow smaller roads again to the shores of the vast and spectacular Hoa Binh Lake.
We stop for some photos and then traverse the slopes above the lake, passing through some beautiful bamboo forest. Finally, after diverting slightly to visit a lookout with fantastic views, we reach Mai Chau and our friendly resort.
If there is time and energy, there are a number of optional activities. A relaxed motorbike or bicycle ride or trek through the rice fields, beautiful in afternoon light. A visit to a nearby textile & crafts village. A ride on a more challenging dirt road up into the surrounding mountains; or an easier ride along a scenic valley up to a pretty mountain village.
And of course some cool drinks at a sunset bar with splendid views over the rice fields before a delicious dinner at a local restaurant.
Option to start the riding day in the Hanoi countryside, avoiding city traffic
For riders who want to avoid the morning Hanoi peak-hour traffic, there is an option (selectable as part of the booking process) to start the morning ride in the countryside – we take you and your luggage in a private car or minibus to a rendezvous point where the bikes are waiting. This saves about 40km of riding and makes for an easier first day.
Accommodation: Resort, Mai Chau
Meals: Lunch, Dinner
Sunday ethnic market option
If it is a Sunday there is an option for experienced riders to make an early morning excursion, on the road before 8am, to an interesting weekly ethnic market in a small village about 30km from Mai Chau.
Hmong and Thai ethnic minorities from surrounding villages gather to buy and sell everything from animals to textiles, and to socialize with people they may not otherwise see.
Many dress in their traditional costumes and the market is a busy, interesting colorful mix of different hill tribes, a slice of old Vietnam.
The road to Pu Luong
Alternatively, after a relaxed breakfast, we ride down the Mai Chau valley surrounded by steep karst limestone mountains and then turn onto the road leading to Pu Luong.
The scenery is stunning. We climb gradually along a wonderful twisting valley road, each kilometer taking us further off the beaten path. Mountains rise up on either side – steep slopes carpeted in dense tropical forest. As we crest a pass, amazing views of the Pu Luong ranges, deeply clad in green, open up. Below stretches the main Pu Luong valley with its scattered hamlets.
It feels a long way from anywhere – the contrast with much busier Mai Chau is incredible. We stop to enjoy the view and take some photos.
Discovering Pu Luong
From the pass we drop down more twists before making an excursion along a dirt side road to a pretty hidden valley and hamlet surrounded by mountains, where daily life still follows the seasons and harvests. We admire the view and have lunch in one of the local ethnic village houses.
Retracing our steps, we rejoin the main road as it sidles along the valley slopes, with rice terraces falling down the hills. This is beautiful, remote Vietnam, a place to ride slowly and enjoy.
Further down the valley, we take another narrow side road and soon reach our lodgings for the night, set among the rice fields and terraces. Our default is a very comfortable homestay, but you may choose an upgrade to a good ecolodge with a pool and outstanding views -- contact us.
Now there are several options. We can ride further into the Pu Luong ranges and explore valleys and villages – on easy roads or more challenging ones.
Or we can take an easy trek among the beautiful rice fields and villages. Another option is a ride down to the lower valley and enjoy some gentle riding or kayaking along the river.
Or we can simply spend time over some cool drinks, sitting on a terrace with stunning, sweeping views over the rice fields and valleys below. We end the day with a delicious Vietnamese dinner.
Accommodation: Resort / homestay, Pu Luong
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Water wheels and winding roads
This is our longest day.
After an early breakfast we ride further down the valley. Time permitting, we might ride out along a less developed road and visit the waterfalls at Ban Hieu, a great thing to do on a hot day. Or we might go explore some of the other Pu Luong valleys.
Or ride to see the giant irrigation water wheels made out of bamboo that are found along some of the rivers and are a signature of Pu Luong.
Leaving Pu Luong, we climb an almost ridiculously steep pass cut into the sheer mountain side with a spectacular view over the whole Pu Luong region from the top – it’s a must stop for photos.
Riding on, we follow a wonderful little-visited road winding across a karst-dotted plateau with small villages every now and then. It feels remote and a long way from Hanoi.
