Home to small stilt houses of the White Thai ethnic group, Mai Chau Valley located in Hoa Binh Province is known for its idyllic beauty and rich cultural identity. Resting within jungled hills not too far from Hanoi capital, Mai Chau offers you a peaceful, relaxed getaway. Read on to find out the best Mai Chau has to offer, and also what to see and do during your stay there.
Location: Mai Chau District, Hoa Binh Province, 130 kilometers from Hanoi
I.Highlights of Mai Chau Valley
As one of the most famous homestay villages in Vietnam, Mai Chau is home to the White Thai ethnic group, a group distantly related to those in Laos and China. White Thai people own special cultural customs and unique farming techniques. One of the most distinctive features of Thai people’s lifestyle is their housing architecture.
Hemmed in the hills, the clusters of stilt houses nestle quietly. Thai stilt houses are primarily made of wooden and bamboo pillars and rise 2-3 meters above the ground. The empty space below is kept for livestock while the upper space is for the family’s daily life activities. Numerous stilt-house homestays can be found in Lac Village, the most well-known village in the area.
Thai people are known as fantastic cooks and excellent craftsmen. It will be such a shame if you miss the chance to taste the mouth-watering local cuisines, which are dishes heavily drawn from the land. Thai women are renowned by their sophisticated weaving techniques. Stocking up on some handmade brocades is a good idea to keep your memories about the northwest cultures in Vietnam.
Beside the tranquility of rice paddy fields, rustic charms of the village and the sophisticated handicrafts, one can also find the large karst limestone caves in Mai Chau appealing. The biggest ones are Mo Luong Cave and Chieu Cave, both of which host exciting hiking and trekking activities.
II. What to See and Do in Mai Chau Valley?
1. Spend the night at an authentic homestay
Waking up to the sound of roosters crowing is surely an exciting experience. You are welcome to spend the night at any Mai Chau homestay villages: Mai Chau, Pom Coong or Lac. The homestays are owned by the White Thai people, providing both accommodations, meals and cultural performances. Surrounded by idyllic villages, brilliant-green rice paddies, verdant jungles and towering mountain tops, what else can one ask for?
Spending the night, you will be most stunned about the local delicacies prepared by the hospitable hosts. The signature cuisines are sticky rice steamed in bamboo cylinders, roasted “man” pig and bitter bamboo shoots. You will “experience” drinking wine in a way you never tried before: sipping through straws from a clay jar. For your information, “Can” liquor is widely known in Vietnam for its unique taste and intriguing drinking practice.
Also, sleeping on a mattress on the bamboo creaky floor is also a brand new experience to most tourists. Don’t worry, mosquito nets and blankets are available in most homestays. Stilt houses are extremely well-ventilated, so you won’t need air-conditioning at all.
The cultural performances include Tai dances from the local troupes, featuring Thai girls dressing in their best costumes, singing and dancing along traditional folk songs. You are almost certain to fall in love with the one-of-a-kind cultural characteristics of the Thai ethnic group displayed here.
2. Cycle or hike around the valley
Hotel and homestay owners are bound to assist you with bicycle rentals. Cycling around the rice paddies, enjoying the scenic setting, inhaling fresh countryside air, you will surely have a lot to capture on camera. Come to Mai Chau in spring and you’ll see wildflowers blooming, one of the most significant draws Mai Chau has to offer.
The roads in Mai Chau are dirt roads, but they are perfectly okay for biking or hiking. Refer to a local guide for the suitable biking/hiking trails for you and your family.
3. Explore Mai Chau’s caves
Mai Chau’s two largest caves are Mo Luong Cave and Chieu Cave. Both are based on karst limestone bedrock, the same kind of geological formations that created the islands of Ha Long Bay. Mo Luong Cave is a cave inside Mount Phu Ka, stretching about 500 meters. There are two entrances to the cave, connecting to a large cathedral interior, before branching out four different caverns.
Chieu Cave can only be reached by a 1200-step staircase. The interior extends about 140 meters in the mountain and branches out to two chambers.
For a full day trip, you might go far away on a kayaking excursion near the Hoa Binh Lake. There is a beautiful body of water surrounded by jungled hills. Not satisfied yet? Go as far as the Pu Luong Nature Reserve. A wander into the forest is promising for adventurous ones.
4. Shop for local crafts
Traditional customs define different roles for Thai men and women. Women are assigned to weave clothing for the whole family and in the recent days, for sale. They specialize in weaving brocades: silk fabrics rich in color and raised patterns.
The process is handmade from beginning to end. They start with harvesting silkworm cocoons, reeling the silk from the cocoons, dying the threads using natural colors, and ending with selling them on the markets. You will find looms in each and every of Thai people’s household.
Regarding brocade purchases, you are expected (and even welcome) to haggle in the market. However, be polite and understanding, as the whole process to produce a piece of brocades is extremely sophisticated, fully manmade and very time-consuming. Supporting locals with a reasonable amount of money spent on souvenirs is a way to support preserving their magnificent cultures.
III. How to Get to Mai Chau Valley?
Local buses are readily available at your choice. From Hanoi, you can choose one of the 4 buses that go to Mai Chau Town, a short walk from Lac and Pom Coong Village. You might want to rent a car or motorbike to enjoy a private experience, but please take into account the weather. It will be very foggy during winter and early spring, thus not safe for driving or biking on your own.
IV. Tips on Visiting Mai Chau Valley
Being on a high altitude, Mai Chau possesses a very cold winter and very hot summer. The best time to visit Mai Chau fall either between the latter half of February to the end of May, or between the autumn months from October to November. The late spring will be a time for blooming flowers, a note worth taking for traveling to Mai Chau.
If you wish to spend a few extra days and explore the neighboring area, refer to a local guide. They will recommend you to visit Mai Hich Village, Pa Co Market and Thung Khe Pass, the three less touristy attractions near Mai Chau.
One might call the Mai Chau experience “too sanitized”, as it has been long exploited by tourism. However, if you’re looking for a quiet getaway from the city’s hustle, some great biking and hiking, and extraordinary culinary experiences, Mai Chau Valley is definitely next on your list. Come and see for yourself, the rustic villages, green rice paddies and tall mountain tops of the northwest of Vietnam.