Ha Giang Adventure Tours

Mai Chau valley

Mai Chau is located around 140km from Hanoi in a peaceful valley sheltered by the outside world by a dramatic ring of hills. Its isolation has allowed a traditional way of life to thrive in a way that you wouldn’t expect so close to the capital city.

Strictly speaking, this doesn’t apply to Mai Chau itself, as it is just another small Vietnamese country town with the usual array of garishly-painted concrete houses. What we’re really talking about here is the adjoining villages of Ban Lac and Pom Coong. Here it’s all about bamboo stilt houses and paddy fields, with a feel that’s more like rural Laos or Thailand than Vietnam.

It’s no surprise that Mai Chau doesn’t feel particularly Vietnamese, as most of the villages’ inhabitants are from the White Thai ethnic group, speaking Thai as their first language, though they are also fluent in Vietnamese. But this is not some kind of Sapa-style “hill-tribe experience” – it’s much more low-key here. You won’t usually see people in traditional dress, unless it’s for a special occasion, nor will you be chased down the street by a mob of women trying to flog you ethnic handicrafts.

Mai Chau is certainly no stranger to tourism, but it’s not on the tourist map in the same way as, say, Sapa or Halong Bay; most visitors on a typical two-week north-to-south Vietnam trip won’t come this way. And although it gets a lot of weekend visitors from Hanoi, these are largely students or ex-pats rather than the typical domestic tourist, so it’s escaped the karaoke bars and grandiose hotels usually found in domestic tourism hotspots.

Two words sum up the Mai Chau experience – “village homestay”. Unless you can afford to stay in the plush Mai Chau Lodge, there is really no point in coming to Mai Chau if the idea of a village homestay doesn’t appeal. You are sleeping on a mat in a bamboo stilt house, in a large communal room probably shared with the host family and/ or other travellers. There are no restaurants or bars unless you walk back to Mai Chau town itself – you eat and drink with your homestay hosts.

On the other side of the coin, Mai Chau may not appeal to the more hardcore traveller looking for a really authentic homestay experience. The stilt houses have been modernised to meet the needs of foreign visitors, with electricity, running water and sit-down toilets. The villages get their fair share of tour groups, especially Lac, and the majority of houses are geared for tourism in some way, either offering homestays or selling textiles.

Mai Chau is the perfect respite from the craziness of Hanoi. It’s a serene, relaxing rural idyll, and the vivid green paddy fields will match your picture postcard fantasies of the Vietnamese countryside. It’s a good way to meet one of the ethnic minority groups in a setting that’s neither too touristy nor too inaccessibly off-the-beaten-track. And a bamboo stilt house really is a pretty memorable place to spend the night.

For hot (but not too hot), sunny weather, October-November and February-May are the best times to go. In December, January and sometimes February too, the weather can get pretty chilly. However, the stilt houses have no shortage of fluffy blankets to keep you warm at night; staying cool in the summer, however, is more of an issue. The stilt houses usually have fans but even then so they can get uncomfortably hot between June and September. In addition, these months are the rainiest, which makes outdoor exploring more problematic.

There is a market on Sundays which brings together different minority groups from the surrounding area, but given the higher numbers of weekend tourists (see ‘Stay away from’) this is not necessarily a reason to time your visit for a Sunday.

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