How to Have Fun in Charming Mai Chau, Vietnam

How to Have Fun in Charming Mai Chau, Vietnam

Mai Chau is a beautiful valley with an abundance of rice fields, mountains, Thai ethnic groups and the opportunity to exchange with locals.

That’s just perfect for getting away.

 

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mai chau village bench and mountains
Mai Chau Village Entrance. Photo: Urban Pax

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Traditional ways of living and working are still important in Mai Chau. You won’t find any big hotels or roads filled with restaurants.

The valley is about essentials.

Family, hard work and nature.

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mai chau chairs in front of nature
Photo: Urban Pax

 

For views of amazing rice fields, our other choice was Sapa which requires an overnight train and a bus in the wee hours of the morning. And as much time on the way back.

So we chose to leave it for another time and I don’t regret it!

In Mai Chau, we were practically alone with locals and no one tried to sell us anything. The low season proved to be the best time to go, but try to avoid weekends when Hanoians escape the chaos of their city

 

mai chau ethnic girl selfie
Mai Chau Village. Photo: Urban Pax

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.Early in the morning, we boarded a bus from Hanoi to Mai Chau. We couldn’t wait to be in an unspoiled environment surrounded by rice fields, small local villages, and good food.

The uncomfortable heat and humidity followed us all the way. Small bus, small seats, and the driver clearly thought he was Schumacher.

Eventually, when passengers complained he slowed down, but soon after he was back on the formula 1 tracks.

Throughout our time in Vietnam, we discovered this is a very common way of driving.

Regardless, the 4-hour ride allowed us to get a glimpse of Hanoi outside of the old quarter walls and beyond all the way to our destination.

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mai chau men outside sitting
Hanoi. Photo: Urban Pax

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I was surprised to see that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam still displays billboards of communist propaganda in the city streets as well as in the countryside.

Around every other turn, there was another billboard.

Seems the people of this country are trying hard to evolve toward modern times, and although they may have a ways to go, I got the impression that the government had different thoughts on the matter.

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bus to mai chau red road billboard
Hanoi Billboards. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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We passed several young boys and girls selling whatever they could to make a few dongs.

Everyone works, everyone finds a way to make daily life better no matter their age.

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mai chau vendors stand with umbrella
Hanoi Photo: Urban Pax

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mai chau intersection billboard and family on motorbike
Hanoi Photo: Urban Pax

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Halfway through the ride, the driver made a 30 minute stop and we admired the cloudy valley of Mai Chau. Some locals had set up stalls to sell their produce and handmade products.

Since we were in the middle of nowhere, I thought they set up for tourists, but as locals started crowding the area I realized it was also their one-stop spot.

 

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mai chau fresh produce stand
Mai Chau Valley. Photo: Urban Pax

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pano view mai chau valley
Mai Chau Valley. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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After way too many winding roads and some amazing views, the driver screeched to a halt, opened the bus door and yelled out Mai Chau.

Finally! We got off the bus and walked trying to “instinctively” find our way.

I would have gladly asked someone for directions but there was no one around, only beautiful rice fields, a water lily pond and several dirt roads.

So we kept walking, I figured eventually we’d get there.

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mai chau water lily pond
Mai Chau. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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Out of nowhere, a well-dressed woman crossed our path.

High heels and chic handbag she seemed out of sync with the luscious greens and mountain scenery. We asked her where is Sunset? This is where we’re staying.

She pointed us in the right direction with a big smile and off we went.

About 300 meters up the road a young woman comes running towards us welcoming us from afar as if she’d known us forever.

Her name is Linh and she runs the Sunset, a small place with clean rooms and an incredible view of their family rice field.

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green ricefield evening
Mai Chau rice field. Photo: Urban Pax

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Hotels have not yet spoiled the natural beauty of Mai Chau, it is still a small village. There are many homestays available and this option is an invitation to meet locals and enjoy low key comforts.

