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Mai Chau

Mai Chau Map
Mai Chau

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.


Why Not Go


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.


Why Go


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.


Best Time to Visit


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.


Where to Stay


The stilt house homestays all offer essentially the same thing for the same price (currently 50,000 dong excluding meals), so there is little point in recommending one over the other here. If you plan to stay in a stilt house, the best thing to do is walk around the villages (they’re very close, Lac starts where Pom Coong ends) and see which location you like best. Also check if there are other people staying – the rooms are communal so if you want more privacy you should go for one that has no other guests, and hope no-one else turns up!

For a bit of luxury, Mai Chau Lodge (+84 218 3868 959) is the only option. It’s located on the main road out of Mai Chau town, at the point where you turn off onto the dirt track for Pom Coong and Lac. It’s a lovely small boutique resort with a small pool, free shuttle transfers between Mai Chau and Hanoi, and the usual range of comforts you would expect in the $100+ bracket.


Where & What to Eat


In short: in your homestay or hotel. There isn’t really any other choice, unless you head into Mai Chau itself, where there is the usual range of small rice and pho places. Homestays usually serve breakfast and dinner as standard but these are not included in the price of your stay. Breakfast is usually western (bread, jam, fruit etc) unless you request otherwise, and dinner is a spread of various home-cooked dishes.


Nightlife


“Nightlife” is not a term usually associated with Mai Chau. Evening entertainment is likely to consist of a few beers in your homestay before retiring early to avoid keeping your hosts up. If you get really friendly with your hosts, you may even be invited to drink exotic rice wines containing goat testicles or other unexpected animal parts. Tour groups are usually treated (or subjected, depending on your point of view) to a traditional dance display in the evening.


My to do List


– Rent a bicycle and explore the surrounding countryside
– Take a stroll around the paddy fields, or arrange a longer trek.
– Chat with your hosts over a cup of tea, or something stronger.
– Bargain for traditional textile items without the usual hard sell.


Stay Away From

It’s best to avoid visiting on a weekend if you can, as Mai Chau can get crowded with Hanoi weekenders, detracting somewhat from the sense of rural escapism.


Getting There


It’s easy to arrange a tour package through one of the travel agents in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but as always, it’s more rewarding to do it independently.

It’s not difficult to get to Mai Chau by local bus from Hanoi. I could go into detail over bus schedules here but that would make things needlessly confusing. Just turn up at My Dinh bus station at any time in the morning and you shouldn’t have to wait long for one of the regular buses to Hoa Binh. You can then catch one of the regular buses on to Mai Chau from the same bus station without much waiting time. There is a direct bus as well, but the times of departure from Hanoi (6am and 2pm) are not particularly convenient. Given that it’s not much trouble to change in Hoa Binh, it’s not worth going out of your way to get the direct bus.

Filed Under: Featured, Mai Chau
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Jenny lives in – and loves – Hanoi, but has taken every opportunity to get out of the city to explore the rest of Vietnam. She’s previously worked for specialist travel companies and her work has taken her as far afield as India and Tanzania to check out the best places to visit and stay. Now she is keen to share her knowledge of Vietnam with those who are lucky enough to be visiting this baffling but beguiling corner of the world.

Vietnam Travel Guide thrives on the knowledge of the community. Got a tip, photo or even a guide on a place you been to in Vietnam? We will love to hear from you!

One Response to “Mai Chau”

  1. Heather says:

    Thanks, this is just the information I have been looking for, going alone, want to organise independently and I have now found everything I need to take the next step and just do it. Cheers

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