Nestled in a valley of the mountainous area the North West of Vietnam, Mai Chau is a comfortable, easy, relaxing and totally charming place to visit. It’s in the Hoa Binh Province just 140 km from the capital city of Ha Noi. It’s a place to chill out with the local hospitality, a place to enjoy the planned and spontaneous local entertainment and to indulge in a little easy, not too energetic exploration.
The People and the Culture
The local people are primarily from the Thai ethnic minority groups which includes the White Thai and the Black Thai. In Vietnam, when a colour is given to the name of a tribe it denotes the primary colours used in their traditional dress. Other than in the dancers, you do not see many people wearing traditional clothes in this area (unlike Sapa and the more rural areas). However they do still live mainly in the very traditional stilt houses.
This picture is typical of the area….lush green foliage and crops surrounded by distant haunting mountains. The town of Mai Chau is a small busy local town with little other than the market to distinguish it from many other small towns. You will most than likely stay in the village of just outside of the town that has specialised in welcoming tourists into its midst. It does a wonderful job of retaining its charactor of being a rural village while offering first class accomodation, food and things to do.
There is one small boutique hotel in the village that is very comfortable. Food is excellent catering for the western taste of eastern food. Room are small but smart and the equally small but smart swimming pool brings a welcome relief on a hot day. There are also home stays that cater for the more adventurous traveller who wants to experience some of life in a stilt house. I have stayed in both. Loved both but for me, I would always veer towards the homestay end of things. True it is not as comfortable or as private. We slept in a large open space on mattresses on the floor with curtains dividing one sleeping space from another. And I slept like a log and woke feeling refreshed and ready to go.
The Thai people are generous and have a lovely sense of humour. English is widely spoken very well in the village but in the town, it is less likely to find many people who are fluent (unless they work in the village).
Most of the locals are subsistence farmers owning and farming their own plot of land to grow rice and other crops to form their staple diet. If you are lucky and it is ‘that’ time of year, you might be invited to have a go at planting the rice crop. I tried it and it is surprisingly difficult to do properly.
Things to do in the Area
Cycling is a great favourite. The land is largely flat making cycling easy and fun for the most basic of amateurs. And if you get tired, there won’t be far to go before you reach a place of rest that proobably also serves some scrumptous local beer. But of course if you don’t trust yourself on the two wheels you can always stick to your two feet and take a walk.
Other activities that can be arranged in the area are rock climbing and scrambling into the depths of the local cave. This cave is a true adventure. Make sure you go prepared in good shoes. You start off in a huge cavernous entrance area that was used to store ammunition during the Vietnam/American war. You then leave this area and walk, then scramble then duck and dive through ever narrowing corriders. Lighting is minimal offering an amazing atmosphere. You eventually open out to another huge area at the bottom of which runs a river that, apparently, you can swim through to the open air. I hasten to say that there were no takers to prove the theory!!
There are the inevitable gift shops and the local ladies who weave lovely scarves that they sell and a ridiculously low price. Food is delicious, all made with local fresh produce. Drink is plentiful and you are surrounded by friendly faces. One afternoon, while strolling through the village, we entered into a game of pool with the local youth and a great time was had by all.
If you want to see more of the extended area, take a ride into the mountains and visit the Ethnic Minority market of the Flower H’mong people. This scene is a riot of colour with the locals not only selling brightly, multi coloured material but also wearing it in the traditional way.
These are a few more picture of this really lovely place. If you are in Vietnam and are in the North and have a couple of days spare, do not miss this area!!
If you planning to visit Vietnam and want to organise your complete trip with a travel agent or if you prefer to go it alone but would like some help in arranging short visits, go visit www.hghtravel.com. We have standard tours from half a day to 17 days and also arrange bespoke tours to match your individual needs. If you are in the UK and want to talk about Vietnam, give me a call on 0792 5300320.
Bon Voyage, Pat