Located 60 kilometres west-southwest of Hue, A Luoi is a mountainous district sandwiched between the A Shau Valley and the border with Salavan and Sekong provinces, Laos. Vietnam War veterans and historians will be familiar with the name, as it was the location of several US military bases that saw fierce battles, including Asho Airport and Hamburger Hill, immortalised in a 1987 film. The district encompasses 100 kilometres of the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail.
For the average traveller, A Luoi will probably not be worth going out of the way for, unless you want to get off-the-beaten track in a short amount of time. It is less than two hours from the provincial capital Hue and it can be done as a day trip, best with your own transport. If you find yourself passing through, perhaps on a pan-Vietnam motorbike trip following the historic road, it’s definitely worth stopping for a few hours to check out the area’s natural attractions. You’re guaranteed to have pretty waterfalls and the beautiful ridges and valleys of the greater Annamite mountain range all to yourself.
A Luoi had been primed for tourism success. It was included in a “GMS Sustainable Tourism Development Project” from 2009 to 2013, funded by Asian Development Bank – glossy brochures were made, attractive trekking itineraries were created, ethnic villages were put on maps and cultural tours were lined up. The brochures extolled the natural wonders, weaving demonstrations and lively festivals to be seen.
But the project ended and no one knew to come, leaving shelves full of dusty brochures at the big Tourist Information Centre. Built in 2013, it includes a park and replica of an ethnic minority community house. If you need directions to a sight or are just in need of inspiration on what to do, it’s worth stopping in for an English brochure and to look at the wall map with every possible sight of interest marked. The centre is on Ho Chi Minh Highway/QL14 across from the post office; look for the giant blue gate and the grandiose drive leading up the hill. The centre “Trung Tam Thong Tin Du Lich A Luoi” is open Monday to Friday, 07:30-16:30. Not a lick of English spoken.
The government continues to make small efforts for tourists — we noticed new infrastructure such as signage and bridges. This, we were told, is because in 2016 A Luoi celebrates its 40-year anniversary of liberation from enemy forces.
Sights and activities
If you only have time for one stop, we’d suggest Thac A Nor waterfall, a few kilometres south on the Ho Chi Minh Highway from town; there’s a sign marking the turn off. Follow that road through Viet Tien, an ethnic Pa-co village, and you’ll arrive at a new metal bridge spanning a ravine. After crossing the bridge, continue along the dirt motorbike path to an abandoned hut. By foot climb the stairs and follow the trail. You’ll be be guided by the sound of the water, which a local told us flows year round.
It takes a river crossing and scrambling over rocks and boulders to reach the base of the falls for a great view. The water is clear, cool and a lovely place for a dip.
When you head out, it’s worth taking a wander through the Pa-co village. Pa-co is a sub group belonging to the ethnic minority Ta-oi, a Mon-Khmer group of only 26,000 people. Houses are built in a traditional shape, a building raised on stilts with a slanted roof flared at the edges, kitchen downstairs and sleeping quarters upstairs. Traditional materials however are these days replaced by concrete and metal. We had a chat and learned there are 23 families in the village and that a company wanted to build a hotel at the waterfall, but the proposal was rejected by the government. The government had, however, built the bridge to make the falls more accessible to tourists and they had approached the village about possibly doing homestays for tourists. It will be interesting to see if that project takes off.
The other ethnic minority group living in A Luoi is another Mon-Khmer group the Co-tu (Katu). Like the Pa-co, their houses are built on stilts and the women are famed for their weaving, which uses a special technique incorporating beads into the cloth. The textile is used for their dress, long tube skirts with stripes of dark, black indigo and red. To be honest we have seen better examples of Co-tu handicraft and a far more traditional way of life still being practised across the border in Sekong, Laos. In A Luoi, it seems traditions are fading fast and modernity overtaking. We only saw Rong houses, the distinctive town hall in the centre of each village, made of concrete. You may have better luck seeing an authentic one in Nham Commune, seven kilometres from town – several of its Rong houses are marked on the map at the Tourism Information Centre (where, by the way, you can also take a look at/buy Ta-oi and Co-tu handicraft on display).
The only other traveller friendly spot that stands out is A Roang Commune, 30 kilometres south on Ho Chi Minh Highway/QL14. Though we didn’t visit, the open-air hot springs were highly recommended to us. Natural hot spring water is fed into concrete tubs to be enjoyed. In the same area, the map marks Phong Chat Waterfall and Ta-oi weaving villages. On your journey south along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, you’ll pass the area of A Sho Airport and see that no large trees can grow.