Clearly, everything in Mai Chau is about family.

Family members work together, help each other out, live together, it’s all intertwined at all levels,  everyone knows each other or are related in some way.

And Linh took us in like a part of the family.

And the very well-dressed woman turns out to be her sister.

 

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5 FUN THINGS TO DO IN MAI CHAU

 

GET ON A BICYCLE

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mai chau 2 girls on bikes in field
Mai Chau Bike Riding. Photo: Urban Pax

 

Homestays will usually let you borrow their bicycles to explore this little corner of the world.

Bike through different villages, take a closer look at traditional houses, how local families work and even play with kids along the way.

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mai chau children playing on street
Mai Chau kids playing. PHoto: Urban Pax

 

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mai chau traditional house with flag
Mai Chau Traditional Home. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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mai chau house in field
Photo: Urban Pax

 

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TAKE A WALK

If for some reason you can’t ride bicycles, then walking is the next best thing. Just a small note: you will run across some dogs and other animals on the way, although some are cute, don’t get too close. They will ignore you if you ignore them.

Walking has a big advantage in that you can talk to people, or at least try to communicate. It’s a slower more intimate way of understanding Mai Chau.

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mai chau child sitting on mother's lap
Mai Chau Mother and Son. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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mai chau girl and woman with pack
Mai Chau farmer. Photo: Urban Pax

 

While walking we came across this beautiful woman carrying a heavy basket on her back. We offered to help her as the weight of her goods forced her back to completely bend forward. But she refused even though we insisted.

Instead, she made us understand that we could immortalize the moment.

 

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mai chau woman carrying heavy basket
Mai Chau. Photo: Urban Pax

 

 

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COOK WITH A FAMILY

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mai chau family cooking
Mai Chau Cooking. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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This is a food lovers paradise. Ok so maybe after 3 weeks you feel like eating garlic pasta or a salmon bagel, but we hadn’t reached that point yet and couldn’t get enough of rice and noodles in every which way possible 🙂

We had a blast cooking with Linh’s family. It was a last minute proposition and we didn’t hesitate to sneak into their kitchen and share a cooking moment together.

We tried verbal communication but that was impossible as they knew about as much English as we knew Vietnamese, so instead, we laughed and mimed a lot!

The best part, of course, was dinner, eating what we cooked and filling up on human moments.

 

VISIT A NEARBY VILLAGE

mai chau buoc village staw house
Buoc Village. Photo: Urban Pax

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What a night! Sooo incredibly hot, roosters crowing, tractors working, birds making loud sounds, and dogs barking everywhere.

People get up very early to start working. The air is very humid and black clouds threaten the valley.

We asked someone to drive us to Buoc Village on the road to Moc Chau, where Thai and Dzao communities live.

It’s a small village where farmers work the land, rice, and corn. The traditional wooden houses are raised to keep the family and the animals safe when the area floods.

Loi the person who drove us told us that his uncle lives in this village. He used to live with his parents way up in the remote mountains but he felt isolated and decided to come live with his uncle instead.

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mai chau buoc village house
Uncle’s House. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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His sister decided to try her luck in Hanoi and after finding work she sends money back to the village on a regular basis. I asked him if he would also like to “try his luck”  but without hesitation, he answered no, I like my village and although I miss my sister, we see each other every Christmas.
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mai chau buoc village small boy in window
Buoc Village Boy. Photo: Urban Pax

 

As we walked we saw many women working in front of their homes drying large batches of corn, a staple in the village.

 

mai chau corn outside house
Buoc Village Drying Corn. Photo: Urban Pax

 

Corn takes a long time to dry, then it’s separated according to its color. Yellow corn is for the villagers and while white corn is for the animals.

 

mai chau woman working with dry corn
Buoc Village Woman working with Corn. Photo: Urban Pax

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It was 40C degrees with extreme humidity.

In this type of weather, the body slows down and forces you to sweat out every ounce of energy from your being, making just walking around a big deal.

