The unspoiled Thai and Muong villages in Pu Luong Nature Reserve offer travelers looking for green an bucolic peek at wild Vietnam.
The peaceful villages are located in the reserve's lush forest valleys, which stretches through parts of Quan Hoa and Ba Thuoc districts in Thanh Hoa Province--150km from Hanoi.
It took more than an hour to drive a motorbike from Canh Nang Town in Ba Thuoc District to Hieu, one of several Muong villages in Co Lung Commune--which sits at the heart of the reserve.
Groups of European tourists shuffled down winding mountain roads and up into the village's stilt homes after a day of trekking through the forest.
A layer of fog quickly covered the scene as the darkness approached.
Ha Van Tung, a Hieu villager, lit a fire at the center of his still home as the temperature outside dropped to a moist chill. As the house warmed, John Brown, a British tourist, spoke excitedly about his hike through the Pu Luong Mountain Range.
He said he and his wife had visited famous tourist spots throughout Vietnam's northern mountains--like Moc Chau, Sa Pa and Mai Chau--none of which rivaled the place he found himself in now.
Brown said he found Pu Luong's unspoiled trails far beyond his expectations.
Le Quoc Dung, who works as a tour guide for a Hanoi-based travel company, said most foreign tourists he brings to Pu Luong are blown away by the pristine beauty of the tropical forests and daily activities and customs of the Thai and Muong ethnic minority groups.
Thanks to the Muong natives’ self-sufficient lifestyle, the price of the tourist services are surprisingly low. It costs only VND40,000-60,000 (US$1.9-2.8) per person to stay the night in the villagers’ homes and around VN50,000 ($2.34) per person for a meal featuring various local delicacies such as Co Lung duck, rice cooked in bamboo shoots, roasted cassava, salad and soup cooked from forest vegetables, mountain snails and stream crabs.
Pu Luong stays beautiful all year round, but the best time to visit is March, April, October and November when the terraced rice fields turn a brilliant yellow.
According to official statistics, Pu Luong welcomed around 4,000 tourists, of which more than 3,500 were from foreign countries, in 2014.
The 17,600 hectare preserve houses a stunning array of native flora and fauna.