Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Exploring Countryside Mai Chau, Vietnam by Bike

By  Tim Russell
Northern Vietnam is worth a visit for many reasons – the charming capital Hanoi, the incredible scenery of Halong Bay, the stunning landscapes of Ninh Binh – but for many visitors, the mountains and rice terraces of the northern mountains are the biggest draw.

The mountain town of Sapa and its surroundings are without doubt the best spot to enjoy Vietnam’s northern scenery at its grandest, but given that getting there & back requires two overnight train journeys, expensive helicopter flights or an epic (but spectacular) road trip, many visitors simply don’t have the time to go there, which is where Mai Chau comes in as a handy and more convenient substitute.

Spectacular Mai Chau valley 
Situated a short-ish and mostly scenic 3.5-hour drive from Hanoi, Mai Chau is comparatively accessible and can thus be done as a 1 or 2-night trip, possibly combined with Kenh Ga & Ninh Binh on the way back to the capital.

That’s exactly what I do, heading out of Hanoi early one bright morning and heading south-west through increasingly beautiful and mountainous scenery until, after heading over one last mountain pass, we drop down into Mai Chau valley, with tiny villages with smoking chimneys dotted against a background so green it is hard to believe it is actually real.

A village of traditional stilthouses
My destination? Pom Coong, a White Thai minority village where several villagers operate family homestays, allowing guests to share their charming stilthouses whilst they go about their usual business of farming, cooking and weaving. And what wonderful hosts they are – arriving just in time for lunch, I’m presented with various local dishes (the grilled pork, sourced right from the village itself, is particularly tasty) and some cold beers, before the man of the house appears with a bicycle and encourages me to follow him on a personal tour of the neighbouring villages & countryside. I quickly realize that Pom Coong is actually pretty touristy – few of the other villages have more than one or two houses offering homestays and next time I vow to pick one of those. It’s a great area for cycling though – mostly flat (though hillier routes are available for more serious cyclists than I) along narrow paths through scenic stilthouse villages inhabited by locals who are rarely exposed to foreign tourists (the advantage of using one of the villagers as a guide rather than a professional tour guide I guess).

Friendly White Thai kids
We arrive home late afternoon, just in time to watch the women of the family preparing dinner and refusing all offers of help – it seems my job is simply to sit & drink beer & watch the sun set behind the mountains, a position I am more than capable of filling. After another superb home-cooked meal, I wander to the main village square to buy a couple of woven wall hangings for my office and to watch a traditional music & dance performance which, though I’m not convinced they’d be doing it if there were no tourists here, feels a lot more authentic and heartfelt than other such performances I’ve witnessed in the past.

Then it’s time for one of the high points of the trip – bed. Why? Because I’m sleeping upstairs in a stilthouse, on a thin mattress under a mosquito net, with the cows & pigs snuffling around downstairs as a cool mountain breeze blows in through the window. I enjoy an utterly blissful night’s sleep and, were it not for the irresistible odours of fresh coffee & fried eggs drifting upstairs at 6.30am the following morning, would undoubtedly have slept a lot longer. (NB for those who really don’t feel like roughing it to this extent, more luxurious accommodation is provided by Mai Chau Lodge, a 4* property with pool, sauna and all the usual facilities.)

Locally woven fabrics are an essential purchase
Breakfast done, and it’s time to “catch” today’s lunch – one of the free range chickens that roam around the village at will. This, much to the delight of the French children staying in the house next door, is accomplished using a bow & arrow, and my host is a veritable Robin Hood when it comes to archery, dispatching his chosen target with skill & accuracy.

Whilst the unfortunate victim is prepared for the pot, I head off for more cycling & photography, returning just in time to enjoy the fruits of the morning’s hunt – food always seems to taste better if you’ve seen it alive. I then bid a sad farewell to my wonderful hosts, and head back to my car for the journey back to Hanoi, via Kenh Ga, more about which in a future post.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Biking Hidden Paths of Mai Chau & Ninh Binh tour.This trip offers a great opportunity to see the two area of outstanding nature beauty; the North West highlands of Mai Chau and the limestone mountains of Ninh Binh. Biking is a great way to see this fascinating and visually stunning part of Vietnam, offering both physical activity and the unique opportunity to observe a way of life that has changed little over the centuries. As we ride in Mai Chau we encounter Muong and White Thai minorities and are guests in their traditional stilt houses allowing us to see firsthand how these minority peoples live. In Ninh Binh we explore the beauty of “Halong Bay on the rice fields” on bikes.
  • Awesome scenery
  • Tam Coc - the "Halong Bay on the rice fields"
  • Homestay in Thai village
  • Traditional foot massage


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