The Vietnam War army bases and battlefield sites will only be of real interest to returning Vets or history buffs. Sites are unmarked or little remains, except for a lot of Agent Orange, as is the case in the area around Asho Airport; our A Luoi brochure states that the concentration here was 70 gallons per square kilometres. Needless to say, dioxin levels in the soil remain high and people still suffer from the effects.
Firebase Bastogne Hill, Tiger Hill, Bot Do Cross, Landing Zones Razor, Cunningham, Erskine Hill and many unmaintained tunnels and trenches lie within the region, as well as Hamburger Hill. Given the UXO and dioxin contamination in this region, a guide is recommended and don’t stray off the beaten path.
For the average traveller, instead of visiting the sites we recommend you read The Crouching Beast: A United States Army Lieutenant’s Account of the Battle for Hamburger Hill, by Frank Boccia. Though slow at the beginning, it blossoms into a vivid narrative that transports you to the battle of Dong Ap Bia rather than being an emotionless battle report.
Dong Ap Bia (Ap Bia or A Biah Mountain), referred to as Hill 937 and later nicknamed Hamburger Hill, was the site of an intense, disastrous 11-day battle from May 10 to 20, 1969. Though the battle was relatively small and fewer than 100 Americans died (as Boccia points out, compare that with 20,000 British soldiers who died in less than half an hour at Somme), the casualty rate was staggering, with American companies losing 30 to 75 percent of their unit. A casualty rate that high is rare, exceeding the carnage seen in the American Civil War and the First World War.
The opposing North Vietnam Army (NVA) suffered greater losses: 600 of their dead were buried in mass graves in the side of the mountain. Boccia writes that the testimony of the Montagnard tribe that formed the support battalion for the heavily hit NVA 29th Regiment indicates that more than 1,000 died with hundreds wounded. Hamburger Hill created a political and media firestorm and backlash in the US so that weeks later, the hill so dearly won was abandoned.
As of 2016, no travel companies are based in A Luoi. Guides and tours of Vietnam War sites should be arranged with DMZ specialists in Hue or Dong Ha. Given the sites’ close proximity to the Lao border, a permit from the local government is required, which makes the tour cost on the high side. For a one-day tour from Hue by car with an English-speaking guide, we were quoted US$165.
The guide will also arrange access to the tiny A Biah museum, opened by appointment only. It is full of black and white photos with captions and American army remnants, anything from munitions boxes to canteens. A hike is required to reach Hamburger Hill, where any objects have been removed and there is only a memorial stele. Again, it will probably not be of interest to the average traveller.
Should you find yourself having to stay the night in A Luoi, there are two decent places to stay, both located on the main road. Do Thanh Hotel is the only hotel in A Luoi. Rooms are modern, large and respectable, with wood furniture, windows, box TV, fan, air-con, WiFi and a wet-room style bathroom with hot water shower. Cost is 250,000 dong a night. Find it at 166 Ho Chi Minh; T: (054) 3878 845.
Slightly cheaper is Thanh Quang Guesthouse with motel-style rooms facing an inner courtyard. Each room has tile floor, tall ceilings, fan, air-con, a few bits of wooden furniture, box TV, WiFi and hot water bathroom. There are security bars on the window. It costs 200,000 dong per night. It’s at 279 Ho Chi Minh; T: (054) 3878 362.
There’s an Agribank ATM across the road from Do Thanh Hotel. If you wander around, you may pass some signs saying that you are entering the “Frontier Zone”. The zone close to the Lao border is generally off-limits to foreigners and permits are required to be in there (we were spotted and gently shooed away). The Hong Van border located 30 kilometres northwest from town is not open to foreigners.
The bus station is on the main highway, 850 metres south from the central market. Local chicken buses run between Hue and A Luoi daily, connected by QL49 which is twisty and mountainous but is mostly nicely paved. The bus departs when there are enough passengers (and livestock). It costs 35,000 dong and takes two hours.
Hue to A Luoi: Departs at 06:15, 09:00, 11:15; 14:00 and 15:15.
A Luoi to Hue: Departs at 06:15, 08:00, 10:15, 14:00 and 15:15.
Quang Binh (Dong Hoi): Departs at 07:30. Costs 165,000 dong and takes 5.5 hrs.
A Luoi is best for travellers with their own transport, as points of interest are far from town. Should you need one, a few xe om motorbike taxis do hang out in front of the market.
By Cindy Fan. Last updated on 14th October, 2016.