As mentioned from a previous post, we chose Mai Chau for a quick weekend getaway. While it is not the first item on the must-do list for visitors to Vietnam, we highly recommend it as a more authentic, budget-friendly alternative to Sapa.
Mai Chau is about 3.5 hours ride away from Hanoi, and it definitely presents a much different scenery and atmosphere. The area can be described as pure rural. While Sapa and even Tam Dao each has a downtown area filled with shops and restaurants, Mai Chau’s downtown area only consists of one main street running through the town. There is not much there either except for bus stops. Most visitors spend their time in the actual villages where life goes on at a much slower pace.
The town is populated by different ethnic minorities, whose cultures are definitely a big attraction. The natural scenery is also one of the major tourist draws.
While tourism is mainly underdeveloped here, the area offers enough amenities to accommodate visitors, while keeping things fairly authentic. I love the fact that you can walk around and carry a genuine conversation with the local here without being pressured to buy a souvenir or a “guided” tour.
Things to do when in Mai Chau:
In an afternoon, just borrow a bike and explore your way through out the area, you will get a feel for the life here. We spent hours on the little paths through the villages, watching ethnic girls weaves their fabric or guys cleaning their tools. Gorgeous rice fields and mountain range present plenty of photo ops.
We didn’t have enough time, but if you do have the extra energy and time, go for a hike to Hang Chieu (Afternoon Cave). The cave is situated up high in a mountain. It can only be reached after climbing 1000-step staircase. No, that’s not a figurative number, it’s literally 1000 steps. Therefore, start your trip early in the morning, and do wait until the afternoon to see the famous afternoon light shining into the cave (hence the name).
2. Visit the Thai Ethnic Museum
There is a private museum held by a private collector in town. It’s actually less of a museum and more of an overloaded storage of all sort of artifacts.
For a contribution of a dollar each, you get to walk around, take photos and look at all sorts of artifacts related to Thai people. From costumes, tools, jewelry to burial coffin and musical instruments. The privately held display is somewhat unorganized but very hands on. There is no such thing as no-touch rule so you can actually pick up a crossbow to take a closer look.
When we got there, the owner was in place. I’m not sure if he can do presentation in English, but his presentation in Vietnamese was awesome to us. The guy clearly has a strong passion for his collection and jumped enthusiastically from one display to another. At one point, he pulled out different traps and demonstrated how they work, making quick, exciting snaps and pulls. He also showed us his collection of Vietnamese money throughout the history and what they can tell about the state of the country at the time. It’s definitely more interactive and educational than anything I found in the guidebook.
3. Walk and shop at the villages
We stopped by Ban Lac (Lac Village) for a morning walk. You can shop for all sort of knicks and knacks. Hand-woven bracelets start at $1 for a set of 4, or VND5000 each. There are home-brewed rice wine, hand woven fabric and clothing items, tools and weapons like crossbow and swords. It’s definitely different than any other market!
4. Experience unique accommodation
Mai Chau offers home-stay experience in still-houses. For a very affordable price, you get to spend a night with a Thai (or a different ethnic) family. Amenities are basic at most, but the price is unbeatable and often include home-cooked, authentic meals. Sometimes night activities like campfire and/or live dance show are also included or available for a low extra fee.
This time, it was a special occasion for us, so we also splurged on the newest resort in town called Mai Chau Ecolodge. It was pricey but definitely worth every penny. The room and location is top notch. I can sit there all day just gaze out at the rice fields and at the panorama view of the mountain range in the distance. The staff was very accommodating, and during our stay, there is a live dance show by a group of ethnic performers.