I have an enormous respect for these farmers that mentally override the heat and work all day the way they do.

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buoc village gray cow under roof
Buoc Village. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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mai chau buoc village house with bridge
Buoc Village. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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mai chau buoc open field 2 girls walking
Buoc Village Walking Fields. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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mai chau buoc 2 girls playing
Mai Chau Kids. Photo: Urban Pax

 

We spent the whole day with Loi in this small and authentic village, walking the streets, dirt roads, into the fields.  Buoc village is a mixture of traditions, hard work, and generous people.

All we wanted was someone to drive us here and we ended up making a friend. What a great coincidence (for us) that he was from this village!

 

TAKE A SWIM

The biggest hotel you’ll find is Mai Chau Lodge is on the edge of the main road, and it’s not very big.

But it does have all the comfort and amenities you can expect from a decent hotel.

One morning as the heat was already getting to us, we accidentally found out that this place had a pool! Water! Swimming! And of course, my girls were ecstatic.

Only thing though, it was quite a walk down the long dirt road under sweltering heat. But images of splashing in refreshing waters motivated the sisters. So with a towel and 100,000 dongs, they were in.

For families with kids, this can be a very inexpensive lifesaver.

 

GO FURTHER

PU LUONG RESERVE

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vietnam rice fields

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Pu Luong is located in the province of Tanh Hoa and is a must “off the beaten path” type of experience. It is a bit hard to get to but knowing you’ll breathe freely is well worth the effort.

You’ll be surrounded by high mountains on either side, divided by a valley below and traditional villages dispersed here and there. Forests galore and 3 different biosystems live in the Pu Luong Reserve. It’s as natural as it gets.

If you are a hardcore trekker climb 5 hours to the highest summit and be rewarded with a stunning and breathtaking view of the valley.

Or if you are an “easy take your time walker” or prefer gliding on a bamboo raft or riding a bicycle then your options are multiple.

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mai chau house behind green foliage

 

Either way, it’s best to find a guide, not only to learn about the area but also to avoid getting lost in the vastness of the reserve.

Located about 1h30 hours from Mai Chau, Pu Luong has no “western influences” and you’ll have to do with minimal comfort.

But it does have over 1000 species of plants, birds, and animals combined and is a true sanctuary for wildlife surrounded by rice fields and karstic formations. It’s also an opportunity to immerse yourself in the traditions of Thai and Muong communities.

There are a few homestays in the village ranging from a mattress on the floor with mosquito nets, to more comfortable rooms nestled within some luxurious vegetation.

Whichever you choose you will find locals are very friendly with generous smiles.

 

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4 Options to get to Mai Chau

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mai chau people waiting at bus stop
Mai Chau Street. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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  • There are buses that leave from My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi. Not expensive but can be uncomfortable.
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  • Hire a driver via your hotel as they have several contacts on hand. Comfortable ride but may be expensive unless you’re a fine negotiator.
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  • Taxi, you could try and agree on a price beforehand, but that’s not really recommended as the language barrier can cause confusion and in the end, you may be in for an unpleasant financial surprise.
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  • We booked a shuttle bus online run by Mai Chau Eco Lodge, even though we didn’t stay there. It was really hot in the bus and seats aren’t the best, but the price was reasonable.
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  • The bus stops at several central points in the Old Quarter for pick up and drops you off at the village entrance in Mai Chau. You will have to walk to your destination.
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  • On the way back to Hanoi we just flagged down a bus on the main road. It had a sign HANOI slapped on the window so we figured we were good.

 

 

mai chau bus girl with pencil mustache
Bus Mai Chau-Hanoi. Photo: Urban Pax

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But the bus was more than full and the driver suggested I use the passenger seat up front.

However, he didn’t mention my legs would be folded over several times! I had to share it with 3 12 packs of water, big boxes and other bags of stuff plus my own bag.

Good thing I travel light.

