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Mai Chau

In an idyllic valley, the Mai Chau area is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. The small town of Mai Chau is unappealing, but nearby are Thai villages surrounded by lush paddy fields. There’s minimal traffic, and the rural soundtrack is defined by gurgling irrigation streams and birdsong.

The villagers are mostly White Thai, distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos and China. Most no longer wear traditional dress, but the Thai women are masterful weavers producing plenty of traditional-style clothing and souvenir. Locals do not employ strong-arm sales tactics here: polite bargaining is the norm.

Mai Chau is a successful grassroots tourism project, though some find the experience too sanitised, and the villages are firmly on the tour-group agenda. Weekends are also increasingly popular with expats visiting from Hanoi, so try and come midweek if you can.

If you’re looking for hardcore exploration, this is not the place, but for biking, hiking and relaxation, Mai Chau fits the bill nicely.

Sights & Activities

This is one of the closest places to Hanoi where you can sleep in a stilt house in a tribal village. There’s also fine walking past rice fields and trekking to minority villages. A typical trek further afield covers 7km to 8km; a local guide can be hired for about US$10. Most homestays also rent bikes to explore the village at your own pace.

A popular 18km trek is from Lac village (Ban Lac) in Mai Chau to Xa Linh village, near a mountain pass (elevation 1000m) on Hwy 6. Lac village is home to White Thai, while the inhabitants of Xa Linh are H’mong. The trek is strenuous in one day, so most people spend a night in a village. Arrange a guide and a car to meet you at the mountain pass for the journey back to Mai Chau. Note there’s a 600m climb in altitude, and the trail is slippery after rain.

Ask around in Mai Chau about longer treks of three to seven days. Other options include kayaking and mountain-biking excursions; enquire at Mai Chau Lodge.

Many travel agencies in Hanoi run inexpensive trips to Mai Chau.

Sleeping & Eating

Most visitors stay in Thai stilt houses (per person incl breakfast around 200,000d) in the villages of Lac or Pom Coong, just a five-minute stroll apart.

Most people eat where they stay. Establish the price of meals first as some places charge up to 200,000d for breakfast and dinner. Everything from fried eggs to French fries is available, but the local food is best.

Mai Chau Nature Lodge

(0946 888 804;; Lac Village; dm/d US$5/40) This friendly operation in Lac village offers private bungalows with bamboo furniture and local textiles. Dorms are also available, and there are free bikes to explore the surrounding countryside.

Mai Chau Lodge

(0218-386 8959;; Mai Chau; r US$150) This tour-group favourite has contemporary rooms with wooden floors and designer lighting, all trimmed with local textiles. Most rooms have balconies with rice-paddy views. The thatched-roof restaurant overlooks a small lake and the pool. Activities on offer include visits to nearby markets, caves and handicraft villages, cookery classes, and guided walking, kayaking and mountain-biking excursions.

Getting There & Away

Direct buses to Mai Chau (100,000d, 3.75 hours) leave Hanoi’s My Dinh bus station at 6am, 8.30am and 11am.

If you want to stay in Lac village, just ask the bus driver to drop you off there. You may have to pay a 7000d entry fee to Mai Chau, but the toll booth is often unattended.

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