If you’re keen to see something of North Vietnam’s mountainous landscapes and visit ethnic minority villages but don’t have the time to go trekking in Sa Pa, consider heading for the Mai Chau Valley. Located just 135kms west of Hanoi, the broad and fertile valley is home to the White Thai minority. As their name suggests, they have more in common culturally with their cousins from Thailand than with the Vietnamese, and their language is very similar to Thai as well.
Mai Chau is a bit awkward to reach by public transport, but its popularity means that there are competitively-priced tours heading out of Hanoi every day; just ask at your hotel or guesthouse front desk for information. A two-day tour to the Mai Chau Valley provides a great introduction to rural life in North Vietnam and includes an overnight stay in a stilted house in the village of either Ban Lac or Pom Coong, all meals, a traditional dance show and a trek through the rice paddies in the valley.
Though the White Thai do not dress as flamboyantly as the Red Dao and Flower Hmong further north, they have a long tradition of weaving and produce some beautifully embroidered shirts and shoulder bags that make great souvenirs. In contrast to many places in Vietnam, where souvenir vendors irritate tourists with their persistent badgering, the White Thai depend on the soft sell, which seems to bring more customers.
Trekking through the Mai Chau Valley opens up some delightful vistas, especially when the rice paddies have been freshly planted and shimmer like a sea of emerald. The jagged lines of mountain peaks make for a dramatic horizon, and the presence of farmers stooping in the fields or guiding their water buffalo to plough the paddies create a bucolic atmosphere. Since most trekking is on the valley floor, it is much gentler and less demanding on the legs than hiking near Sa Pa, which inevitably involves lots of clambering up and down.
Many houses in Ban Lac and Pom Coong rent out bicycles for a little over a dollar a day, which is an ideal way to explore this beautiful region. A good route to follow is south on Highway 15, which is bordered by breathtaking views, as far as Co Luong on the Ma River. This is classic rural Vietnam where time seems to slow down, then stand still.
The experience of staying in a communal stilt house is a novelty for most people, particularly city dwellers. The host family generally stay in a partitioned section of the house, while visitors sleep under a mosquito net on thin mattresses on slatted bamboo floors. To wake up to the sound of cocks crowing and pigs rooting around below the house makes life suddenly seem so simple. These stilted houses are fitted with Western-style toilets, and the meals supplied consist of an artful mix of Western staples (think omelettes and French fries) and Vietnamese delicacies.
After dinner in the evening guests are presented with a performance of traditional dance, in which long-haired young maidens dressed in traditional costumes glide around mimicking everyday activities such as threshing rice and weaving. When the performance is over, guests are invited to taste the locally-brewed rice wine by sucking one of a multitude of bamboo straws protruding from a giant urn.
If the thought of thin mattresses and sleeping on slatted bamboo floors rings alarm bells, there is an alternative. The Mai Chau Lodge offers luxurious rooms with solid wooden floors and furnishings that incorporate local textiles. There are idyllic views over the paddies from the balconies, and an excellent, if expensive, restaurant… more details and booking
Getting to the Mai Chau Valley
The great majority of visitors to Mai Chau go on organized tours from Hanoi. Other alternatives are to take a bus bound for Son La and get off at the junction for Mai Chau, then hop on a motorbike taxi (xe om), or rent a motorbike or 4WD vehicle and make this the first stop on an exciting loop of the northwest before going on to Dien Bien Phu and Sa Pa.