Mai Chau: Stilt houses and smoky fields

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Hoa Binh » Mai Chau
December 19th 2012
Published: December 28th 2012
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From December 16 through the 19, Scott and I decided to venture slightly south to the small village of Mai Chau rather than spend a few more days in Hanoi waiting for our Christmas excursion to Sapa. We called ahead and booked 3 nights at a traditional homestay with stilt houses and bungalows, located a little off the beaten path from Mai Chau's "city center" - basically a few shops, street-food restaurants and a gas station. We planned our journey, intending to take an 8:00 a.m. public bus, but, after taking a taxi all the way across town and arriving at the bus station, we were informed that the bus had left earlier than we thought, and the next one wasn't leaving until 1:30 p.m. Great. With no other choice aside from camping out in the less than immaculate bus station for five hours, we paid the hefty fare and returned to Hanoi’s Old Quarter to wander around aimlessly and grab lunch. When we got back to the bus station, we purchased our tickets, found our bus and were on our way.

Aside from the rock-hard seats and the terrible (yet hilarious) musical/soap operas being shown on a loop on the bus’s television, the four hour ride went pretty smoothly. When we were dropped off at Mai Chau’s tiny bus station, a local let us use his phone to call the people at our homestay who instructed us to hitch a ride on motorbikes to get there…yay. I obviously wasn’t thrilled about this idea, but the ride was fine. When we finally got to our destination, the power had gone out, and it was starting to get dark. Though we’d made a reservation for a private double dorm-style room in the lodge, there was some miscommunication along the way, and we were upgraded to a bungalow. The bungalows had been constructed of bamboo and wood in the traditional manner, with a roof not totally connected to the structure. We had our own bathroom, which would have been nice if the shower had any water pressure whatsoever and the sink didn’t dump water directly onto the floor every time you turned it on. But hey, we were living the rugged life for a few days and were happy to simply have a mosquito net covering our board – excuse me, bed – and a fan.

After leaving our bags in our powerless room, we headed to the covered outdoor eating area where a generator had been set up so we could see. Our family-style dinner (and every meal after that) was amazing, with a variety of spring rolls, greens, grilled pork, rice and tofu. Immediately following dinner, we had the opportunity to watch a local dance group perform traditional ethnic dances of the White Thai people living in the area. They were very talented and used props ranging from fans and parasols to bowls and chopsticks. They even explained the meaning behind each dance and were accompanied by a live accordion, a stringed instrument and various types of drums. At the end, we got to participate in some of the dances and share some delicious sweet rice wine. When the dancing came to a close, Scott and I retired to our bungalow (which now had power, hooray!) for bed. Unfortunately, I had been developing a cold/sinus problem and couldn’t really breathe, and our bungalow didn’t keep out the dense smoke covering the area due to post-harvest burning. I was too exhausted to care at that point, though, and fell right asleep.

Our second day in Mai Chau began by having breakfast and chatting with Dale, a Brit who had been traveling through Vietnam on a motor bike he bought – a brave soul if you ask me, and Jennifer, a Belgian on holiday. After breakfast, we were invited to join them along with an English speaking guide for a walk through the village, where women were selling woven items (scarves, tapestries, bracelets) under their stilt houses, and into town to explore a cave. We happily agreed and ultimately found ourselves at the base of a massive staircase, with stairs exceeding 1,200. This was a bit intimidating, but we made it to the top, and got in some good exercise to boot. The stairs led us to the mouth of the cave, which, though less exciting than Paradise Cave, was still very cool. Eventually we realized our guide hadn’t followed us up and was waiting for us at the bottom – I don’t blame him! We descended the stairs, headed back to the homestay, and had lunch with Dale and Jennifer before they left to continue their journeys. Our guide and most of the people who were there when we arrived left on a shuttle back to Hanoi, and the other guide was with another group on a different excursion, so we were left alone with the staff of non-English speakers. We soon found out that most people who come to Mai Chau book tours in advance, take the homestay’s shuttle to and from Hanoi and have set itineraries with guides. Since we booked our room over the phone and took the public bus, nothing was planned out for us, leaving us a bit bored for the remainder of the afternoon. It turned out to be much cheaper doing it our way, though, so we were happy about that.

After a failed attempt to rent bicycles due to their being in pretty bad shape, we tried asking the staff for suggestions as to what to do, ultimately finding the language barrier to be far too great. We ended up listening to a woman (who didn’t even work there) babble on about God knows what for an hour before deciding to just walk to town and wander a bit. We also wanted to find me some medicine. We came upon a tiny drugstore run by a woman who didn’t speak English. Using Google translator, she tried to figure out what I needed based on the symptoms I wrote down on a piece of paper. She seemed to understand and gave me some pills that I began taking immediately – twice in the morning, twice at night – glad to hopefully have found a means of curing my cold. When we got back to Hanoi and looked up what the medicine was, it turned out to be none other than Zyrtec, an allergy medication that I already take daily. So I’d been taking five doses of Zyrtec for three days…oops!

When we got back to our bungalow, the smoke was really bad and no one was back yet, so we started to reconsider our choice of lodging and how long we wanted to stay. We decided to sign up for one more tour in the morning and then pay to take the shuttle back to Hanoi to spend the night before leaving for Sapa. Once everyone returned from their excursion, we ate dinner with three Aussie girls, watched another round of dancing, and stayed up late talking to one of our new friends before bed. The next morning after breakfast, Scott and I joined our guide for another (gasp!) motorbike tour to a nearby village. This turned out to be an awesome experience. There was beautiful scenery everywhere, and our guide, who spoke great English, took us to some neat spots while also informing us about his family’s village and culture. Our first stop was a local market, followed by a chopstick “factory” on the side of the road, and a small, dark cave with a tiny entrance (a little tight, but still cool). We then took a short trek to an area where villagers were farming cassava, a root once eaten by the local people but now only used to feed farm animals (it’s also the source of tapioca). After that, we ate an amazing home-cooked meal at the home of our guide’s friends, and then hit the road back to our homestay. This time, I only had a minor incident – our guide, who was on the motorbike ahead of us (and who was much shorter than us, might I add), led us under a low bamboo barrier, yelling back for us to duck. Needless to say, we were too tall, so Scott unsteadily stopped our bike on the gravel to avoid being clothes-lined, and I lost my balance and slid right off onto my back, which was thankfully cushioned by a backpack. When will I learn my lesson? In any case, I was fine but still had a mini-freak out since my record with two wheeled vehicles seems to get continuously worse.

We made it back to the homestay in one piece, grabbed our bags, and hopped in the van with the others. A few hours later we were back in Hanoi and luckily were able to book a room in the first hostel we tried. After an awesome dinner at a little Indian joint followed by some yummy bubble tea, my wonderful husband went over to the pharmacy a few doors down and bought me the medicine I needed. Score!

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