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A Mai Chau day trip from Hanoi wasn’t on my original list of places I wanted to see in Vietnam. Sapa, however, was. I wanted to see the bright green terraced rice paddies that the area is known for. Even more, I wanted to experience the lives of the minority tribes who live in the SaPa Valley and its surrounds.
It’s a reasonable distance out to Sapa from Hanoi, and whilst that didn’t bother us, I wanted to make sure it would be worthwhile. A quick scan of various articles online and a chat with a few people I knew who had been there made me put my visit to this area on hold until another time.
Due to the time of year, the rice fields had all been harvested. Instead of the lush green paddocks, all I would be seeing was brown. As much as I wanted to also see the tribes, I wanted it all ! With a journey taking almost a full day to get out there and the same in return, my timeline didn’t allow for this. So, Sapa would have to wait.
My gain was Mai Chau. The “hidden sister” of SaPa, it has similar qualities but so much closer to Hanoi. With less time taken to get there, you can still spend a quality 24 hours in Mai Chau, without it feeling rushed. Such is the pace in this area that you’ll feel like you’ve been there for much longer.
I still didn’t get the green paddocks (sigh) but it was still a wonderful place to see, and because it wasn’t peak season, it almost felt as though we had the valley to ourselves.
WHERE IS IT?
Mai Chau is 140km southwest of Hanoi. It rests in a peaceful valley, surrounded by mountains and rice fields. Here the pace is much slower to the big cities, providing a terrific opportunity to relax and unwind. We took our trip here in between visits to several big cities and it was the perfect tonic.
The Mai Chau valley is home to the White Thai minority group, and whilst tourism has made this sleepy area a little busier, there are no dramatic impacts caused by this. Perhaps they might try to sell you a scarf or trinket as you pass through their villages, but given where and how they live, I think this is more than ok.
I spent most of my time on this trip with my face pressed as closely to the window as I could, such is the constant activity that commands my attention. I love the colour and disorganisation of the small villages we encounter along the way. The local customs that are part of everyday life here leave me wondering how that would look like at home. All of it is fascinating.
We pass a young kid rattling his bell to keep the cows off the road, but moving them along the busy highway nonetheless.
Row after row of women, line the roads selling the same green oranges. How do they all make enough money to survive? Men sleep in hammocks in the heat of the day and people squat in the middle of nowhere, just because they can.
THE SMALL TOWN OF MAI CHAU
There’s really not much to do here, and to be perfectly honest, it’s not the reason why you would visit, unless you were just passing through. It’s a small town, with one main street occupied by a small market. A visit to Mai Chau is about exploring what the region has to offer.
EXPLORE THE SMALL VILLAGES BY BIKE
Hire a bike (our accommodation had them available for guests) and hit the dirt roads. They will lead you through the tiny villages that are dotted throughout the valley. It’s a casual and fun way of getting around, and you are able to go completely at your own pace.
Beware the speeding motorbikes (yes they still exist out here!) and the odd cow or water buffalo. Of more concern is possibly the potholes and dodgy road edges that could see you falling into a muddy rice field before you know it.
SIT AND WATCH THE WORK IN THE RICE FIELDS
It was harvest time when we visited, so there was plenty going on. These people work hard, very hard! The work they do in the fields and on the farms is all manual labour too. Not a piece of automated machinery in sight.
In the fields, we saw mostly women working, stopping for a chat every now and then as they stood up to rest their backs. The mental and physical toughness these women exhibit is incredible, with much of their day spent either crouching, squatting or at the very least bent over. They were always happy to give us a smile or a wave.
MEET THE PEOPLE
Like all parts of Vietnam, these villages are full of friendly people. Because they are minority tribes they can, quite rightfully, be a little over anyone treating them like a tourist attraction. Say hello, stop to chat, buy something from their stall and ask before you take a photo of them if they are in close proximity to you.
ADMIRE THE DIFFERENT HOUSES HERE
The houses of the villages are built from timber and are usually high set. Intricate carvings may be visible in the timber work. The houses are high to let the breezes through under the house where many of them work. It is also good flood prevention.
WHERE TO STAY
Mai Chau is full of budget accommodation options, mainly in the form of homestays. Whilst many of these homestays are not quite so authentic (western toilets for eg), they still offer a reasonable idea of how the local tribes live. Most of them are simply a mat on a wooden floor and often the toilet will be outside. Many of the families that run the homestays will also provide traditional meals, for an additional fee.
Travelling out of season also makes the accommodation price tag a little less.
We stayed at the Mai Chau Ecolodge right in the centre of the valley. A truly sustainable Ecolodge, all food, materials and labour are sourced locally, and conservation of the environment part of their everyday operations.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to travel if you don’t like oppressive heat and humidity is from October to April. Whilst the ecolodge we stayed at had air conditioning, the homestays don’t, which could make your time here a little unbearable. If you wish to see the rice fields in their full green opulence, then spring is the best season to go.
HOW TO GET TO MAI CHAU FROM HANOI
Despite Mai Chau being relatively close to Hanoi in distance terms, the trip takes roughly 3.5-4 hours.
There are many options for getting out to Mai Chau. The cheapest involve using public transport or hiring your own motorbike. Another way is to hire a driver for the day. We chose to use the shuttle connected with the Ecolodge we stayed at, for a more convenient experience. A round trip for two people cost US$50.