Due to our tight time limit for Vietnam (three weeks) we made the decision to visit the town of Mai Chau rather than the usual tourist hot spot, Sapa.
Not only was Mai Chau half the distance away from Hanoi but it has been ignored by many travellers for a long time, up until only recently where is appeal has been noted amongst the travellers scene.
Mai Chau compared to Sapa
As neither Leah or myself have visited Sapa we had to take the word of fellow travellers of what to expect from both places. It seems that those people who visited Sapa between 5 and 10 years ago loved the quaintness of the region coupled with the fascinating cultures and traditions of the various hill tribes.
In contradiction to this, the travellers who’ve visited the region recently spoke about the beauty of the region coupled with the annoyances and harassment by the hill tribe trying to flog their merchandise – one group of girls even spoke about how they were followed 4km into a 11km mountain hike in a bid to be sold a bag!
The beauty of Mai Chau
Although we knew that Mai Chau would resemble a countryside village, populated with farmers working their rice fields and mountains in the distance (similar to how we pictured Sapa) the area that we visited was beautiful!
We left Hanoi at 8am from the blues hostel tour office and were in Mai Chau by 12pm. The roads became more and more bumpy as we drove further away from Hanoi ( a word of warning- don’t try to drink out of a large water bottle on these roads because once you hit a bump you end up giving yourself a bath!) but the views became more and more picturesque. We passed rice fields after rice fields, broken up by the odd farm and little house along the way!
The nature lodge was really cute and predominately wooden built so blended in nicely with the trees and fields around it.
The site consisted of a bar area at the front, a shower and toilet block, a stilt house with a dorm room on top and a restaurant below, as well as a few little cabins along the edge. The whole site must’ve only been big enough for 50 people maximum and on the days that we were there we only saw 10-15 guests.
Leah and I stayed in the dorm room at the top of the stilt house so after we arrived we dumped out beds on the bamboo ‘floor’ and chose our beds (mattresses) for the evening. The dorm was big enough to fit in 20 people comfortably but luckily that night we were only sharing it with one other girl.
Lunch in the lodge
Our lunch in the lodge was actually delicious! I’d come prepared for the worst with a whole bunch of bananas encase they weren’t able to provide me with vegan food but the opposite happened! I was inundated with tasty meals!
On our tour there was one other vegetarian and a women that didn’t want to eat meat there encase she was served something she considered to be odd like dog meat. Because of this the three of us were served meat free versions of all the main food as well as me being given my own plate of food when the dish contained egg or milk such as the spring rolls. There was so much food and we all could have definitely ate half the amount we did and be satisfied but because there was so much variety and it tasted delicious we all stretched our stomachs to the max!
After having a quick lay down in the room after lunch to help disgust our food a little, we all went on a cycle tour around the surrounding areas. The group was a mixture of young and old as well as some fitter and not so fit people but we all cycled together as a group along the route.
Our guide pointed out the rice fields as we passed them and stopped to explain how the harvest system worked in Mai Chau – all of the surrounding families and workers help each farm harvest their crops when the time is right because there is such a tight window when the crops can be cut and when the rats and other animals eat the crops. This communal approach is then repeated until the end of the harvest season and all of the farms and families celebrate with huge harvest celebrations; eating lots of food (including grasshoppers which peak at harvest time) and drinking rice wine.
We also passed through a few different villages on our cycle tour. The first village we stopped at housed the oldest stilt house in the area. We were able to enter it and see what a traditional stilt house was like. We were told all about why the houses were built on stilts in this area; flood protection, animal deterrent, cooling system, extra space to store the farm animals below etc. there were lots of benifits!
The layout of the house was also explained to us. The living area on the top floor was accessible via two stairways. The first, at the front on the house, was used by the men of the family so they would welcome guests into their home. The second, at the back of the house, was for the women and girls because it lead straight to the kitchen….
The second town we passed through was more of a mini village. Here our guide explained to us the different heritage of the White Thai and Black Thai people of the region. Mai Chau is predominantly made up of White Thai people and the workshops that we passed were full of their beautifully decorated scarves.
We were taken to a market area afterwards and given half an hour free time to explore all of the little stands before heading back to the nature lodge on our bikes.
