Paddy fields in the Mai Chau Valley in the northern province of Hoa Binh
There is arguably no other place in Vietnam that enchants visitors as much as the northwestern region. And the place that leaves the highest number of indelible impressions on the mind is the Mai Chau Town in Hoa Binh Province, known also as the Mai Chau Valley.
With the cultural characteristics of the Thai ethnic minority residents lending added sparkle to a landscape of lush green fields, mountains and streams, a world vastly different from bustling cities and towns can be found in Mai Chau.
A popular way to get there is to drive a bike along National Highway 6, going past the 12 kilometers Doc Cun (literally meaning Cun Slope, but it is in fact a mountain pass) and the Thung Nhuoi Mountain pass to get to the valley.
The first sighting of Mai Chau, a hollow with terraced fields and thatched stilt houses is particularly striking during winter and autumn days when they are shrouded in fog and clouds. Not surprisingly, people tend to stop for a long time atop the Cun Slope to take in the view before proceeding, and thousands of pictures are taken here every day to give each person his or her panoramic view of Mai Chau.
In the summer, though, the sky is so clear and blue in Mai Chau that it is as if the heavens want to make emends for the long winter days.
Once visitors reach the place guided by clear road signs along the way, the Lac Village (or Chieng Chau) "” a noted Thai Village with 106 stilt houses, the Pom Coong Hamlet, and the Van Village with its vast green fields are all must-see attractions.
Mai Chau is also known for the Lac Village, where the resident ethnic minority community makes a sticky rice dish that has become a renowned culinary product of the region. It is also a beautiful place nestling in the green valley with vast paddy fields and white clouds covering the whole village in the afternoon.
Mai Chau is just five kilometers south of Tong Dau junction on National Highway 6. There's no direct public transport to Mai Chau from Hanoi; however, buses to nearby Hoa Binh Town are plentiful. From Hoa Binh there are several scheduled buses to Mai Chau daily. Usually these stop at the Tong Dau junction; you can take a xe om (motorbike taxi) from there to Mai Chau.
Or you can just drive a motorbike from Hanoi and follow directions.
The Trieu Cave with its unique stalactites is another attraction that is worth visiting.
Because of its rising popularity, Mai Chau residents now offer home-stay services. Visitors can enjoy staying in stilt houses for VND15,000-30,000 (US$0.7-1.4) per person per night. The two-meter-high stilt houses made of wood are clean and airy, and an ideal place to rest and hide from the sun during the summer.
This is a great place to do nothing but wander around, soaking in the sights and sounds. Rent a bicycle and ride around green fields or just sit on the floor to watch young Thai girls knit and weave.
A guided trekking tour around the town is another worthwhile activity.
On Sundays, tourists can walk to the Mai Chau Market where people from different minority communities living in the mountains come to sell their special products like honey, bananas, corn, and traditional-style brocade products woven by skilled Thai women.
The Lonely Planet travel guide praises the Thai people of Mai Chau as being less likely to employ strong-arm sales tactics than their H'mong counterparts in Sa Pa: polite bargaining is the norm rather than endless haggling, it notes.
The town gets lively on weekend evenings when Thai girls and boys gather and sit around fire to enjoy their traditional music and dance performances. The drumming sounds from the village's main stilt house mark the beginning of a "night out", with boys and girls dressed in traditional clothes performing traditional dances.
For more unforgettable memories, Mai Chau offers a wide range of special dishes including the cơm lam (rice cooked in a bamboo pipe, served with grilled boar meat and citronella salt), gà Ä‘á»“i (hill chicken), xôi nếp nương (sticky rice planted in terraced-fields) and different kinds of grilled meat.