How Mai Chau has changed! We first visited eight or nine years ago when travelling the “Dien Bien Phu loop” from Sapa to Hanoi. Then we stayed in a one of two tiny homestays in a sleepy village backwater that no one else seemed to visit. We had happy memories of the party we attended arranged for a visiting group of Hanoi students by the local political cadre. Copious amounts of rice wine were consumed and lots of singing and dancing. Now it is overrun with souvenir stalls and the number of homestays has exploded to around fifty. Not to worry as we are only passing through to more remote areas
We agonised long and hard on whether to go it alone on a tour of the villages and National Parks between Mai Chau and Ninh Binh but decided that as we wanted to tread the paths less travelled, we would probably get more out of the trip if we engaged the services of a guide. We spoke with a few in Hanoi and decided to go with Ethnic Travel on a week long trip around the area staying mostly in village homestays, driving the longer stretches and walking the remainder from village to village mostly along small paths through the mountains.
Meeting our companions for the next week, Dat the guide and Vung the driver, we set off from our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi on the 3 hour drive to Mai Chau. Our prime objective in the town is to pick up food from the market to take to our first homestay to cook for dinner. After wandering the market for an hour or so we amass a wide variety of meat, vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices to take with us to our hosts home.
A very sad fact of life in the north is that dog meat is considered a delicacy. Amongst the meat stalls we come across our first sight of dog! No a pleasant sight! It looks about as inviting as you would expect a dead dog would look.
After a long drive and a short walk we arrive at our homestay in the village of Xom Moi for the night on the shores of a lake on The Black River. The welcome from our host is about the most enthusiastic we have receive anywhere. Shaking our hands, he is literally jumping up and down with excitement!
Greetings over, we sit down and chat awhile before choosing our bed space for the night – there are no separate rooms in these stilt houses, everything is communal. Having placed our bags on our allotted square of floor (very thin) mattresses are laid for us and blankets supplied. Later mosquito nets are erected but I doubt we will see any mosquitos as it is now quite cold.
Sleeping arrangements sorted out, we walked around the village and explored a little of the area around this massive lake,any product of the damming of the Black river with a hydroelectric dam. He explained to us how many villages were destroyed and relocated during the project. His house used to be in the valley 80 metre below. It is now on the lakeside!
We eat with dinner the master of the house, his wife and family. His elderly mother sends her apologies but she is sick and is sleeping in the kitchen where it is warmer. It is a jolly affair as everyone dips into the dozen or so dishes spread out on the low table on the floor. It is all very informal but there are “rules” to be followed. Add rice to your bowl and then a little vegetable or meat at one time before moving on to the next dish. The food, all cooked on an open log fire in the kitchen area really is excellent. Probably the best food we have eaten so far in Vietnam.
The process of eating is interrupted at regular points as our shot glasses are filled up with rice wine to make toasts – usually “chuc suc kwhe” or “zo!” The “wine” is actually more like home made rice whisky and boy, do they like to make a lot of toasts! To add a bit of variety we started to introduce toast in other languages we had picked up on our travel.
After a busy and exhausting day with great food, even better company, uncertain volumes of rice wine, it is time to turn in. A long time since I have slept in dorm with maybe eight other people but by now we are so tired we don’t really care. A long time since we have gone to bed at 8.30 pm!!!!!
Note! How wrong was I about the mosquitos! When we awoke I was covered in bites. Carolyn counted 62 on me. Clearly I am very tasty.
The first couple of days we averaged around 3-4 hours trekking per day mostly on narrow paths along the valleys, over the hills and along the dykes through the rice paddies. We met loads of villagers, farmers and children along the way. Without exception they were friendly, welcoming and seemed genuinely pleased to see us, always ready with a “Xin Chao” or a “Hallo”.
We stayed at a number of villages on our way from the Mai Chau valley to Ninh Binh, mostly Black Thai or White Thai. The planned route was Te village, Sam Khoe, Hang, Kho Muang and then on to Ninh Binh although for one reason or another we did change our route considerably.
When I mentioned to the guide that I had studied the Thai language for a while, he told everyone we met and many then tried to engage me in conversation. Unfortunately, either I have lost my Thai language skills or theirs is an entirely different dialect – as it turned out, it was a little of both. Great fun trying though!
The people at all of the homes we stayed at were great company and very welcoming but especially so in Hang village where we stayed at the home of a lady who was about the same age as Carolyn and was running the place on her own whilst her husband was away in the army. Carolyn helped her to prepare dinner, more like a feast there were so many different dishes.
After a delightful dinner with the lady, our guide and driver, we sat an taught them all to play dominoes. Not sure whether it was the rice wine, the language differences or a combination of both, but it all got very chaotic with much laughing! I did however, discover that at least the numbers are common in general Thai and the White Thai dialect.
Our plan for the next day involved a very long hike to a place we weren’t particularly interested in visiting so, after a discussion with our guide and the lady of the house, we agreed an alternative.
The next morning we set off on this very long hike with our guide and a local lady who would lead us through the maze of paths for the first few hours. This hike took us through the most beautiful scenery yet as we wound our way through pristine forest, valleys, mountains and rice terraces. Along the way we met an enterprising lady who stood guard at a bamboo bridge across a stream. The middle section of the bridge was missing. As we approached she darted into the trees recovered the missing section which, in return for 5000 dong, lifted into the missing section and across we went!
Yet more hiking before we hit the “main road” where we stopped at someone’s house to eat our picnic of sticky rice, barbecued pork and bananas. Refreshed and refuelled we said our goodbyes to our local guide before walking a kilometre or so to meet up with the next guide who would take us the rest of the way.
More hiking up and down the hills, more outstanding scenery but by now we had been on the go for over 4 hours and were feeling the pace somewhat. A few more kilometre we were delighted to arrive at quite a large village. The bad news was that we were not staying here! Sat down and rested for a few minutes and, as if by magic our driver arrived to whisk us off along the road to our home for the night another 5 kms on.
In total we had hiked for around 7 hours and covered, I would estimate, 30-35 kilometres.
On arrival at our Homestay we are welcomed enthusiastically by our host family. Immediately we are offered drinks and never before have two ice cold beers been more gratefully received! Again we are made to feel like members of the family which in this case involves keeping the one year old child occupied whilst granny goes off to buy the duck for our supper and Mum gets on with preparing the vegetables!
At dinner Dat explains to us that they would not normally eat like this and just have a bowl of rice and some vegetable with only a little meat. We try to explain that we would not normally consume either the quantity, or variety of food put before us. The point is clearly lost on Dat, or he just doesn’t believe us!
The people we have met in the homestays and in the farms and the paths along the way have all been incredibly friendly and welcoming. It has been a real privilege to travel in this part of Vietnam.
Staying in people’s homes has provided a valuable insight into a very, very hard way of life. Our backs are stiff just from sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor, let alone working in the rice fields all day long. We are truly humbled by men and ladies in their seventies who appear as supple as we would have been in our teens. This is a way of life that is slowly changing as the country develops. The minority people all seem very content with their lot but speaking with many of them, their primary aim is always to provide their children with an education to ensure that theirs is a better life in the future.
A few days we will never forget.