BBQ and evening entertainment – white Thai tradition
We were treated to a great BBQ selection for dinner in the evening – again my veganism was met with full enthusiasm by the cooks! There were lots of BBQ’d vegetables, tofu, fresh salad, grilled sticky rice, meats and also chips! I haven’t had chips in along time and after our little cycle earlier they went down a treat!
After dinner we sat down in the bar area as the sun set and the evening entertainment began. A group of young Local White Thai performed their traditional dancing for us whilst our guide explained what each routine symbolised; lots featured around courting and marriage, before inviting us all to get up and get involved with the dancing. To finish the evening a cauldron of rice wine with straws was placed in the centre of the dancing circle and everyone was encouraged to drink.
Sleeping in the stilt house
I was really apprehensive about the quality of sleep I would get in the stilt house. Although the mattress appeared really comfortable and we had private mosquito nets for our beds, the window by my bed didn’t shut and we could hear animals running around the walls and over the roof during the day time. I thought that these sounds would be amplified in the night time but I slept like a baby, only once waking up before dawn to the sound of an animal scurrying nearby.
It was actually really peaceful.
Also due to the fact that my window didn’t close I was able to see the sun rise over the trees and rice fields in the morning.
After breakfast the group from yesterday split into two; one group went to look around more of the villages whilst the other group went on a jungle trek for a few hours – it’s probably quite obvious which one Leah and I chose to join.
The jungle trek only lasted a few hours and begun with a bike ride before we met the trail into the forestry. After scrambling up a few rocky paths we made our way to the top of the rice fields and had a little explore around the area.
The way up was a little precarious due to last nights rain making the pathways slippery with mud, but the way down was a lot harder.
Everyone was slipping and sliding on their way back down to the road, misplacing their footing regularly and almost falling face first into the mud. Two people in our group slipped over (Leah went first and was shortly followed by an American girl) just before our guide had to steady himself on a branch.
Our guide pointed out the different wildlife to us as we passed them; buffalo, different types of spiders and even crabs! I think most people in the group were thankful that the giant poisonous spiders were pointed out to us the morning after we slept in the stilt houses…
Renting bikes and crashing into a ditch
Once we were back and showered from our muddy hike we checked out and then were driven on the back of a motorcycle (my first time!) to the oldest stilt house where we would be having lunch.
Again the food was amazing and in excess – this time I didn’t eat as much though…
After lunch we had a few hours free time before the bus was coming to take us back to Hanoi. A few others in the group were renting scooters to explore the area a little more and Leah and myself – emboldened by my first ever and successful motorcycle ride- decided to give driving one a try.
Our guide gave Leah a quick motorcycle lesson (lasting less than 5 minutes) and was given the key plus a helmet to practise riding up and down the quiet lanes nearby. After 15minutes she came back happy and confident to drive (albeit at a very slow speed).
Next it was my turn and mine didn’t go so well. Leah tried to teach me how to start the bike but as soon as I took the foot stand off I was almost on the floor on my side. I tried again and then the bike wouldn’t start… After a few more tries I’d decided that I’d had enough practise for the day and jumped on the back of the bike as Leah drove us around the town.
I was loving being on the back of the bike because I got to look at the views without the pressure of not making us crash. I’d been filming a little on my gopro when I put it away and said to Leah how well she was doing at us not crashing…. Famous last words!
Within the next 3-4 minutes we had taken a corner far too wide and saw a ditch drop off into a rice field to our right. We were going at such a slow speed that we definitely could have both jumped off before the bike went over the edge but sat on there repeating ‘we’re going into a ditch, we’re going into a ditch’ before we were both flat on our bikes, crying of laughter, with the bike to the side of us.
I really wish I had got it all on camera because the whole 10-20 seconds once we realised what was going to happen was actually farcical. We even chose the best ditch to fall into as all the others nearby were knee deep in water but ours was relatively dry!
After getting back on the bike- and making sure it all still worked- we drove around a little more before heading back to the lodge whilst we were still relatively uninjured.
Final thoughts on Mai Chau
We spent 2 days and 1 night in Mai Chau and its now right up there with one of my favourite things about Vietnam. I’m a big sucker for a bit of countryside, exercise and culture and this tour had it all rolled into one. I’m really glad we chose to come here over Sapa because I feel like within the next 5-10 years Mai Chau will become the same tourist hotspot and lose a lot of its quiet charm. Head there before it’s too late!