Hanoi has long been a traveller’s mecca thanks to its proximity to the world-famous limestone cliffs of Halong Bay.
Travellers also flock there to hike the mountainous rice terraces surrounding Sapa in the north.
More recently, a beautiful valley southwest of Hanoi has been gaining popularity and it’s only a matter of time before Mai Chau becomes more widely known as yet another unmissable destination in Vietnam’s northern regions.
GETTING THERE AND BACK
The easiest way to reach the Mai Chau Valley from Hanoi, aside from overpriced shuttles, is to take a public bus from My Dinh Station. This is located in the west of Hanoi, so it might take a taxi 45 minutes (or more during rush hour traffic) to get there from the area around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, where most of the accommodation is. Expect to pay 140,000 to 190,000 VND for this journey. Public buses leave My Dinh at 7:30 am, cost 80,000 VND and take about 4 hours. The most convenient return bus leaves Mai Chau at 1:30 pm across the road from the market. Air conditioned minivans also do this route, but cost 200,000 VND and drop you at a junction 8 km outside Mai Chau town, so you’d need to pay another 80,000 VND for a motorbike taxi to your accommodation in Mai Chau.
REASONS TO VISIT
There are various activities on offer in the Mai Chau Valley, but it’s best appreciated at a slow pace. It’s a stunning valley surrounded by imposing cliffs. Water buffalo roam the rice paddies, butterflies flutter by, and farmers in conical hats harvest rice. Locals are exceptionally welcoming, and accommodation ranges from basic homestay experiences to luxury ecolodge villas. It’s a peaceful, idyllic location perfect for light exercise or pure relaxation. Some ideas of activities are listed below.
The market is located on the main road that passes through Mai Chau Village. It caters for locals and features an intriguing display of live and butchered animals, including chickens packed into tiny wire cages and pigs’ heads basking in the midday heat. You might not want to buy much there, but it’s interesting – if a little distressing – to see.
If you’re keen to do a spot of shopping, you’ll have more luck at one of the smaller villages in the valley. Many of the locals make a living creating textiles, weapons or musical instruments to sell as souvenirs. As you pass by, you’ll see women weaving and men hammering and carving in small workshops beside their homes. Unlike many parts of Southeast Asia, you can enjoy browsing at your leisure and, if you don’t want to buy something, they won’t try to force you.
Many of the villagers also supplement their income by offering their homes as homestay experiences. This is a great way to learn more about local culture and traditions. Many will prepare delicious local dishes for you to try, and perhaps perform a traditional dance, demonstrate skilled craftsmanship, or give you the chance to volunteer in the rice paddies.
Vietnam is the world’s second biggest producer of rice after Thailand, as well as its seventh largest consumer. You won’t need to go far to find a rice paddy where you can join locals in the fields, learning farming techniques and discovering what day-to-day life is like for people who live in Mai Chau.
You can rent a bicycle from most accommodation in the Mai Chau Valley, and some include this free of charge. Hiking is also pleasant, but as many of the tracks are reasonably flat, you’ll cover more ground by bike. Some of the tracks are quite narrow and they can get muddy following heavy rains. It’s a good idea to wear closed shoes and to take waterproofs as well as sun protection.
Most visitors take their bikes along crisscrossed tracks in the base of the valley, but one unmissable spot is the Chieu Cave. While locals will tell you its unofficial name is 1000 steps cave, there are actually closer to 1200, winding up the mountainside to the mouth of an impressive chamber. Chances are you’ll have it to yourself, although it’s also used by locals as a place of prayer. Incense burns, ritual offerings litter the cave floor, and the sound of chanting echoes through the refreshingly cool air. On the way back down, you can appreciate panoramic views of the valley. The entrance to the caves is up a side street a few hundred metres south of the market. You can leave your bike at one of the houses at the bottom of the steps where they also sell cold drinks. You’ll also need to purchase a ticket for 5000 VND.
MAI CHAU ECOLODGE
If you feel like splurging, one of the most incredible options for accommodation is the Mai Chau Ecolodge. Occupying a small hill overlooking uninterrupted views of the valley floor and flanking mountains, its the perfect place to relax. Its villas are made from natural materials that blend with the landscape, there’s a luxurious pool and spa, and the restaurant serves up a wide selection of international and local dishes, as well as drinks. They also organise a huge variety of tours, from guided hikes to romantic proposal packages.