This route map to Muong Lat (Mường Lát) shows how to get to some of the best unseen areas of Vietnam. From the capital, you head out to the regular touristic areas and then go OFF THE GRID. This loop is suitable for beginner riders although there will be a steep learning curve when it comes to dealing with the traffic. Any more advanced riders who want a bit more of a challenge are encouraged to take some of the detours off the loop as they will take you into very wild country.
Get to see the real Vietnam in all its naked horror and beauty. Drive on roads less driven by the masses and get to meet real locals that are truly delighted to see a foreign face. All this is only a stone’s throw away from the comfort of Hanoi.
The Laos Loop
Muong Lat is nestled against the Vietnam – Laos border and is a mountainous region inhabited by a mix of Kinh, Thai, Muong, Dao and H’mong people. It is the northernmost commune of Thanh Hoa Province and borders Son La to the North. It is quite wild and rugged and the population density is very low. As of 2018 there were around 40,000 inhabitants. That’s only 49 people per km2. However, it seems like it is well inhabited due to most people living alongside the main roads or not far off.
The General Route
Hanoi – Pu Luong – Mai Chau – Hanoi
Of course, it is possible to take detours from this route. We have a whole blog outlining the different ways you can get to Mai Chau. What were are showing here is focused more on the Laos Loop and getting over to the Laos border nice and quickly. If you have time to explore, or you just ride really fast, have a look at the cool detours to Mai Chau.
IMPORTANT NOTICE !!
During the time of COVID it was no longer possible to stay in Muong Lat unless you had permission from the provincial police headquarters in Thanh Hoa.
However, in April 2023, I called SON THUY HOTEL and they told me that they are allowed to let foreigners stay so long as they have their passport to show the local police. This will be tested when we go to visit over the April holiday, so expect a further update.
These ideas tally up with the layers on the map and stem from our experience of driving these routes over the years. You can easily turn them on and off to see the routes more clearly. This route is not a bad way to make the short trip rom Mai Chau to Pu Luong longer and more interesting, however, it will mean you do not take the QL15c through the nature reserve. Hopefully, you have time to do this section as it is also a very good ride.
Laos Loop 1 (180km)
This is the longer route that takes you through Muong Lat town itself.
The QL15 down from Mai Chau is big, smooth and fast. There is a fair bit of traffic on this road both light and heavy vehicles.
The QL16 is all tarmac now and was recently built a few years ago due to the Trung Son Dam construction.
You simply follow the road along the river and take in the view. There isn’t too much traffic other than the occasional motorbike or truck. Still keep your wits about you though as people tend to drive fast on this section.
You can then turn off the QL16 and take the newly built road along the river. This is quite scenic and still has some traffic to and from Muong Lat. As it is newly built watch out for landslides.
After Muong Lat you continue on the DT520 which is a great road so long as it isn’t blocked with landslides. You should ask in town about this. It is good tarmac with nice sweeping bends and good views. There is even a really good point where you are very close to Laos.
Once you pass the petrol station at Trung Ly, the risk of landslides is much less and it should be plain sailing all the way to Phi Cave and the junction with the QL15.
Laos Loop 2 (140km)
Coming from Pu Luong, you will take the Ql15 to the junction with the DT520. This is fairly busy road so you will probably be happy when you turn off.
There is what is called a cave nearby, but, to me, it looks a bit like a ledge and not really a cave. Anyway, it is not far off the road so pop over and have a look.
It is possible to take this road (dirt track) up to Co Luong if you want. It is fairly easy but can get VERY muddy.
As mentioned, this section of the DT520 is a really easy and pleasant drive. You will make good time on this unless you stop a lot for photos. Remember to have a look at Laos at the point marked. You can see the border guards.
Then you turn off at Trung Ly and take the Ql16 up to and over the Nam Ma River. This section is a little older and worn but it is still easy enough to drive.
Then, all you do is follow the river past the dam down to the QL15 again, and turn north to head up to Mai Chau area.
