Off the beaten track in Mai Chau

This post is part of a travel diary from 2016 – but has been updated in 2018 to include more useful information about Mai Chau
13/02/16: For our next expedition, me and the dong millionaires take a little spin over to Mai Chau. About 4 hours drive from Hanoi, Mai Chau, we’re told, is a glimpse of the “real” Vietnam.
Rice paddies, farm animals roaming the streets and yet more of Vietnam’s incredible scenery in abundance. It’s well worth the trip just to rent a bike and take in the views- which is saying something coming from me, because I didn’t think I could ride a bike and had to push myself through tears and a few falls in order to get going and explore!
I was staying at a homestay during my time in Mai Chau, but if you opt for the fantastic Mai Chau ecolodge you’ll get free bicycle rental included in your stay, as well as some ludicrously luxe free swimming pool access! That’s definitely the high-end option though – there are a couple of hostels in Mai Chau now that more people are starting to visit, and dorm rooms and bike rental are both incredibly budget-friendly.

Markets around Mai Chau

Whether you’re on a bike or a moped there are plenty of markets you can stop and explore as you navigate your way around the village. The locals were incredibly friendly, and willing to haggle with us over the already low prices of their wares- if you’re looking to pick up souvenirs, you’ll get beautiful handicrafts a lot cheaper here than in Hanoi, and you can even watch as scarves and wraps are woven infront of you.
Try and head down to Muong market and Pa Co market while you’re here. The first can be found on the road to Thung Khe Pass, and dishes up hot local food and fresh exotic fruits galore, while the latter runs on Sundays half way between Mai Chau and Moc Chau and is stocked with everything from rice wine to brocade fabrics.

Eating and dancing

Once we’d worn ourselves out cycling and market browsing, we filled up on traditional Vietnamese food provided for us by the hosts at our homestay – think “big, clean, stilted room with 12 very comfortable mattresses” rather than “shack” – and headed into the village to see some equally traditional Vietnamese dancing.

Cheap/Luxe homestay life

As a vegetarian in Mai Chau I had worried that dinner might be a challenge, after waking to the sound of a pig being slaughtered for a family celebration… but thankfully tofu and vegetables are rarely hard to find in Vietnam and I ate like a queen before we ventured out for the evening.
The performers were great and got us involved in some bamboo dances – which, like spring roll making, we absolutely sucked at – and as a grand finale we were encouraged to drink together from a fairly substantial jar of rice wine. The best way to end any dancing, I reckon.
I now know that the dancing we took part in is a type of dance called Xoe, practised by minority cultures in Northwestern Vietnam and dating as far back as 1000BC. There are 36 variants of the dance, which is used to welcome newcomers and as such, has become a mainstay of the burgeoning tourism industry in this quiet area.

Photo credit, our lovely guide Duyen Nguyen

When to visit

I’m told that it’s best to visit Mai Chau between October and April, as the rest of the year can be unbearably hot, and that while we only saw water buffalo and various farm animals you can apparently spot civet cats, leopards and bears in the valley! Pu Luong nature reserve, on the edge of Mai Chau, is home to all these things and more.
In terms of seasons, the Mai Chau area has similar temperatures to Hanoi with summers around 35C throughout the day and “winters” that don’t dip much below 25C. What visitors from Europe would deem to be the winter months are warm and sunny, but can also bring very humid days among the hills.

Other useful things to know

It’s worth knowing before you set off that there are no ATMs in Mai Chau, but there are places you can exchange dollars for dong! So be ready with whatever money you need to spend on renting bikes and buying treasures from the market stalls.
Buses from Hanoi to Mai Chau leave from the My Dinh and Ha Dong bus stations, and you can expect to pay between 80,000 and 130,000 dong (less than £5) for the three to four hour journey. You can also catch the bus from Ninh Binh or Hoa Binh, if you’re headed that way – or of course, you could come by motorbike as many people travelling through Vietnam do.
If you decide to make the trip over on two wheels, take the time to stop at Hoa Binh town to see the biggest dam in Southeast Asia on your way.

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