My two girls were right behind me squished like sardines between dolphin curtains and another uncomfortable passenger, but somehow we made the best of it and ended up appreciating small comforts.

What a relief when we were able to stretch! Apparently, this is unusual?

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mai chau street emblem across road
Road Mai Chau-Hanoi. Photo: Urban Pax

 

 

PACO MARKET

Mai chau paco market young girl
Paco Market young girl. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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It happens all over the world. Markets. Markets Markets. A condensed reflection of local life.

Pa Co market is very small and takes place at the end of a semi dirt road. Roughly 1-hour drive or so from Mai Chau via winding roads offering incredible views.

I could feel my heart stop several times, because of the view but also because of the way people drive in Vietnam!

This time my girls stayed in Mai Chau taking a break from my worldwide market obsession.

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mai chau market girls outside
Paco Market. Photo: Urban Pax

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In some places in the world you can blend right in, but not in Pa Co.

I was clearly a strange human. No way I could fit in and go unnoticed!

At first, I thought the market was actually on the street as vendors were everywhere but then realized there is an actual entrance.

All the way through the crowds,  I felt different pairs of eyes discretely following me. It was actually pretty funny since I was doing the same thing.

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2 girls holding hands paco mai chau
Girls holding hands. Photo: Urban Pax

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Hmong families meet every Sunday to buy and sell fabrics, colorful clothing and buy food.  Socializing once a week is important and a way of making up for the lack of contact as they live in remote areas.

Is it very romantic – or pragmatic? that the market also serves the purpose of “matchmaking” amongst young people 🙂 Maybe both.

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mai chau paco row of girls ethnic
Paco Market Girls in ethnic clothes. Photo: Urban Pax

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Different ethnic groups have different colored clothing sewn by women who buy their fabrics at the market.

 

mau chau market orange ethnic fabric
Paco Market Traditional Colors. Photo:Urban Pax

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I walked the aisles filled with piles of bright reds, blues, purples and yellows.

Some women had a puzzled look on their face when we made eye contact and others smiled generously. I smiled back wishing I could talk to them, but considering the language barrier we settled for a smile.

In the far corner, a television sat alone against the wall and older kids stood in front watching, while younger children ran around everywhere saying hello nonstop until their mother gathered them back up.

 

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paco market kids watching tv
Paco Market Girls watching TV. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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Pa Co market mother with children
Paco Market Family. Photo: Urban Pax

 

There was something graceful about these women and an aura of pride for who they were and what they stood for.

 

Pa Co market woman posing
Paco Market. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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woman selling goods under an umbrella
Paco Market Selling Goods. Photo:Urban Pax

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It was time for me to leave.

My girls were doing fine without me but Pa Co is not a big market and so I made my way out slowly trying to grasp something unknown that I may have missed.

On the outside, the market continued.

Vendors laid out their goods on makeshift tables, in baskets, and in other creative places.

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paco market motorbike with chickens
Paco Market. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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fruits vegetables outside market paco
Paco Market. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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woman sitting selling fish Paco Mai Chau
Paco Market Fish. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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paco outside group selling and buying
Paco Market. Photo: Urban Pax

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My last smile in Pa Co was a radiant lady who attempted to talk with me.

I understood she wanted me to taste her cooking. But I had just bought several handfuls of chom chom from another woman.

Yes, I confess I could eat endless amounts of rambutans!

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mai chau vendor smiling
Paco Market Beautiful Smile. Photo: Urban Pax

 

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woman selling pile of ramboutan paco vietnam
Paco Market Rambutans. Photo: Urban Pax

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Our last night in Mai Chau was memorable with carefree laughter and a great meal.

We really love everything about this place and after a good night’s sleep, it’s an early morning start back to Hanoi then an early flight to Hoi An.

 

mai chau evening light over rice fields
Mai Chau Rice Field. Photo: Urban Pax

 

 

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fun in charming mai chau vietnam