Laos Loop Detour (30km)
This looks like it could be a fun detour to take and it would add around 20km onto the length of the loop you have chosen to do.
I have never taken this but I plan to next time I am down that way. Watch out! It might be rough?
Petrol / Gas ?
Lots of people ask us if petrol is readily available and easy to find in Vietnam. Understandably, they are a little worried about running out of fuel and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere.
As much as I can understand this is a worry, I also wonder why people cold think this. Vietnam has more than 60million motorbikes, most of which have a 4litre fuel tank. So, fuel is easy to find and petrol stations are probably more common than they are back home.
Of course, pay attention to fuel levels and generally speaking fill up once a day and you should be fine. On the map, I have added the locations of just some of the fuel stations you will go past. There is a layer ‘petrol stations’.
Which Bike should I Take?
These bikes are easily able to make this trip and are quite comfortable. They are most comfortable when there is only a driver and no pillion, however, they will easily take two people so long as they are not loaded up too much.
Our preferred choice is the Honda Future because it has more CC and better brakes and suspension. The good thing is, it is the same daily rate as the Honda Blade.
If you are comfortable with a manual bike, we have the Honda Master, Honda XR150 , Honda CB150 and the Honda FTR230 available. These are all very good strong bikes that can easily handle this trip with one driver and a passenger.
Be careful not to overload these bikes when driving two up. We suggest packing very lightly. After all, what do you really need for a 3-4 day trip?
We do not rent fully automatic bikes for tours such as this because they are not designed for long distance driving or rugged roads. The ride height is too low, the wheels are too small and the suspension will not withstand the bumps.
Many people also believe that the braking system on these kinds of bikes is not adequate and that they can be dangerous to drive in such conditions.
Where to stay
I have added a few hotels and homestays that are close to the loop. They are good places to stay but they are not the only places. You can obviously look around on XYZ app and find a place that suits you. They have google pins so you can contact them directly if you wish.
Near Mai Chau
Mai Chau Villas – is quite a nice resort type place where you can get a little bungalow. It has a good buffet breakfast and a pool 🙂
Mai Hich Farmstay – is a simpler place and is surrounded by other small homestays. They have all you need, good food and good prices.
In Pu Luong
Song Ma Hotel – is right on the QL15 which makes it a little noisy, but if you finish your loop a little late, it is very close by. They have good, clean rooms with hot water and aircon. Nice.
Homestay Anh Phu – is quite a new place built next to a pretty little dam in Pu Luong. They do great food and have nice rooms or shared dorm.
The main reason I noted these places down is that they are close to the Laos Loop and they are decent. You will certainly find one or two places that are on the loop, but they either may not accept you due to the restrictions or they will have terrible food and accommodation.
When to Visit / Weather
The weather in the area around Muong Lat is hard to predict as it will be affected by the weather systems in Laos and it is quite a mountainous area. In general it is quite dry and can be quite warm even when Hanoi is fairly cold. July and August are when there are often heavy rains and landslides so this time of year is best avoided. September through to March / April are perhaps the best times when you could find it is warm and dry.
Things to Pack
For a short trip like this one, you needn’t pack too much. Obviously, spare clothes, some kind of waterproof, strong shoes, camera equipment/phone, chargers and wash gear. It is advisable to have glasses and eye drops (VRohto or saline) as the eyes can take a beating on dusty roads and minimal first aid kit (iodine, plasters, gauze, bandages) for cuts and scrapes. You may need antihistamines and mosquito repellent is a must.
Things to be careful of
The police around border areas are a little sensitive about you having your passport so it is best to keep this with you. This means you will be forced to leave a cash deposit with us, if you wish to rent a bike and take it to the area.
Stick to your side of the road, especially on the bends and keep the speed down. It is tempting to race a little on some of these roads but you may find a sudden corner, full of gravel and that will be that.
The rice wine is lethal and locals will enjoy seeing you drink. Be careful with it as hangovers are not only painful but also dangerous when driving.
Watch out for the view. Remember to keep your eyes on the road!!