My Vietnam Experience: Mai Chau

Stray New Zealander Keys continues to make us all jealous as she travels on Stray’s very first Vietnam trip… As we headed to Mai Chau, we were privy to a breathtaking sunset which highlighted the beauty of the surrounding valleys.

We descended from a mountain pass into a valley with numerous rice paddies and a smattering of villages as far as the eye could see.

Driving into the town, there were inviting signs such as racks of bikes for hire, longhouses beckoning us to stay, and rustic shops with unique items for sale. What I mean by “unique” is that each shop seemed to specialise in something slightly different, and this meant one felt compelled to visit all the shops in the town.

We pulled up to a longhouse that Richard (our Tour Leader) was already acquainted with, and the family welcomed us in. Richard and Hang (our local guide) soon sorted our accommodation and we peeled off to drop our gear in our respective rooms. Unlike the first guesthouse, we were offered smaller rooms as the owner said we would be warmer this way. In this case, the family stayed in the central (long) room and we had rooms near the main building.

After settling in, we gathered downstairs around the communal dining table and had a celebratory drink after what had already been a great day at the primate centre in the national park and a scenic drive across country (see last blog post!).

The sun had set and the temperature started to drop. By now, we were less than 150km from Hanoi and the weather had changed markedly since we left Hoi An, where I recalled last wearing shorts. Northern Vietnam does experience the four seasons and as luck would have it, we were visiting at one of the coldest times of the year. We wrapped up as much as possible and enjoyed some friendly banter while our hosts cooked us dinner.

Steaming plates of spring rolls, Vietnamese stir-fry and other tasty treats were placed in front of us and there was such an abundance, we could not finish it all. After dinner we resumed plan A and our hosts brought out a container with lots of iced beverages in it so we could help ourselves throughout the night. I brought my laptop out to add some music to the occasion. By now, we were thick as thieves having travelled together with Stray for over ten days, so it was no problem to laugh, dance, sing and joke together late into the night. Eventually, the cold sent us to bed, but not before some locals walked in and offered to add a karaoke component to the party.

The next day we were reluctant to leave our warm beds. We could see our breath in the air but in spite of the cold I forced myself to get up for some early morning snaps of village life.

The locals certainly weren’t worrying about the temperature and there was work to be done. I saw some ladies sawing bamboo up into 5 cm lengths. Hang explained these would be used for carrying sticky rice to work. I loved these biodegradable lunchboxes.

The sellers put their wares on display but were not pushy with their business, leaving us to browse at leisure the extensive selection of trinkets and memorabilia. The morning mist slowly lifted revealing the mountain range in the distance. A warm bowl of pho bo was more than welcome and once most of the group were up we went for an exploratory bike ride through the village and surrounding area.

The track was not exactly even and rather fraught with obstacles including rocks, cows, chickens, local villagers carrying large loads on their backs and other cyclists. We laughed at the chaos of it all and marvelled at the same time at what a peaceful vibe there was in Mai Chau.

After hanging out with some cows, we then headed to a bamboo stand for an impromptu photo session. This was particularly amusing as we wanted to take a photo of all the bikers on a bamboo bridge but the one who had to set the timer and dash into the photo was usually too far away to make it.

It was a beautiful location all the same and a fitting end to our last homestay. After mooching about on the bikes for a few hours we headed back to our longhouse, said farewell to our hosts and piled into the van for the last drive of the trip: into the capital Hanoi.

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Emily is a native creative nerd. This creative crew member's favourite stop is Bay of Islands.

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