Cuc Phuong National Park
We drop down from the plateau via some hairpin turns with great views before eventually cutting south via the Ho Chi Minh trail through the karst ranges that form the top end of Cuc Phuong National Park.
This is nice riding on good road through lush green mountains.
We then follow smaller roads through more open countryside until we turn north east and wind through karst hills, eventually reaching the entrance to Cu Phuong National Park.
Cuc Phuong was the first National Park in Vietnam and is still the largest, with some of the best rainforest wilderness in North Vietnam.
We ride along a 20-km paved road cutting through the verdant karst mountains and incredibly lush valleys where we could possibly take a short trek in the ancient rainforest, or visit one of the many caves in the Park. We might also visit the Endangered Wildlife Rescue Center, and, if we are lucky, see some of the rare langurs and other animals cared for at the Center -- a real treat.
Accommodation: Mid-level resort, Cuc Phuong
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
Ninh Binh, temples, Hang Mua & Trang An waterways
After breakfast, we leave Cuc Phuong and head south east through beautiful scattered karst pinnacle countryside. We explore some of the fantastic roads threading through flooded valleys ringed by cliffs before arriving in Ninh Binh, where we stop for a coffee break and discuss the day's options, depending on the energy and desires of the group.
We might drive on to explore the ancient temples and tombs of Hao Lu, which was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, located in a wonderful setting, surrounded and protected by limestone mountains.
We might venture further and visit the immense Bai Dinh temple, with its golden Buddha.
We might climb the steps at Hang Mua for the amazing view over the Tam Coc waterways and surrounding countryside.
Or we might explore some of the quieter and more beautiful backroads of Ninh Binh.
As the shadows stretch out in the late afternoon sun, it's the perfect time to drive north to the Trang An complex of waterways, caves and temples.
As the birds start heading back to their nests for the night, we take small sampan boats to explore the hidden waterways that wind between the limestone cliffs and mountains. Local women use their feet to row the oars of our boat through awesome caves and we brieflly stop to visit some splendid temples.
It’s a wonderful, surreal experience in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Vietnam and a highlight of the trip.
Just before dark, after docking, we ride back to our resort with its excellent views and cold drinks, followed by a delicious dinner.
Accommodation: Resort, Ninh Binh
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch
Scenic route back to Hanoi
After a leisurely breakfast, we leave Ninh Binh. We head north along scenic roads surrounded by amazing karst pinnacles. If we haven't done so the day before, we make a short visit to the picturesque and evocative remains of the ancient capital city of Hao Lu.
Then, driving north through the open countryside of the Song Boi valley and twisting through the edges of some spectacular karst ranges, we arrive at the Perfume Pagoda.
Once again we ride in small open boats, also powered by locals paddling oars by foot, up a small river to the entrance to the pagoda complex – actually a series of Buddhist pagodas and temples stretching from the banks of the river up the karst mountains to a sacred cave at the top.
The river runs along the edge of more amazing karst mountains on one side and rice paddies on the other – it’s stunning scenery. We arrive at the start of the complex, where we can either walk up the series of temples to the top, or (especially if the weather is hot) take a gondola.
The Perfume Pagoda temples & shrines are significant in Vietnamese religion and are visited by many thousands of pilgrims each year; watching the pilgrims is a window into Vietnamese culture and beliefs. It can get crowded at times, but our guides know how to smooth our path if it does. We spend some time exploring the temples before enjoying lunch on the edge of the river.
Option to finish the riding day in the Hanoi countryside, avoiding city traffic
After lunch we head east and join the major roads leading north to Hanoi; from here, it’s a straightforward ride back into the city.
For riders who wish to avoid Hanoi & highway traffic, there is an option to end the ride in the countryside about 40-50km from the city center. We rendezvous with a private car or minibus, drop the motorbikes and ride in air-conditioned comfort for the last part of the tour.
This makes for an easier last day and given Hanoi & highway traffic we recommend it. You can select this option as part of the booking process.
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch
Debrief & departures
After reaching the hotel, and after you have repacked from your panniers into your own traveling luggage, we will arrange a debrief either at the hotel or a local café.
If the group wishes we can organize a dinner at one of Hanoi’s authentic restaurants – it’s a great experience, nearly always packed with locals enjoying themselves.
