Asia Vietnam

Vietnam off the beaten tracks: Mai Chau

Mai Chau is a rural region in north-west Vietnam, just a three-hour drive from Hanoi, the bustling Vietnamese capital. It was a breath of fresh air during my trip to Vietnam, as well as an unusual and off-the-beaten-track place to visit.

Indeed, long before our trip and when we were preparing it, there was no mention of this region in any research. The main tourist attraction was the Pu Luong Nature Park, which we wanted to visit and which gave us two days’ rest away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

Departing from Hanoi, we set off on a two-day, one-night tour. Naturally, there’s plenty to do in and around Mai Chau. You could easily spend a week there, however, we enjoyed a two-day condensed version of our itinerary, before heading to Ha Long Bay.

Information on Mai Chau

Mai Chau is a little-known destination for travelers to Vietnam. It’s a bit like the secret hideaway we discovered during our two-week itinerary in the Asian country. Depending on the length of the trip, visitors prefer to head north to Sapa, without realizing that the surrounding area, closer to Hanoi, offers similar, more relaxing scenery.

Indeed, a peaceful atmosphere and magnificent rice terraces await those looking for an alternative to Sapa. And Mai Chau is one of the most beautiful. But that’s not all this valley has to offer. The atmosphere of this rural region is very different from that of frenetic Hanoi. Here, you leave behind all the fatigue and worries of everyday life.

Mai Chau is a picturesque region in Hoa Binh province, in north-western Vietnam. Nestled in the heart of the mountains, this valley is renowned for its natural beauty, its verdant rice terraces (because it rains a lot in this part of the country, well in the country in general…) and its rich cultural heritage. This makes it a perfect getaway for nature lovers who want to get a taste of local and traditional Vietnamese life, as the mountains are dotted with ethnic minority villages.

The Mai Chau region is inhabited by several ethnic groups, including the White Thai, Hmong and Dao. As visitors, we can experience the daily life of these communities, take part in cultural exchanges and immerse ourselves in their fascinating traditions.

White Thai and Black Thai are the main ethnic groups living in the villages around Mai Chau. Their ancestors came from Thailand. We can recognize their distinctive culture in the traditional houses on stilts around the villages of Lac and Pom Coong and the traditional weaving seen in most guesthouses around the valley. It’s a compendium of traditional life that will be explained to us in detail during our bike tour with a local guide.

WHAT TO DO IN MAI CHAU

As I explained above, there are many activities available in the Mai Chau region.

Nevertheless, by spending a day there and taking part in an organized tour, we were able to get a very good overview of the region on a bike ride lasting several hours with a local guide. 

A scenic bike ride to discover ethnic minorities

Accompanied by a friendly couple of (retired) Irish adventurers, we set off on a two-hour tour of the valley, with a local guide who taught us a lot about the minorities inhabiting Mai Chau. It was, of course, the classic, well-practised tour, with two stops cleverly arranged to encourage visitors to pick up local souvenirs.

These are always the stops that bother me on trips like the one I made to Vietnam, as I want to interact with the locals and their culture, but don’t want to be the actor in the staging and the shortcomings of overtourism. In Mai Chau, fortunately, things turned out differently. The locals are not (only) banking on tourism, but above all on agriculture and handicrafts. They simply want to show us a glimpse of their lives and talk to each other.

So we mounted our trusty two-wheeled steeds, ready to absorb some knowledge while getting a little exercise. A winning combination. With each pedal stroke, we discovered magnificent landscapes worthy of the most beautiful postcards. At that moment, I felt like I was losing myself in this remote valley of Vietnam, with a touch of freedom at every turn of the wheel.

And then we took several breaks, not because we were exhausted or had sore bottoms (who mentioned that?), but to capture these moments. We did, however, take a nice break in a little shop for a drink, and a beer for some of us. It was a lovely, rich moment of sharing, with anecdotes from Switzerland, Vietnam and Ireland. That’s why I travel after all.

If you’re not part of an organized tour, almost every hostel and accommodation in the region offers free bicycles or, failing that, you can rent one for around 20,000 VND.

Understanding the cultivation of rice fields

The Thai ethnic group are rice farmers at heart. At the heart of Vietnamese life, rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see, forming a verdant tableau that testifies to the country’s cultural and agricultural wealth. The cultivation of rice in Vietnam dates back thousands of years and is deeply rooted in the national identity.

Vietnam’s rice paddies are not just agricultural fields but also places to live. Traditional farming villages have grown up around these rice fields, creating a symbiosis between nature and community. The houses on stilts are designed to cope with seasonal flooding while offering panoramic views over the rice paddies. This is what you’ll have the chance to experience in Mai Chau.

I’ll tell you more about it in my article on Pu Luong National Park and rice field cultivation.

Taking the time to rest

Mai Chau is a place where time seems to slow down, where mountains undulate peacefully and rice paddies lull tired minds to sleep.

Here, there’s no hurry, just stroll through the village lanes, stop to breathe in the fresh mountain air, and lose yourself in the contemplation of the rice paddies. And frankly, after a few days in Hanoi, the contrast is striking and welcome.

We took the opportunity to relax at our guesthouse, as well as on the stilted terrace of the adjacent restaurant, where we took the time to read a book, play cards and simply do nothing.

Where to sleep in Mai Chau

As we were part of an organized tour, we couldn’t choose our accommodation, apart from the simple or deluxe category. We opted for the deluxe category and were given a room for three in a comfortable bungalow.

The guesthouse is called Mai Chau Sunrise Village, directly on the edge of rice paddies.

WHY DID WE OPT FOR THE ORGANIZED TOUR OPTION?

Let’s face it, I’m not a fan of organized tours. I assume that I have the resources to organize my own excursions. However, after a few trips, such as the one I undertook in Vietnam, I’ve been convinced to use organized tours.

The prices are not so extreme and in a country like Vietnam having the chance to be driven around is a must. Of course, you can always choose the backpacker option, but you can quickly lose time. You simply have to take all the elements into account: we only had two weeks and wanted to enjoy the country from Hanoi to Hoi An, without hurrying but still being able to make the most of it. Using organized tours allowed us to save time and research on transport, while at the same time having the opportunity to have guides on hand to help us gather as much knowledge as possible (most of which turned out to be useless, but the idea was there).

For example, in Mai Chau, being on an organized tour was beneficial. Pu Luong being nearby was the initial reason for our trip, and we ended up discovering an incredible place, off the tourist trail, which is Mai Chau. Unfortunately, there’s no public transport between Pu Luong Nature Reserve and Mai Chau. You’ll have to take a cab, which costs around 700,000 VND and takes about an hour and a half, whereas, with our tour, all this was already organized and included in the services.

We organized this tour through a local travel agency in Hanoi. It’s important to remember that all tours are the same, and all agencies offer the same services. This is what we’ll see on subsequent tours, notably to Ninh Binh and Ha Long Bay. So don’t hesitate to haggle, especially if, like us, you take several tours with the same provider.

Of course, if you want to get to Mai Chau without being part of a tour, the easiest way is by shared minibus. Prices depend on the pick-up point and can be consulted online at 12GoAsia and Bookaway.

If you’re travelling in a group, a private car can also be an interesting option. This is the option we choose from Hué to Hoi An. We found ours on TripAdvisor, but many other agencies such as GetYourGuide or Booking.com offer the same services. Don’t hesitate to write to the number on WhatsApp giving your details, and they’ll be able to give you all the information you need and make you the best possible offer.

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