Mai Chau is a vision in every season. In spring, it is a lush, bright green while in autumn, just before the rice harvest, it turns golden. Nowadays, people should count themselves lucky to get the chance to see such colours because before 1993 Mai Chau was an isolated farming town whereas now, it is a recommended stop for any traveller who wants to explore Vietnam.
Located in Hoa Binh Province, Mai Chau is in a valley about 139km from Hanoi. The town is situated between tall cliffs and is surrounded by bright-green paddies, making it a sight to behold; the beauty of the place is enough reason for many tourists to stay longer than expected.
Stilt houses are a common sight in Mai Chau. In fact, these structures line both sides of the road, with palm leaf roofs, bamboo-slat floors and large, patterned windows. Visitors can stay the night in these houses, especially in Lac, which is the village of the White Thai minority group near the main road. Here, one can live like the locals but with modern facilities.
The Pu Luong Nature Reserve near Mai Chau that is worth a visit. This is actually a newly protected area that serves as home to endangered species such as langurs, leopards, civets and bears but it’s especially good for bird watching. There are also caves and local Tai and Hmong communities to visit.
There are quite a number of caves, or grottoes, in the area and visitors are advised to explore them. These include Mo Luong Cave, Chieu Cave, Pieng Kem Grotto, Lang Cave and Khau Phuc Cave. One can rent a bicycle to see the nearby hamlets and view the rice fields and indeed cycling or trekking through the villages and enjoying the stunning scenery is one of the best experiences in Mai Chau.
Lac is also an attraction in itself. After all, most day travellers and overnight tourists go to this village for accommodation and fine homemade Vietnamese fare. Like Lac, Pom Coong is also an ethnic White Tai village that offers 'homestays' to visitors.
The best places to eat when in Mai Chau are in one's hotel or homestay. Those staying in Mai Chau Lodge should try The Lodge Restaurant and The Veranda Restaurant. These establishments serve traditional Vietnamese fare alongside international dishes, which are better enjoyed with wine from the Lodge's impressive selection.
The food may be good in the aforementioned restaurants but nothing beats the family-style Vietnamese cooking in the homestays. The stilt houses in White Tai villages provide more than just lodging; they also offer their guests food and drink, but for a fee of course. Homestays often serve breakfast and dinner, but these are not included in the price for staying the night. Breakfast is often Western fare (bread, jam and the like) while dinner is a feast of different home-cooked dishes. However, the food served is more White Tai than Vietnamese, and the rice is stickier than usual.
Anyone looking for a nightclub, dance hall or pub in the peaceful valley town of Mai Chau will be disappointed. There is not much nightlife here. In fact, in a homestay, evening entertainment is limited to drinking a few beers before sleeping (since people in rural Vietnam retire early). There are times when hosts offer the guests rice wine, which is described as heady and often containing exotic ingredients like animal parts. Tour groups are often given a traditional dance show at night and White Tai locals put on a cultural dance performance and sometimes ask guests to join in the dance.
Guests who are staying in the Mai Chau Lodge can enjoy a nightcap from Veranda Bar. Happy Hour is from 17:00 to 19:00 when there is a 50% discount.
Those who want to shop in Mai Chau should look forward to the Sunday market. People from different ethnic groups residing in the mountains come down to Mai Chau to sell various products, including corn, bananas and other fruits, as well as the tho cam woven by skilled Tai women. Ducks, pigs and dogs in bamboo cages are also for sale. The Sunday market is also a place to get nicely made traditional Tai cuisine.
However, a tourist in an overnight homestay need not move further from the stilt house to buy merchandise as most locals earn a living from selling textiles and other products to their guests. The kitchen, which is in the centre of every house, is not only for cooking. This is also the place where the women make the tho cam. Guests can haggle or bargain with their hosts for the traditional textile items.
Mai Chau Lodge has a variety of activities in store for its guests. These include a visit to the Mo Luong Cave, cycling, an ethnic minority walk, market and Sunday market tours, homestay trekking, kayaking, boating, cooking and handicraft tours.
Nonetheless, one does not need to be staying in the lodge to enjoy these activities. For instance, one can easily rent a bicycle from the homestays to check out what the surrounding countryside has to offer. Exploration can also be done on foot. Tourists can either stroll around the paddy fields or opt for a longer trek. Anyone can go to the markets, even without a guide.
However, the best thing to do in Mai Chau is to just enjoy the views. The idyllic and rural charm of the valley and its lush countryside is picturesque, stunning and will take your breath away.
You can reach Mai Chau by taking a bus from Hanoi. In the morning, there are regular buses that leave the My Dinh bus station. From Hoa Binh, one can catch a regular bus to Mai Chau. A trip from Hoa Binh to Mai Chau by motorbike takes about two hours.
The best time of year to visit Mai Chau is between October to November, and February to May. During these months, the weather is sunny but not too hot. From December to January (sometimes extending until February), the weather can get pretty cold. Visiting any time between June and September is strongly discouraged and it is hard to deal with the heat when electricity only comes on at night. It is also during these months that the heavy rains pose a challenge for outdoor exploration.