Mai Chau is a rural district of Hoa Binh Province. It’s been a popular tourist destination for more than 20 years, because of its gorgeous scenery and its close proximity to Hanoi.
Nowadays, it can get quite busy so those that visit seeking peace and quiet tend to stay a little further out than the original Poom Coong and Lac villages. Small villages such as Sam Khoe and others on the shores of the Hoa Binh Lake are now gaining popularity. Of course, you are likely to have heard of Pu Luong, which is now also booming with overflow from Mai Chau.
In recent years, the main Hanoi to Mai Chau route (AH13/QL6) has been upgraded and many resorts have been built in the area. You no longer have to stay in the traditional stilt houses on hard bamboo floors without aircon if you don’t want to.
In any case, Mai Chau is great place for an overnight trip, and if you can make it down there during the week you’ll find it much more peaceful. It is possible to get to Mai Chau town very quickly, and if you leave early in the morning you can be there long before lunch time!
Two Different Routes
We have made two routes to get from Hanoi to Mai Chau. Route 1 is marked in Black and is a faster route, whereas Route 2, marked in Red, is more of a relaxed, scenic route. Of course, you can always mix and match to create the best route for you.
Route 1 (Fast Route, Marked in Black)
Route 1 starts at our shop, which is up in Tay Ho. You head up to the Nhat Tan Bridge and then turn on to Vo Chi Cong. This is a big fast road and you stay on it until you get to the raised section. Alternatively, you could choose to follow the lake road until you get to Van Cao (marked on the map) and then head South. You will meet Route 2 earlier this way.
From the Old Quarter you can head out of town along Tran Phu and Kim Ma before turning left into Nguyen Chi Thanh. You will see the Daewoo Hotel clearly and this is where to turn. The great thing about this route is that from then on you have a very long straight run to either Quoc Oai or Hoa Lac—just keep driving.
The first section of this drive should only last about 40 minutes depending on the traffic and the size of your group. I would suggest stopping at one of the fuel stations on the CT08 to make sure everyone is ok and that you all have full tanks, and there are plenty of places to stop for refreshments along the way.
Getting to Muong Khen
Route 1 will take you directly to Hoa Binh. You continue straight on the CT08 until you see the bridge that takes you over the QL21. You can choose to stop off for petrol here (you have to leave the CT08 and turn a little South on the QL21) and find a cafe or you can go straight over and head for the highway. The Hoa Lac – Hoa Binh Highway is about 5km further on and along this part of the road are a few cafes and restaurants. You turn left onto the Hoa Lac – Hoa Binh Highway and then stay on this road all the way to Ky Son. You will go through a toll checkpoint but there’s no charge for motorbikes. From Ky Son you then continue on the AH13/QL6 to Hoa Binh.
Just outside Hoa Binh you can choose to either take the bypass and continue on or go into town and visit the Hoa Binh Hydro-Electric Power Dam. The dam is a sight, especially if they’ve opened the flood gates. There is also a tour of the power plant that you can take and there’s a museum in the city, too. On the opposite bank of the river, on a hill, there is a huge statue of Uncle Ho that you can climb up to (there are steps). This place is a great viewpoint over the city of Hoa Binh.
The bypass, on the other hand, will follow the AH13 so you just stay on this road. If you do head into the city to see the dam, then you’ll need to find your way through town and back to the AH13. This is easy to do and you will then join Route 2 after about 5km on this road.
Muong Khen to Mai Chau
The road after Hoa Binh is good, but it does go over a mountain or two and so it can get a little steep and windy at times. Be careful on the ups as well as the downs.
Continue on AH13 and head for Tan Lac/Man Duc/Muong Khen. As far as I can tell they are all names for the same place 🙂 Watch out for small towns on the way as the speed limit will be restricted to 40kmh for motorbikes. As you come down off the hill and into Muong Khen you will first see a large stone outcrop with the sign ‘Tan Lac Hotel’, as well as a few fuel stations and restaurants.
There are plenty of cafes all through the town and this makes a good place for a quick stop. This whole section of town has a speed limit of 40kmh for about 5km and there are often traffic cops in the area. Watch out.
You now have open road for the next 8 or 9km. Then the road rises up again and you’ll see the white cliffs at Phu Cuong, created when the road was built. At this point you can choose to take the scenic lake road, or you can just ride straight to Tong Dau Junction and on to Mai Chau. If you do, there are actually a couple of roadside eateries with nice viewpoints just before Mai Chau.
Route 2 (Scenic Route, Marked in Red)
Leaving Hanoi and Getting to Muong Khen
The way out of Hanoi on this second, scenic route is the same as on the one described above. It’s just about leaving the city and getting on to the CT08.
