For any tourist travelling to Vietnam, it’s likely that two destinations are locked in right from the start; Halong Bay and Sapa.
Can you believe that we didn’t visit either during our four week odyssey?!
It wasn’t for a lack of interest, as both tourist hot spots were also on our itinerary until the very last minute when we realised two very important things:
- Hanoi is a transitional city for anyone travelling in the north of Vietnam; and,
- the Vietnamese road and rail network is not the fastest or most efficient in the world!
Unless you’re happy spending a lot of time on buses, we realised that to visit both Sapa in the far north west, and Halong Bay in the far east, we would be wasting at least a couple of days simply transiting through Hanoi.
Instead, after some inspired research on our go-to South East Asian travel site ‘Travelfish‘, we discovered a fascinating little town/region called Mai Chau that some were calling ‘little Sapa’. There wasn’t a lot of information out there regarding Mai Chau (something I hope to remedy somewhat with this blog entry), but what little we found had us very excited!
Isolated, very little tourism relative to Sapa or just about any other part of Vietnam, natural beauty, perfect for cycling or walking…what more could you want?
Importantly, the location and proximity of Mai Chau to the west/south-west of Hanoi meant we could fly into Hanoi, spend a few days there and then travel on to Mai Chau and other destinations (Ninh Binh…article to come!) without having to backtrack.
As you can imagine, getting to Mai Chau isn’t quite as easy as some of the more popular cities in Vietnam. Taking the bus is a popular option, with buses leaving Hanoi from My Dinh bus station daily at numerous times for around US$5 and taking approximately 4 hours to cover the 140km. We decided to book a private transfer through our accommodation (Mai Chau Ecolodge), which at US$96 is an expensive option, but we weren’t in the mood for the hassles associated with public transport (particularly considering that we hadn’t taken our hiking backpacks on this trip) and so this suited us nicely.
Whatever your mode of transport, rest assured that the scenery, particularly as you approach Mai Chau, is breath taking! Dense green jungles, precipitous cliff edges (completely safe, so don’t worry!), stunning karst terrain and even the odd perfectly manicured golf course! The lookout above the valley in which Mai Chau is nestled is a must-stop location as it’s one of the best you’ll find anywhere in the world. Seriously!
Accommodation in the valley is plentiful, but scattered. There are two large hotels (Mai Chau Ecolodge and the Mai Chau Lodge), a handful of smaller hotels, and dozens of even smaller homestays dotted throughout the many tiny villages. Agoda is probably the best place to review what’s on offer. At some point in the near future I’ll put together a more detailed summary of these three styles of accommodation, and provide a more detailed overview of our amazing time at the Ecolodge!
To whet the appetite though, here are a couple of images…
We had two full days in Mai Chau and found this to provide us with the perfect balance of activity and relaxation. The itinerary I’ve put together below could be crammed into one day, but far better would be to spread it out over a couple of days and just soak up the atmosphere. We visited in June which was EXTREMELY hot, with temperatures up around 40°C in the middle of the day. We enjoyed this immensely (that’s the whole point of international travel during the Tasmanian winter right?!), but it does sap your energy levels, and when alcoholic beverages are dirt cheap why wouldn’t you choose to go hard in the morning and take it easy after lunch?
So here it is, one day (or two!) in Mai Chau…
Keep in mind that as we were staying at the Ecolodge, this was our starting point for all our activities. It doesn’t really matter though, as you can commence these two loops wherever you like. Each of the loops I outline below will take you 1-2 hours on a bike if you don’t stop anywhere…but that’s pretty boring right?! Allow between 2 and 4 hours to get the most out of it.
Alternatively, if you’re going to do it by foot then I’d put aside a day for each.
Northern (Blue) Loop
This loop is all about observing and absorbing what is the way of life for many Vietnamese. Starting in the rural fields surrounding the Ecolodge, it will then take you through Mai Chau itself, with its narrow roads and interesting alleyways, before taking you up the main road and out of town to the north. Quickly transitioning from urban to rural the majority of the circuit consists of rice paddies, water buffaloes wallowing, children playing and pigs squealing! Don’t feel as though you have to keep to the trail I’ve marked above, as it’s pretty much impossible to get lost.
One thing worth keeping in mind is that the maps they hand out at the Ecolodge show the northern bicycle track as looping down from ‘6 Highway’ back to the Ecolodge a little to the west. Having been there, and having scanned Google Earth afterwards, I think it’s safe to say that the map is incorrect (see my red ‘X’ below) and you have to return back the way you came (as shown in my map above).
Once you leave Mai Chau you’ll find that food options are few and far between, so I’d recommend commencing this loop immediately after breakfast and returning to your accommodation at lunch time.
Southern (Yellow) Loop
If you only have time for one loop, then this is the one for you!
While you get plenty of fantastic photo opportunities amongst the rice paddies, you also have the opportunity to explore numerous little villages, including the innovatively named Ban Lac 1 where there are stacks of souvenir opportunities (including some pretty hardcore weaponry…if you can get it back into your home country!!), Ban Lac 2 where you can visit the Hoa Bant handiwork centre (providing opportunities for the disabled to learn the skills of weaving and other handicrafts), and Ban Poom Coong.
After a hard day’s cycling what more could you ask for than to stop in Ban Poom Coong and put your feet up at the Mai Chau Sunset Bar where they have a very extensive list of cocktails, beers and other ice cold beverages!! At sunset the views from the bar up the valley and across the rice fields would be sensational!
Side Trips (Red Path)
While we didn’t actually try these two side trips, by all accounts they aren’t too bad.
On arriving in Mai Chau we had heard about Mo Luong Cave (Soldier Cave), directly out front of the Mai Chau Lodge on the main road, but it was only in researching this article that we’ve realised that there is actually a second cave, Hang Chieu, that is also worth a visit just a little further up the road.
Both require a climb up a thousand or more steps each, but it sounds like the reward is worth the effort.
If you ask for directions at the Lodge regarding Soldier Cave then they’ll try and convince you that you need to pay for a tour guide. At that point we got fed up and toddled off on our bikes. Ain’t nobody got time for dat!
We haven’t been to Sapa, so we can’t compare, but what I can say is that Mai Chau is the cleanest region we visited anywhere in Vietnam and the scenery was breath taking in its scale and beauty. We saw the odd tourist van pulling into one of the villages, or the occasional cycling tour, but for the most part you’ll hardly see another westerner all day, if at all!
The landscape is perfect for both cycling and walking, making it the ideal destination for those that appreciate the sun on their back and the trail under their feet! Take the road less travelled and experience this wonderful part of the world before it too gets consumed by the mighty dollar.