Once voted among Asia’s ten best new destinations on Agoda, Mai Chau, three hours from Hanoi, is famed for its small ethnic minority villages, golden rice terraces, and green mountains.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Between May and June or September to October is the best time of the year for a trip to Mai Chau in Hoa Binh Province, as the terraced rice fields are dyed golden yellow.
HOW TO GET THERE
If you visit by motorbike, you can follow the route from Nguyen Trai Street in downtown Hanoi through Trung Van, which runs along Highway No. 6, to reach Mai Chau.
Or you can book a one-way ticket for VND220,000 ($9) at My Dinh Bus Station for a bus that takes around two hours and a half to Mai Chau.
WHAT TO EXPLORE
Many foreign tourists have shared that cycling through golden rice fields during harvest season is a great experience.
Mai Chau’s valley is very flat, and there is almost no traffic along the small roads between villages.
You start your route in Lac Village, the central tourist hub. On the way, you will cycle through villages of the Thai ethnic group community that live in stilt homes.
You can see many lost buffalo, a local farmer on his way to his fields, or an electric buggy from a resort driving their guests around the rice paddies.
You can go with a guide or rent a bike at your hotel or homestay.
“Truly beautiful and peaceful,” Cary L from Ireland wrote about her ride on a Tripadvisor review. “You will enjoy your time in this little village. Have a great bike ride to Lac Village.”
Conquering Thung Khe Pass is also a must-try experience for first-timers to Mai Chau.
Thung Khe Pass, also called Da Trang Mountain Pass (White Stone Mountain Pass), is covered in white limestone, hence the name. From afar, it resembles a mountain covered in snow.
The pass is at an altitude of 1,000 meters above sea level and is notorious for its roughness and unspoiled nature.
From the pass, you can see the majestic mountains and forests, coupled with roofs looming amid the vast valleys. At the foot of the pass is a small market selling products like rice in a bamboo tube and grilled corn, cassava, and wild pig.
To take a closer look at local life, you can visit Hang Kia and Pa Co, the only two Hmong communes in Hoa Binh, located between four rocky sides. The neighborhood is at the gateway of the northwest region with an altitude of 1,200 – 1,500 meters above sea level, covered with clouds all year round.
Climbing to the sky gate, you can immerse yourself in the sea of white floating clouds. From November to April, between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m, is the ideal time to hunt clouds in Hang Kia – Pa Co.
Pa Co Market is also a unique charm of Mai Chau, only open every Sunday from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. The market sells brocade and local Hmong, Thai, and Muong ethnic products.
When in Mai Chau, don’t miss the chance to shop for beautiful fabrics from the White Thai minority. Local shops will even have looms out front, where you can watch experts weaving or give it a try. For an ethical splurge, check out Hoa Ban shop in Lac Village, a social enterprise that offers vocational training to women from the White Thai community.
WHERE TO STAY
Nestled deep in the lush forests of Panh Hamlet in Mai Chau Town amidst Hmong, Thai, and Dao ethnic communities, Avana Retreat Resort is one of the most highly recommended accommodation facilities for high-end tourists, with prices from VND4 million ($173.25) per night on weekdays and VND6 million on weekends or public holidays.
Mai Chau Ecolodge, with VND1.1 million a night, and Mai Chau Hideaway, at the heart of Hoa Binh Lake, whose fees range from VND1.6 to 3.6 million, are ideal options for nature lovers as bungalows here offer views of rice terraces.
For those seeking affordable facilities, you should choose homestays like A Pao, Y Mua, Y Sao, and A Do, located in a peaceful village surrounded by tea hills and plum gardens with prices from only VND100,000 a night.
Since Mai Chau’s reputation has risen in popularity, residents have switched from farming to running homestays to improve their livelihoods.
Lac Village has friendly-budget homestays for visitors, including Little Mai Chau, which charges VND80,000 for a single bed and VND160,000 for a double.
If you like to try sleeping in a stilt house, you can find wooden stilt house homestays in Lac Village and Poom Coong. These houses usually have clean, simple accommodation, shared bathrooms, and open-air sleeping quarters.
WHAT TO EAT
According to seasoned tourists, com lam (bamboo-tube rice) is a must-try specialty in Mai Chau. The dish is sticky rice cooked with some other ingredients, then put in a bamboo tube and grilled on a fire.
Locals said bamboo-tube rice offers the best flavor when served with grilled spring fish or wild pig in banana leaves apart from sesame and salt.
In addition, grilled chicken, pork skewers, and stir-fried greens are some favorite dishes in Mai Chau. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the local delicacy of stuffed and fried cicadas.
The colorful sticky rice is another popular dish in Mai Chau. This dish is often decorated as a flower with petals in different colors: white, green, orange, purple, and yellow.
The colors represent natural elements: earth, water, metal, wood, and fire. Each color offers a different taste because they are made from other ingredients.
Another specialty of Mai Chau is wild bees and sour bamboo shoots cooked into a highly delicious fried dish.
This dish is only available in the summer. If you want to enjoy it, you should travel to Mai Chau at the end of July. After the hive is returned from the forest, the old bees are taken to soak in wine, and the young bees are selected to stir-fry with bamboo shoots.
Some restaurants in Mai Chau serve banana flower salad with pig ears, grilled pork with pomelo leaves, fish cooked with fresh bamboo shoots, steamed pork, grilled fish in a bamboo tube, sour bamboo shoots soup with hill chicken, and grilled chicken with honey.