The idyllic, rural valley of Mai Chau is just 150km from Hanoi but feels like a completely different world. Fields and rice paddies sprawl out across the vista, and the mountains fade sleepily into the horizon.The only soundtrack here is that of nature, the delicate birdsong, the mumbles of the buffaloes, the squawk of the chickens, and the children playing freely in the fields. Although Mai Chau has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, it has retained its welcoming and laidback ambience.
View of Mai Chau valley from a viewpoint.
The town itself sits in a fertile valley enveloped on either side by rambling hills all carpeted in thick green forest. The paddies and fields of the town provide the main sustenance for the people living there and elegantly change colour with the seasons. In Spring, the fields are bursting with the bright, vivid green of the young plants. Over the Summer this gradually changes, the paddies morphing into a sea of gold in the Autumn.
Most of the towns are populated by the White Thai ethnic groups but there are also some others in the area such as the H’mong Village of Xa Linh. The villages are small and blend seamlessly with the environment. The majority of houses are skillfully built using a combination of bamboo and timber with thatched roofs, the natural materials complimenting the unblemished surroundings. The main trades in this undisturbed settling, weaving and farming, are now complemented by the tourism that the area attracts. The hospitality of the local families is one of the main charms of the area. The laid-back atmosphere of the environment seems to be an extension of the warm, easy going people that live there.
See and Do
Because of the immense natural beauty of the area, most people go to Mai Chau to relax and enjoy their surroundings. There are a number of different activities on offer that highlight the charm of the area. The TREK
from the Thai village of Ban Lac
to the H’mong village of Xa Linh
is a popular route for taking in the views of the valley. It is also a great opportunity to meet the local people, see them working diligently in the fields, expertly weaving gorgeous textiles and living in harmony with nature. This 18km trek, with an approximate elevation of 1000 meters, can be tough going but the views are well worth the effort.
Lac Village, one of many ethnic villages in Mai Chau valley.
Another fantastic viewpoint is the Thung Khe
mountain pass which offers stunning views of Mai Chau from above. Carved into the white rock mountain, this sweeping road is said to experience all four seasons in just one day. Starting with the dewy, misty Spring mornings follwed by the bright Summer’s sun in the afternoon, the cool Autumnal breeze in the evening and finally the harsh Winter's night.
Back in the valley, there are plenty of activities to put you back in touch with nature. The local people are always keen to share their farming expertise and lifestyle with visitors. Visitors can spend time with a local farmer, drinking in the fresh air and learning the traditional techniques of organic farming
. It is a relaxing and wholesome way to spend the day, with the sound of birds floating through the air and the beautiful butterflies that flit by. It is also a great opportunity to gain some knowledge of the different Vietnamese vegetables and how to pick the best ones.
As well as the luxurious green farmland and dramatic mountains, Mai Chau also boasts some impressive caves, one of which sits at the top of a steep hill. Chieu Cave
or 1000 step cave is a mysterious chamber which is used as a place of prayer. The jagged opening of the cave is spiked with stalactites and stalagmites and curious rock formations. As well as the cave itself, the views from here are remarkable, the tiny colourful houses of the village below, the rolling green fields and the imposing mountains.
Kho Muong Cave in Pu Luong Nature Reserve.
Another cave, located in Pu Kha Mountain
, is Mo Luong Cave
. This captivating underground labyrinth is easily accessible and has two entrances. It is made up of four spectacular grottoes each one grandly decorated by weathered rock formations which shimmer in the light that streaks through the darkness. Some of the most special formations are the bright white stalactites that drip from the ceiling.
Gorgeous view of Puong Nature Reserve.
A short journey from Mai Chau is Pu Luong Nature Reserve
. This beautifully preserved area comprises of rich, primary tropical rainforest, limestone peaks and fertile agricultural land. It is a fantastic place to explore the wilderness of the Vietnamese countryside or stop to meet the locals and bond over a refreshing cup of tea. The stunning scenery is best experienced on foot or by bicycle which can be rented easily from one of the villages.
Culture and Arts
The majority of visitors to Mai Chau will stay in one of the traditional bamboo stilt houses
. This is the perfect cultural discovery as you will not only get to experience the charm of sleeping in a beautifully crafted traditional house, but you will also get to experience the warmth of the families that live there. Here you can enjoy a hearty dinner of local produce with the homestay family, followed by a bonding session over the local rice wine. The sleeping areas in these wooden structures are spacious and open giving a pure and simple atmosphere to them. The nights in Mai Chau are still and peaceful and just what is needed after a day of exploring.
Traditional bamboo stilt-house.
The people of the Thai ethnic minority communities are known for their creativity which shines through in the intricate brocade they weave
by hand. The women sit outside at their handmade looms, expertly manipulating the colorful threads in and out to create amazingly detailed patterns. You can watch the women hard at work in the warm sun or learn some more about the art and even have a go yourself.
Another traditional art is the Thai folk dancing
in which stories of traditional life in rural Vietnam are recreated as dances. Young people wear their finest traditional outfits and perform either accompanied by music or an orchestra of traditional singing and cheering. The young women become a flurry of colour as they elegantly glide through the air waving their colourful fans. The jovial atmosphere of the performances will have onlookers captivated by the colourful Thai culture.
As with the rest of Vietnam, the Sunday market
is the busiest social event of the week. People from all of the surrounding villages gather to sell their wares and catch up with friends. Pa Co Market
is just 20km from Mai Chau and is open every Sunday. Here you can see the local H’mong people dressed in their finest attire, the colourful weaving of their outfits enhanced by the bright sun. The stalls of colourful brocade are accompanied by other handmade items, local produce and the occasional animal or two.
Food and Drink
As with the majority of Asian agricultural communities, Spring is a time to celebrate the new lunar year and pray to the gods for prosperity and happiness for the year ahead. For the Thai people of Mai Chau, it is time to celebrate Xen Bang Xen Mong.
A local woman preparing food.
The villages become awash with colour and air is filled with the scent of aromatic food wafting from the stilt houses. After initial ceremonies involving offerings to the gods, the villagers come together in frivolity to play traditional games such as nem con in which a ball made of rags is tossed into the air and there are bow and arrow and gun shooting competitions. Each year, the valley fills with the sound traditional Thai drumming. Everybody dresses in their best clothing, and the town becomes an excited flurry of celebration.
A typical Muong meal.
The Thai community also celebrates the Praying for Rain Festival
in which they come together to pray to the God of Water for plentiful rain for their crops. After sharing their wishes with the god, the local people celebrate with singing, dancing and games.