At 139 kilometres from Hanoi, Mai Chau is a popular two- or three-day trip from Hanoi. Having squeezed onto over-crowded, under air-conditioned buses on previous trips, on our latest soujourn we decided to jump on motorbikes and cruise there at our own pace, wind in our hair, sun on our backs and all that. Was it worth it? Yes. Is it for everyone? No. Here’s why.
The first thing you should bear in mind if setting out on a motorbike trip anywhere outside of Hanoi is that you have to drive through a lot of busy and dirty urban sprawl before you get to the peaceful, scenic roads. Fortunately Mai Chau is southwest of the city, so one of the main roads out — it’s not the shortest but it’s our preferred option — is the newly refurbished and relatively quiet Thang Long highway. However, you’ll still have to navigate some rather hairy roads either side of the highway before you reach the more rural areas. Wear a face mask and drive carefully.
We opted to drive via Hoa Binh and return via back roads. We’d recommend the latter — you can cut through from the QL6 west of Xuan Mai to the QL6 south of Hoa Binh. Both routes are interesting and scenic but the back roads have slightly less traffic and are more peaceful.
It’s unfortunate that the route to Mai Chau is popular with trucks and buses, because without them the drive would be much more pleasant. Nonetheless, the moments that made the drive worthwhile for us included the drive on the back roads and the drive up into the mountains, which is around the last hour of the drive. Note that even on a hot day it can get a bit chilly at the top of the pass so you may need something warmer than a vest top and if the clouds are low you may have to slow down for a while.
The views from the mountain road — when not cloudy — are quite spectacular in places; keep an eye out for the viewpoint as you start heading down towards Mai Chau. Also look out for a rest stop at the highest point, where women sell sticky rice in bamboo and corn-on-the-cob — good views and food to boot.
In reality, if you’re not pushing it and are stopping for food and drink breaks en route, you need to allow five hours each way. That’s quite a lot of driving and we’d highly recommend you stay at least two nights in Mai Chau to make the most of the journey and to give your bum time to recover.
On the subject of food and drink breaks: as long as you’re happy with noodles or rice plus, eaten in non-salubrious surroundings, you’ll find somewhere to stop along the way. We stopped in Hoa Binh for a noodle soup lunch and took a couple of other breaks for coffee and cold drinks.
We’d recommend joining a tour if you’re on your own, not just for the company but also for safety. While getting your bike fixed at the roadside may be feasible, getting yourself fixed up if you’re unfortunate enough to come off the bike is not, so having companions is a good idea. Also, don’t forget that your insurance will likely be invalid if you don’t have a Vietnamese driving license.
In summary, Hanoi to Mai Chau by motorbike is far from an easy drive and is very tiring, but it’s a doable drive in terms of distance and road quality; if the weather’s good and you’re confident and comfortable on a bike, it beats the crowded buses. With a group and with enough stops for rest and fuel — food and drink, not petrol — it’s an adventurous and fun excursion from Hanoi.
For the fit with some time on their hands, do as our friend did and go by bicycle — then you really will need two nights in Mai Chau for your bum to recover!
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