The difference with this second route is that you leave CT08 earlier, bypass Hoa Binh on a smaller, more scenic road (although this does mean you miss the chance to check out the dam in Hoa Binh City).
You turn off the CT08 at Quoc Oai. To do this you need to take a bridge, Cau Vuot Hoang Xa *please note inaccuracy on map* over the CT08 and then head through Quoc Oai, from which point the route is now straight and quite easy to follow. You then turn left onto a raised road past a brick factory and through paddy fields. There is a large section of this road that can be flooded (marked on map). This happens if the flood gates in the Hoa Binh Dam are opened. It is about 500m and can be up to 1m deep. The road will bring you out a short way before Xuan Mai. People will tell you if this route is flooded and you will have to re-route to Hoa Lac and then QL21 to Xuan Mai.
You can stop in Xuan Mai for a rest and drink if you wish. The route then continues on the AH13 until you pass through a toll station about 9km from Xuan Mai. Again, this toll is free for motorbikes. A short distance and then on the left is a turning onto a route marked ATK (an toan khu). This is the point where you decide if you want to take the small winding ATK road or continue on the AH13 heading for Hoa Binh.
Follow the road until you come to a T-Junction with the DT2. Here you turn right and go to the end of the road where there is another T-Junction, this time with the DT12B. The 12B is a very nice road and quite quiet. You can make good time and go straight ahead until you rejoin AH13 and Route 2 again.
Then, it is straight road over the mountain to Tan Lac, a sizable town that has restaurants and cafes. Just before the main junction you’ll see a couple of nice places to eat, and there are plenty more all along the way towards Phu Cuong, too.
Muong Khen to Mai Chau
This route forks again from Route 1 at Phu Cuong, before you go up the mountain side to the white cliffs. There is a small turning and a sign post for ‘Mai Chau Hideaway‘. You can follow this and you will come to Hoa Binh Lake. The road then winds along the shore and is a great drive with a beautiful view.
It is tarmac and concrete slab all the way so easily negotiable on any bike UNLESS there’s been a landslide. I’ve never seen a large one on this road, though.
This road will take you to a few homestays on the shores of the lake. If you decide to continue to Mai Chau you will simply stay on this road. It will take you through a bamboo forest and past Go Lao Waterfall, which is a nice place for a swim.
If you ever plan to take the old highway 6 (QL6Cu) up to either Moc Chau or the QL43 to Phu Yen, then this is the start of that road. A left turn heading AWAY from Tong Dau would see you go on that route.
From Go Lao you go up the hill and rejoin the AH13. At this junction there are a few cafes and restaurants and you can stop here for a rest or to stock up with water. The AH13 back down to Tong Dau to join up with Route 1 is wide and fast. It will take no time to get to the petrol station there. Then you follow the directions to Mai Chau that are detailed above.
Places to Stop on the Way
There is no way that you will ride the whole way in one go without stopping. It is often a good idea to set a certain time limit or distance limit and agree as a group to stop at these point. On a trip like this one, the major changes of route direction are good places to stop.
This is where I would stop and have my first coffee or soft drink. It is about 40km from Hanoi and takes about 1hr to get here. This is the point where you are starting to get out of the city and onto the ‘good stuff’ not long now.
This is around 35km further on and another 45 mins or so. I would stop here at Ngoc Quynh restaurant for a bite to eat or a drink. If you are looking at making good time, then you can’t stop at the dam to look around. It is a good stop and you can have ice cream and drinks on the further side of the river. This will add a lot of time. Pass.
Alternatively, skip the town and the dam, by taking the bypass and head on up the mountain. Just on the other side of town where the bypass links back up to the main road is a small roadside café. Just by the ‘Cay Da Cham Mat’. This is a good place for a quick stop.
30km on from Ngoc Qunyh or 20km on from the café is Muong Khen. This is a sprawling lineated town that forces you to drive slowly, 40kmh, for at least 10km. At the junction here and also spread all along the roadsides are many cafes and eateries.
It is about 30km further to get to Tong Dau and there are a few small places on the way. White cliffs, near Phu Cuong, usually has a few small places open and there is the Flag Tower at Thung Khe Pass. Stopping at these places means you can get a photo and a drink as well as stretch your buttock muscles. By now they may be feeling tired.
- If you are taking a semi automatic, consider saddle bags. These allow you to take your gear off the bike very easily when you need to fill up with petrol.
- Don’t drive on the CT08 road to Mai Chau. Motorbikes are not allowed on CT roads. There is usually a small side road running parallel so take that instead. The police WILL stop you.
- Don’t overload the bike. You will have to drive up, and down, some steep inclines. An overloaded bike will be more difficult to control and dangerous!!
- Book accommodation ahead and try to arrive before dark to be able to find it easily.
- Right the names of the key route locations IN VIETNAMESE, so that you can ask for directions.