Isolated Mai Chau is a 139km trip from Hanoi, and 66km further on from Hoa Binh. Though it's not far, the trip from Hoa Binh to here takes almost two hours by motorbike due to the mountainous terrain.
Mai Chau is in a valley just over the biggest hump, about 10km from the Song Da river and only 150 metres above sea level. The village presents an idyllic rural valley that could easily charm you into staying longer than intended. Nestled between two towering cliffs and surrounded by emerald green paddies, it is an enchanting sight as you wind down the cliff side.
In spring Mai Chau is a bright, almost parrot-green and by autumn this green transforms into golden hues as the rice approaches harvest. Taking the time to watch these transitions of colour seems like a perfectly useful way to spend your time while there.
Beware that whilst a beautiful time of year, Mai Chau can become unbearably hot in June / July with little respite from the heat as electricity doesn't come on until the evening.
Those bemoaning the dearth of truly budget accommodation in Vietnam will be happy to learn that this is one place you can stay for a song. The star attraction here is a 'homestay' in a stilt house in one of the two ethnic White Thai villages, Ban Pom Coong and Ban Lac. While both are run by ethnic minority families who have lived on and worked the land for generations, this is hardly like trucking into a Karen village in northern Thailand and staying in the spare room of someone's house.
The 'bare bones' accommodation is purpose-built to give tourists the 'homestay' experience, while the watchful eye of the government makes sure they have western toilets, ample bedding, and sometimes even satellite TVs in the common rooms.
Ban Lac is the more developed of the two villages, with more gift shops and a busier nightlife — what there is of it — but there's little to differentiate the accommodation on offer. The lodgings are mostly traditional stilt houses with large communal rooms where you can sleep on a mat laid upon a squeaky, split bamboo floor, for just about the same cheap price everywhere. The sleeps are really a loss leader — they make the real money off the food you eat, and the curios and textiles you buy. Not to mention, the liquor you drink. A typical charge is 150,000 VND / person for dinner, breakfast, and a bed although some are a bit cheaper. You could save 'small money' by eating in town, but family-style Vietnamese cooking is generally far superior to restaurant fare, and you wouldn't want to miss out on the nightly group meals.
Despite this tourist-driven set-up, and the regular influx of visitors, the villages remain a relatively peaceful retreat, and it's heartening to see how the influx of tourist dollars hasn't changed the essential character of the locals, which we gauge to be as warm and easy-going as you please.
As far as eating is concerned, all guesthouses in the villages offer food at quite reasonable prices and varying standards. If they don't live up to your expectations there is little option other than to track back into town to try the local restaurants. Be warned though you will struggle to find anything of outstanding worth there.
Text and/or map last updated on 1st November, 2010.
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The jewels are somewhat hidden
I fully concur with the observation above...
Ban Lac is the more developed of the two, and the main drag was packed with tourists and tour buses on our visit, people playing pool at an outdoor billiards table, and pop music blasting on a sound system somewhere.
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The alternative village worthy of one's stay is said to be Ban Pom Coong. But, when I was there, there was confusion as to where this village was actually located.
Some indicated it was 'over' the creek (meaning through Lac and over the creek), others said 'no', it's 'down the road and over the river', meaning further along the road south-west and past the school.
Whichever, the village further down the road IS the place to head for.
To get to the village 'further south', after leaving Hwy 15 and going along the local road, instead of veering right to enter Lac (at the school), continue along the road (from the turn-in) go over the bridge, and after about 500m, the 'better' village is both before you and on your left (nestled into and at the foot of a mountain).
Not all householders in this village offer accommodation, but merely by asking you'll be quickly directed to those that do.
Sleeping in the stilted houses adjacent to rice paddies, while not romantic, still allows a delightfully rustic ambience to the early morning.
From this village, you can go walking north-east along a delightful and very scenic pathway alongside a small river (around the mountain that this village abuts). As you proceed past the mountain to where the river path departs north, you can choose to follow the rice paddies to various other villages (by veering left), or continue south to take a reasonably well worn path that brings you onto the Lac - Xa Linh road (track when past this village).
To the south-east, a walk will take one to through or around rice paddies to other villages.
During Spring, the constant splashing and 'chattering' of the plentiful ducks waddling through the young rice crops made for a delightful ambience.
On a Sunday, there is a market, with Tai peoples from near and wide offering local wares. Not many tourists avail themselves of the market, so many ethnic goods can be bought for reasonable prices.
Few locals wear traditional costume (unless they are in Lac and selling woven goods from under their house). Most women have a loom under the elevated house and appear to do some weaving. Sadly, much of the product for sale in Lac is manufactured in China. Some households in the 'other' village sell home made weavings.
Unlike elsewhere in Vietnam, those seeking to sell their wares are very polite. That said, quiet bargaining is the way here rather than haggling.
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I've 'rated' Mai Chau as:
Sights & activities = 7. Not for what is provided you, but for what you can do in the locality.
History & culture = 4. While the Tai live here, there isn't anything done, either by the Tai or the Vietnamese government to reveal history & culture. So, aside from sleeping in a stilted house, one could be anywhere in rural VN.
Scenery = 7. For much of VN, the urban dominates even rural areas. Here, the scenery & ambience are really rustic.
Eat & drink = 5. You either like local (plain) food or not.
Traveller scene = 3. Lac has one, but it isn't a raging party. Rather, the lack of respect by westerners to the local environment means that there is a clash of culture.
Romance = 6. I'm too old for 'romance'. But, I could see how young couples would find the rustic laid back ambience romantic.
Value = 5. It depends on expectations.
I'll be back = 5. If I'm in the area, yes, I'd stay again.
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- Sights & activities
- History & culture
- Scenery & environment
- Eat & drink
- Traveller's scene
- Value for money
- I'll be back (or not)
By BruceMoon (dabbler)
Written on 2nd July, 2009 after a visit to Mai Chau in October, 2008
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