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Published: April 24th 2017
We left Hanoi for the four hour drive to Mai Chau on a small tourist bus, US$18 a seat, and it was not the most comfortable trip as the seats were small, made for tiny Asian frames. And they are small people. Even in today's modern world with different eating habits and more money they all are lovely and slim. The rest of the passengers were young backpackers on a two day tour to the region - as usual they slept all the way or fiddled with their phones. Not that there was a lot to see for the first couple of hours as we were just driving along the main highway.
The Mai Chau valley is 135 klms from Hanoi and is renowned for its' stilt houses and rice fields. The small town of Mai Chau stretches along the main road through the valley and it is surrounded by tiny villages, most of which now focus on tourism. The fields are still worked and the women weave beautiful traditional style products on their looms under their houses. We first visited the area in 2001 when we stayed in one of the stilt houses and the locals still wore traditional
dress, their cattle were under their houses and the whole atmosphere was much more village life and not as sanitised for tourism. The valley is surrounded by dozens of small karst like hills.
Despite this Mai Chau is still a lovely place to visit. The view was wonderful as we came down into the valley. All we could see was a patchwork of vibrant green rice fields, with a cobweb of narrow brown tracks running through them linking the many tiny villages of big stilt houses. This time we had decided to stay in the town and were wandering whether we may have made the wrong decision. However our guest house (Valley View Hotel) had rave reviews on Trip Advisor and it proved the perfect place for us. It was situated on the edge of town and we had breakfast every morning with rice fields two meters from our table. The bus from Hanoi dropped us on the long main street where we were met by staff from the hotel. We were driven along the street to the hotel perched on the back of scooters with our luggage balanced in front of the drivers.
From our balcony we
could see the two closest villages and after lunch we planned on walking to them. Lunch though was a problem, particularly as at that stage we didn't realise that our guest house would cook for us if we asked. We went back into town and couldn't find any restaurants that were open. Eventually a young woman took pity on us at one of the closed places and took us inside and made us two big bowls of noodle soup. Imagine how foolish we felt when we returned to the guest house and found guests tucking into big plates of food.
We cycled to the two villages when it had cooled down later in the afternoon. We were pleased that we hadn't stayed in them as all the houses were operating as guest houses with shops or bars underneath. Sadly most of the shops were selling Chinese made trinkets, even the majority of the scarves were not made locally. Though there was absolutely no pressure to buy from any of the stall holders which made wandering much more relaxed and enjoyable. Spent another hour cycling around the fields before returning for dinner. We watched fireflies dancing over the fields whilst
Next morning I woke feeling totally exhausted and with a very thick head. I didn't want to do anything at all but Jerry hired a motorbike and persuaded me to join him on the back, so we headed out to explore some of the villages much further away.
We travelled on the main road for a short time, very rutted and narrow, though sealed and busy with far too many trucks. Thankfully we were soon on the narrow unsealed roads, mainly used by motorbikes, and it was much more pleasant. It was an enjoyable morning, the surrounding countryside was very pretty and peaceful. Though some of the villages were offering homestays they were very low key. We found a lovely homestay cafe and enjoyed an hour sitting over drinks in their garden watching not much at all. By lunchtime I was ready for 'home' and my bed. I spent the afternoon sleeping. I really was not feeling brilliant, streaming nose, sore eyes and a headache. I ate in the room that evening. The staff were very concerned and kind.
Next morning we took the bicycles out early but it wasn't long before I returned to
the room and my bed. Jerry continued riding for a few more hours and had a really enjoyable time. The countryside was definetly viewed best from a bicycle seat. We both spent a very quiet afternoon - me sleeping, Jerry reading. On dusk we rode the bikes to the luxury Eco Lodge for a drink. We weren't impressed with the place. The bar was shabby and overlooked the roofs of all their villas. The garden was very dry and the whole place felt rundown. They did have a swimming pool though, probably the only one in the valley.
Next morning I was still struggling. Everything seemed to take a lot of effort to do. We rode down the main street to the market. It was a small market, selling the usual assortment. Lots of frogs, beetles and grubs plus a table of dog meat. The locals were very friendly. Soon though I ended up back in the room and Jerry spent amother couple of hours out with the guesthouse owner riding around the villages which he enjoyed.
The remainder of our time in Mai Chau, for me at least, was spent very quietly reading and resting in our
room. Thankfully it had a lovely view from the balcony! And I discovered my Netflix account worked here without any issues so I even had television! The staff were very kind and concerned. I made myself go for a walk a couple times a day. Late afternoon when it was cooler was lovely. All the locals were out walking, socialising or working their fields in the cool of the day. There was always something to see.
We had hired a car to drive us back to Hanoi and the airport for our evening flight to Hue. However we spent the morning at Pa Co markets first. Our driver took us to these small indigenous markets 45 kilometres from Mai Chau, in the opposite direction from Hanoi.
It was a tiny, dusty town a short distance off the highway to Son La. The market was very busy when we arrived. Definetly not a tourist market as the only things for sale were plastic household items, children's clothes or cheap plastic shoes. Most of the stalls (which were actually tarps on the ground) were selling traditional skirts, embroidered fabric pieces for their clothes and the braids and wool they used
to decorate their costumes. The Hmong women wearing red, blue, green and purple ethnic cultural costumes were avidly sorting and comparing the items for sale. Some of the dresses were decorated with fabric inserts of bright floral patterned cotton pieces. I bought a money purse (zippered bag attached to elastic waist band) made from this fabric. The women all wear these around their waists.
The embroidered pieces were all worked in cross stitches using much bigger stitches than in some of the Hmong pieces I bought ten years ago in Vietnam. So though still handmade not as much time is spent or detail (tiny cross stitches now replaced with larger stitches) is put into the patterns anymore. However I'm sure for special occasion clothes this style of fine embroidery is still done. The clothes for sale at the market were just 'everyday' clothes. A lot of the girls were wearing practical sneakers and most had cheap old style Nokia phones.
There were also a lot of polyester finely pleated skirts in the tradional style. These are mass produced and would be what the women now wear working in the fields. Some of the older women were wearing tall
turbans. These women had shaved the hair from the front of their heads as they had very high foreheads.
It was an enjoyable morning, friendly happy people and a bustling atmosphere. We stopped for a drink at the cleanest place we could find and used the toilets at the highway service station. It was a challenge to get to them as they were at the back of the workshop and the floor was slippery with oil and grease.
Our driver then drove us the four hours to Hanoi Airport. We spent a few hours reading in a cafe. In hindsight I should have spent the afternoon at a hospital in Hanoi because next morning in Hue I was very ill.
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