Isolated Mai Chau and the nearby villages are in a valley around 139km from Hanoi and only 150 metres above sea level. Nestled between two towering cliffs and surrounded by emerald green paddies, it is an enchanting sight as you approach down the windy cliff side road and the villages and surrounding countryside present an idyllic rural scene that could easily charm you into staying longer than intended.
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.
The scenery isn't the only reason visitors flood to Mai Chau though; 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 budget accommodation option is a 'homestay' in a stilt house in one of the ethnic White Thai villages a short walk from Mai Chau town: Ban Poom Coong, Ban Lac 1 and Ban Lac 2.
But while accommodation and other services 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: here its 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. Still, it's an enjoyable part of a stay in Mai Chau, particularly when your hosts roll out the rice wine and traditional dancing.
Of the villages, Ban Lac 1 is the more developed, 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 100,000 VND / person for bed and breakfast and although you could save 'small money' by eating in town, 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.
The best time to visit Mai Chau is between October and April, as outside of these times Mai Chau can become unbearably hot, particular in June through to August, and if you're staying in a homestay you'll find little respite from the heat as electricity doesn't come on until the evening. That said, some good deals can be had on the pricier hotel options out of season.
By Sarah Turner.