Vietnam Beyond the Bustle: Mai Chau Valley
Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon… Most travelers to Vietnam know these city’s names well and are sure to include them in their itinerary. But Vietnam is a massive country (far bigger than I imagined!) with a wealth of remarkable places to visit. One of the best? Mai Chau Valley, several hours from Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.
Knowing very little about the region, Mai Chau hadn’t been on my Southeast Asia bucket list prior to my travels, but a friend had strongly recommended Vietnam Backpacker Hostels’ Mai Chau Valley trip, and I couldn’t pass up a chance to see Vietnam beyond its hectic cities by paying a visit to the valley’s peaceful villages and rice paddies.
The journey from chaotic Hanoi to rural Mai Chau Valley alone was replete with new sights, and, after several hours, we arrived at our accommodation for the next two nights, a homestay in the form of a hut upon stilts with the greenest of rice paddies as far as the eye could see. The tour included family style meals of traditional Vietnamese food, so we kicked off our visit by sampling a generous variety of Vietnamese meats and vegetables while cozying up to the family’s adorable puppies.
After lunch, we set out on bicycles to explore the surrounding village. The scenery was stunning beyond belief, as green as you can imagine, rice paddies and lush hills everywhere you turned, accented by narrow dirt roads and wooden huts. Toto, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
On one of these narrow dirt roads, we passed a stall where women were weaving blankets, scarves, bags, and more by hand, and they demonstrated to us how the foot pedal weaving machine worked and showed off their wares. Later, we arrived in the village center, and there we learned about and observed a bigger weaving operation, where about twenty locals were employed. By night, we dined at the homestay, chatting with new friends and enjoying the peace and serenity of being far, far away from urban society.
On day two, we ventured beyond our village, and, to do so, we made like true Vietnamese people and hopped on motorbikes. The previous day, our guide had provided lessons for all that wanted to drive the motorbike themselves, but we also had an option to pay a few dollars to ride with an experienced driver. Nervous about my motorcycle skills and preferring to sit back and enjoy the scenery, I opted to pay for a driver. Not only was I able to converse with a local about his experiences in the area, but I also got to relax and take photos of the immense beauty surrounding us.
Not long after we began our ride, an ominous thunderstorm rolled in, and, before we knew it, we were getting drenched in a torrential downpour. Entering a village, we pulled over to wait for the storm to subside and had a few drinks while playing cards and listening to the pouring rain around us.
After the rain passed, we set off again, although the dirt roads had turned into sticky mud, and navigating on a motorcycle became no small feat. Here, I was especially glad to have paid for a driver who knew the roads like the back of his hand, but I was impressed by my fellow travelers’ perseverance in plodding through deep mud and fording puddles. A sunny day may have been lovely, but I’ll take the mud-splattering adventure any day!
After lunch at another homestay in a nearby village, we stopped to visit a chopstick factory. Our guide explained the grueling work and minimal pay the employees experience, and I felt no shortage of gratitude for the fortunate lifestyle I get to live.
The sun had finally come out to play, which was perfect for our venture up 1300 steps to a natural cave. The climb was an exhausting challenge, but we all made it to the top, well worth it because of the stunning view of the valley below from the cave’s entrance.
That night, back at the homestay, we enjoyed the food and company again, but we were also treated to a traditional musical performance with colorful costumes, exotic sounds, and captivating story-telling through dance.
Our final day in Mai Chau came all too soon, but, first, another day of adventure. We hopped on the motorbikes once more and made our way to a lake, where we jumped aboard a boat. After touring the lake for a bit, we were given respite from the heat and humidity with a refreshing swim. It was here that it hit me that many of my favorite travel memories of all time include jumping into rivers, lakes, and oceans – and this was no exception. We sun-dried ourselves, boarded the motorbikes one last time, passed a lovely waterfall, and bid farewell to the natural beauty of Mai Chau Valley before returning to hectic Hanoi.
Like many Westerners, my images of Vietnam prior to visiting were largely informed by Vietnam War newsreels and films. Yes, those involve death, violence, and tragedy, but I had always looked beyond the horror and noticed the lush, green, remote landscapes of a country that felt planets away. By visiting Mai Chau Valley, I experienced the beautiful, rural side of Vietnam I had long imagined, and Vietnam Backpacker Hostels’ homestay and tour was the perfect mix of tranquil and adventurous. Lucky for me, I had another two unforgettable weeks in Vietnam to go, and Mai Chau set a perfect tone for the rest.