If you need transfers to the airport, or if you have booked transfers as part of your booking, we will arrange this for you.
Then we bid you farewell and safe travels until we see you again!
Booking in advance
We strongly recommend booking well in advance.
Accommodation choices can be limited, especially in less traveled parts of Vietnam. In more popular locations demand can be high, particularly at peak periods. If possible, we recommend booking 2 or more months in advance.
Our minimum advance period to book online for this tour is 4 weeks – shorter than that and you need to email us with a reservation request and we need to confirm availability.
Of course, we will always work with you if you have to book at short notice – just contact us.
Peak periods include: northern hemisphere summer holidays (July – August); Christmas period and southern hemisphere summer holidays (mid-December - early February); Easter; peak Ha Long Bay periods (September - November and March - May); Vietnamese domestic summer holidays (June - early September); Vietnamese lunar new year, Tet festival, usually sometime in February.
Remember, while these are the peak periods, Vietnam is busy all year round.
Minimum number of people
If you are booking as an ‘exclusive’ tour – meaning the tour will be just for your group and no others – then this tour is guaranteed to start on the scheduled date provided there are a minimum number of 2 people. For tours that are ‘not exclusive’, the minimum is 4 people.
Traveling solo? Book as ‘not exclusive’ and join with others. Or contact us -- we will always do what we can to help!
Departure day of the week
This tour has scheduled starts on Monday and Saturday of each week. It can also be booked to start on other days by arrangement – please contact us.
The Monday start tends to have less traffic and quieter hotels. The Saturday start tends to be busier, but provides the opportunity for experienced riders to catch an ethnic minority market on Sunday near Mai Chau as an optional excursion.
Both start days provide a fantastic tour.
A mix of 3 - 4+ star hotels & resorts
In Mai Chau, our default is a 4-star hotel / resort with a pool and stylish but simply decorated rooms just on the outskirts of Mai Chau town, located in a beautiful natural setting.
In Pu Luong, we have a unique 3.5- 4- star hotel / resort with a pool and modern, tastefully decorated rooms in the Pu Luong Nature Reserve.
Our default hotel in Ninh Binh is a cozy 3-star resort with modest bamboo bungalows set in a spectacular location in the middle of the famous karst mountains, alongside a lake surrounded by high cliffs. We also offer an excellent 4+ star resort with a pool set among lush paddy fields and mountains. A treat. Let us know if you are interested in this upgrade.
A great way to go
There is no better way to travel through Vietnam than by motorbike -- the feeling of connection to the landscapes and people is exhilarating. It's how we like to travel ourselves.
Vietnam is a motorbike rider’s paradise. The country has not yet developed to the point where cars and trucks are crowding bikes on rural and back roads: there are cars and trucks of course, but motorbikes are still dominant. On the other hand, the country has developed enough to have (mostly) reasonable sealed roads. In addition, the landscapes and people are fabulous. This all adds up to fantastic back roads riding.
This tour is aimed at people with moderate motorbike riding experience as well as more experienced riders. We modify the daily riding distances and choose roads and side excursions to suit the experience and desires of the group -- from relaxed to demanding.
There is also the possibility of riding pillion behind one of our experienced local riders -- you can select this as part of the booking process.
If you would like to discuss your riding experience and options, please contact us -- we are always keen to help!
'Slow travel' and types of motorbike
In general, we have a ‘slow travel’ philosophy and try and ensure that daily distances are not too large – we take time to enjoy what we are passing through.
Not going too fast is the secret to riding in Vietnam: there are so many fantastic side excursions and so much to experience. In any case, winding back roads make fast riding impractical a lot of the time -- in the mountains, speeds of 30 - 60 kmh are common. Of course if you want to ride harder and cover more distance, we can do that too.
We generally ride modest sized semi-automatic bikes of around 110cc-125cc, or slightly larger manual bikes of 150cc. Both are well suited to the winding roads of Vietnam.
The 110cc - 1225cc bikes are less expensive, are light and easy to manage, and handle dirt roads well. These are what the locals ride everywhere. You'll find them more approachable if you're riding what they're riding. These are the default, included in the price of the tour.
The 150cc bikes are heavier, a bit more expensive and can of course cover long distances more quickly. You can select 150cc bikes for your group as part of the booking process.
