Three hours out from the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, as you cross into the mountainous Hoa Binh province to the west, the landscape transforms from congested rowhouses to wide-open ricefields, karst mountains, and quaint wood-and-bamboo villages.
Welcome to Mai Chau: a rural valley whose towering cliffs, unique culture and laid-back atmosphere attract visitors keen to experience the land and lifestyle of Vietnam's northwest.
Spend a couple of days here, and you'll forget what century you're in. Spend the daylight hours exploring the local Tai Dam and Tai Kao villages and biking around the brilliant-green rice fields, then fill your evenings drinking the local beer and enjoying traditional Tai dances. Check off the activities listed below, and you can boast you've made the most of your Mai Chau getaway!
Explore the Countryside on Foot or by Bike
The great outdoors are Mai Chau's most potent draw: the ricefields, locals and mountainous backdrop drive the beauty of Vietnam's northwest home to the traveler.
As you bike or trek along Mai Chau's dirt roads, the scenery changes, their little details giving you something to capture on camera: wildflowers in season; rice paddies, either green with rice plants or mirror-like, depending on the time of year; and locals driving livestock from place to place.
Guides can suggest trekking or biking trails as long or as easy as your legs and lungs can take you.
Your local hotel or homestay can either recommend a bike provider or lend you a bike themselves, for a small fee. The cost of Trekking packages depends on the number of activities the trek takes on.
Sleep in an Authentic Tai Homestay
Over fifty ethnic minorities inhabit Vietnam alongside the majority Kinh (Viet) people; Mai Chau's Tai Dam and Tai Kao (“White Thai” and “Black Thai”) inhabit Mai Chau, infusing the local travel experience with their traditions and culture.
Travelers can pick a homestay at one of the two biggest villages in Mai Chau, Poom Coong and Lac, where the Tais' unique stilt houses serve as the area's rustic yet gracious accommodations.
While both villages provide homestays, travelers gravitate to Poom Coong for the sleep, and to Lac for the food. (More on the food further down.)
Life is simple in a Tai homestay: you wake up to the sound of roosters crowing and farmers going to work in the dark, you sleep on a mattress laid out on the creaky bamboo floor, and you spend your evenings drinking the local wine and watching a Tai cultural show.
Tai houses are usually built on stilts, rising about four to five feet off the ground. Stilt houses are better ventilated and better protected from pests and intruders: thus, despite the introduction of more modern materials like corrugated iron sheets (replacing the thatch roofs in a number of Tai houses), the basic house design has changed little over the centuries.
Take in a View From Above at Thung Khe Pass
As your bus negotiates Highway 6 from Hanoi to Mai Chau, you'll stop at Thung Khe Pass, a rest stop with smoky food shacks and a gorgeous view of the white cliffs nearby and the valley below.
While admiring the view, you can sit down at one of the stalls to eat the local fare sold by the area's Muong tribespeople. Take your pick from newly boiled or grilled corn and sugarcane, or the sticky-rice dish called com lam: all cheap but filling stuff, offering none of the sophistication of the food you'll find in Hanoi but bracingly warm against to the area's frigid winds.
The highland cold brings its own unique hazards: a thick pea-soup fog that increases the danger of driving through the mountain roads. Negotiating Thung Khe Pass can be quite terrifying during the winter months, as the driver can see only a few feet ahead of them, their headlights making little headway against the fog.
Buy Silk Brocade From the Source
It's not a real Mai Chau Tai home without a loom. Traditional gender roles dictate that women dedicate their time to weaving, learning it at a young age and working from their youth to provide a trousseau for their future marriage.
Tais specialize in weaving traditional brocade: silk fabrics with rich colors and raised patterns. Their daily wear makes heavy use of brocades, as evidenced in the Tai women's snug waistbands, worn even when performing manual labor.
Mai Chau locals make their silk brocades from scratch: starting with harvesting silkworm cocoons, reeling the silk from the cocoons, dyeing the threads using natural colors, and ending with selling the brightly-colored end product in Mai Chau's villages and markets.
All this is hard labor, reeling, dyeing, and weaving takes expert hands with long experience, so bargain accordingly when you haggle for their bags, scarves, and skirts. The prices are that way for a reason!
Explore Mai Chau's Caves
The shape of Mai Chau's sinuously curvy mountains comes from karst limestone bedrock, the same kind of geological formations that created the dragons' back islands of Ha Long Bay to the east. (The islands of El Nido and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, both in the Philippines, look the same way because of the same karst foundations.)
Where there's karst, you'll find caves, and Mai Chau is no exception. The local trekking trails tend to stop at two of the biggest caves in Mai Chau, Mo Luong (“Soldier”) Cave and Chieu (“1,000 Steps”) Cave.
Mo Luong Cave stretches about 1,600 feet into the interior of Mount Phu Ka. Accessible by two separate entrances, the cave expands into a large cathedral interior that then branches out to four different caverns. Mo Luong was used as an armaments storage house during the Vietnam War.
Chieu Cave can only be reached by a 1,200-step staircase, thus its numeric nickname. The interior extends about 500 feet into the mountain, branching out to two chambers.
Drink and Dine as the Locals Do
The Mai Chau homestay experience generally includes food, and plenty of it, oftentimes accompanied by a Tai Kao dance performance by a local troupe.
Traditional Tai cuisine draws heavily from the land: steamed sticky rice, or xoi nep thuong, serves as the base of a Mai Chau feast that includes grilled meat, bitter bamboo shoots, and the favorite local tipple, sticky-rice wine (ruou can) sipped by a group through straws from a single clay jar.
Food in Mai Chau is locally grown: crops like corn, sugarcane, and rice figure heavily in the food served during dinnertime, as do herbs like coriander.
Before planning your trip to Mai Chau, take note of the following considerations regarding your transportation and the best time to visit.
When to visit: Mai Chau's location in Vietnam's north creates some interesting temperature extremes: dry, cold winters from January to February with a temperature range of 60 to 62-degrees, and wet, hot summers from June to September with a temperature range of 80.6 to 84.2-degrees.
The best times to visit Mai Chau fall between these highs and lows. The spring months from the latter half of February to the end of May brings pleasantly warm weather, with the flowers all a-blossom during this time. The autumn months from October to November bring a tolerable chill but still allow for pleasant hiking throughout the valley.
Always remember to pack accordingly for the weather!
Transportation to Mai Chau: The most direct route to Mai Chau begins at My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi, where buses to Mai Chau depart four times a day for the four-hour trek west to the valley.
A less direct route stops at Hoa Binh City (sharing the name with the province), from which you can take another bus to Mai Chau.