After Christmas in Hanoi, I had made plans to do some hiking in Sapa, which I’d heard is an absolute must for anyone visiting Vietnam. But unfortunately the weather wasn’t on my side, with reports of heavy rain making the land too treacherous to trek.
So instead I settled for a two day rural retreat, cycling and trekking around the picturesque valleys of Mai Chau, which many refer to as “Little Sapa.” And I am so glad I did – it turned out to be one of my favourite places in Vietnam as it felt so untouched and far removed from everything else.
Located approximately 140km from Hanoi, Mai Chau offers a snapshot of the ‘real’ Vietnam – rolling green hills, surrounded by streams and rice paddy fields where you’ll often see both male and female farmers working from the early hours of the day.
The local minority villages are made up of traditional stilt houses where the smell of woodsmoke fills the air and chickens, goats and cows regularly roam the lanes. Many families here have signed up to a homestay initiative, allowing guests to share their charming stilt houses while they go about their usual business of farming, cooking and weaving.
I was staying with a lovely White Thai family (not to be confused with the people of Thailand), where there were four generations living under one roof. In the evenings they plied us with rice wine and BBQ meat (all sourced right from the village itself) before entertaining us with a traditional dance show, and in the daytime they would let us borrow their bikes to explore the neighbouring villages and vivid green countryside that stretches out for miles and miles.
Mai Chau itself had a very friendly, relaxed vibe, and many of the locals would wave and smile at you as you passed them by – it almost felt like we were just as much of a tourist attraction to them! In fact compared to the other places I had visited in Vietnam it certainly seemed like less tourists passed through here.
That became all the more evident when I tried to hand over a one dollar bill (which are usually widely accepted across other parts of Vietnam) to a lady when I was buying a friendship bracelet she had made. I’ll never forget the look on her face as she just stared blankly at it like she had no idea what it was. Perhaps a very naive assumption on my part, and I of course exchanged it for Vietnamese currency straight away!
Mai Chau is a great place to cycle and walk around, just taking in the views and sounds (even if my bike was more suited to a 12 year old!) I got to witness first hand how these families lived day-to-day, and one of my favourite moments was a quick stop by a local school where the children were very excited to see us – sharing out their sweets and playing games like patta-cake.
We also passed through a number of villages filled with stalls and shops laden with brightly-coloured handmade bags, clothes and bracelets, as well as an abundance of markets where fresh meat was being prepared and sold (an experience which was enough to make me consider turning vegetarian again, but I’ll spare you all the detail!).
As we cycled around the rice paddy fields, we also witnessed two elderly women carrying baskets of rice on a bamboo pole. Thinking that they would be fairly light, I tried to shoulder them myself, proceeding to embarrass myself as I could not lift them – much to their amusement! It’s incredible that these women, who must have been nearing 80, could carry such weight!
During the day time the valleys of Mai Chau seem so serene and peaceful, but we soon discovered that some of the locals liked to party hard on the weekends! There are a number of volunteering projects in the district where students from abroad come to help out. Which meant every Saturday night both locals and students would congregate on a nearby field for a “festival”. Groups of teenagers danced frantically around blazing bonfires to booming dance music, while others would partake in equally as loud karaoke sessions or eating competitions.
After a restless night’s sleep, I made my way back to the familiar chaos of Hanoi, but not before our bus made a quick stop at a market in the mountains to take in the some of views. Here people from different minority communities living in the mountains come to sell their products like honey and seasonal fruit and vegetables.
It was quite misty so you couldn’t see too far out, but one thing that fascinated me was how the market stalls were literally standing on the cliff edge. This did not bode well for my vertigo, and I watched in amazement while one family casually ate their lunch on the cliff edge like they weren’t at all daunted by the huge drop right next to them.
Completely bewildered, I tootled off to buy some a BBQ corn-on-the-cob, which within minutes was snatched out of my hand by an over-friendly cow roaming the mountain top! A comical end to what was a lovely break away from the city.
Have you ever ventured to the idyllic valleys of Mai Chau? As I never made it to Sapa, I would love to hear how it compares. Let me know below!
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