Western riders used to larger bikes often want something bigger -- and if you want to ride Vietnam's crowded highways, then a larger bike makes sense (although bikes of more than 175cc involve more stringent driving license requirements) -- but we do not recommend them for our tours.
Off road bikes are also available for those who wish to add some more challenging dirt roads to the mix – we can provide as much challenge as you can handle. However, it's not our key focus and if you want a pure off-roading experience, then you should look elsewhere. Contact us if you are interested in a larger motorbike or mixing in a bit of more serious off-road.
See here for more information on riding a motorbike in Vietnam.
Ideally, you will have a motorbike license in your own country that you can use as the basis to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you leave.
Vietnam does not recognize domestic motorcycle licenses by themselves as being a valid license to ride a motorbike in Vietnam, but it does recognize the combination of a domestic license and an IDP from a number of countries: see here for more important information and a link to a list of countries.
If you are from one of the countries where an IDP is not recognized (including USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Spain), then please contact us to discuss options.
Note that the rules for what is required to ride validly in Vietnam are always changing -- we try and keep up to date, but it's always best to contact the Vietnamese embassy in your country to confirm.
Choose Your Style
This tour is aimed at both people who are interested in being active as well as those who want a more relaxing trip instead. We have designed the route and itinerary to accommodate both preferences.
For those who want to be active, we are happy to provide as much additional riding and / or trekking as you desire – and it’s great stuff: fabulous back roads and trails, amazing mountains and gorges, wonderful treks to remote ethnic minority villages, stunning rice terraces and beautiful forests.
For those more interested in a less-active trip, the core riding itinerary provides great, relaxing touring through spectacular and incredibly diverse landscapes and villages. We can adjust the itinerary for each day in accord with the interests of the group.
The tour price includes:
- Motorbike, Honda Wave or Future Neo or equivalent semi-automatic, including custom panniers, racks & bungee cords
- English speaking local guide
- Accommodation as specified in the itinerary
- Meals as specified in the itinerary, usually breakfast, lunch & dinner
- Transfers as specified in the itinerary (covering both persons & motorbikes as applicable)
- Permits, entrance, trekking and other fees
- Any optional extras (such as airport meet & transfer) selected as part of the booking process
The tour price does not include:
- Drinks, including beer, wine & spirits
- Travel insurance
- Motorbike clothing & protective gear - including helmet, gloves, knee & elbow protectors. We recommend bringing your own, but if this is difficult, we do have limited numbers available for rent for a modest additional cost; you can select this as an optional Extra as part of the booking process.
Tour Options – Add Something Special to Your Tour
Customise Your Tour with Our Optional Activities
Take your tour further and add some extra experiences we think are not to be missed. From landscapes to people watching, trekking to markets, simply choose the option(s) that’s right for you and click ‘Reload your revised tour’ to open a new tab with an amended itinerary.
At this time we don’t have pre-prepared itineraries for every combination, so please contact us if your combination doesn’t load a new itinerary and we will work with you directly.
Explore the amazing back roads & waterways of Tam Coc & Tran An
4 Days | 640+km | Easy / moderate
Explore the wonderful small roads of Ninh Binh, winding past lakes and paddy fields, along valleys flanked by soaring karst limestone cliffs. Float in sampans along the hidden waterways and grottoes of Tam Coc, Trang An & Van Long.
Discover ancient temples and climb craggy spires to shrines with incredible views. Delve into Vietnam's history & culture, by visiting the ruined ancient capital of Hua Lu, and the Perfume Pagoda, one of the most impressive Buddhist temples complexes in Vietnam, cut into the side of a mountain.
Explore the fabulous back roads of Pu Luong and the rainforests and rare wildlife of Cuc Phuong
4 Days | 640+km | Easy / moderate
Discover Pu Luong & Cuc Phuong in more detail. Explore winding roads, hidden waterfalls, bamboo waterwheels and ethnic hamlets along gorgeous remote valleys. Pu Luong is simply stunning.
Explore the deep, ancient rainforests of Cuc Puong, quiet and green. Visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Center and see beautiful, rare langurs and other animals, an experience almost unique in Vietnam.
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