Off track Vietnam: Mai Chau

The air is still.  It is steaming under the shade of the stilt house where we slept last night in a room filled with mattresses on a shining teak floor, protected by mosquito nets billowing under the fans.

Our village, a traditional ethnic Thai village 150 km northeast of Hanoi, is a little island of wooden stilt houses, nestled in a valley of rice paddies.  The mountains around us are higher than any others we’ve seen in Vietnam, and they close in around this sea of green, transporting you to another world, another time.  

It’s peaceful, calm, and a welcome respite from the sensory attacking chaos of Hanoi.

Our arrival here was less tranquil.  Friday the 13th lived up to its reputation in Hanoi.  From sold-out tourist buses and missed local buses to harsh negotiations for alternative transport that continued well past the final final agreement, we eventually were on the road to escape the city.  

But that wasn’t without its challenges either.  Hanoi seemed determined to chew us up and only spit us out once we had been fully masticated. London felt like that to me at first too.  Some cities test your mettle more than others, and Hanoi is pretty harsh.

We missed the bus to Mai Chau by only minutes.  After it was clear there were no other options (staying in Hanoi was not one of them), we began negotiations for a Taxi to drive us the three hours it would take to travel just 83 miles.  We haggled with an industrious driver, and finally settled on a price, only to be shown a tiny little speck of a car, whose driver insisted that our three large packs and a suitcase could fit – he just forgot to consider that there were passengers who needed to get there too!

Our negotiations had drawn a crowd, and another opportunistic driver with a bigger car hustled our bags into his trunk, and after several confirmations that the price was the price, we were on our way.  

Only it seems the price wasn’t settled, and Mark spent the next 20 minutes going back and forth with the driver over whether the meter was on or off, and that 1.2m dong was all we were prepared to pay – as had been agreed. Once it was settled that we were paying no more, and that the driver would drive 133km and no more, we were off.

For three hours we surged, swayed, bumped, honked and slammed the brakes through villages, over mountain ranges, and down the middle of a highway filled with all manner of vehicles from the very large to the very small.  

With no seatbelts.

I feared for the life of my child during the entire ride. With no belt, he felt free to wander around the car – which he was not free to do. I had him lie down on the seat, and held on to him for dear life.

Remarkably, we arrived in one piece, and paid the far with no further negotiations.

Once we were settled in to the village and had some lunch, we went for a stroll around town.  The bus had been sold out. The options for accommodation online were going fast – but where were all of the people?  

The village was a maze of wooden stilt houses with shops and cafes set up underneath, selling brightly coloured cloth that is woven on sight.  Fluorescent colours are always a popular choice among indigenous groups, and these White Thai were no exception. The textiles, trees and bouganvillas created a beautifully colourful scene, but the riot of colour was difficult to imagine in one’s home, and we therefore didn’t make any purchases.  Even if we had, there seemed to be no people around to sell it to us anyway, so we opted for looking instead.

In the afternoon, we rode bicycles along the paths that wound through the rice paddies and around the bases of the surrounding mountains.  We passed the “real” villages that aren’t set up for tourism, and noticed that while the architecture might be identical to where we were based with all of the shops and homestays, there was decidedly less colour.

Local culture

We rounded a bend and began to hear rhythmic chanting and the steady beating of drums.  People were arriving from all around on their motorbikes and on foot, most with white strips of cloth tied around their heads Karate Kid style.  Square flags with a black and white pattern of concentric squares and triangles flew in the wind, and an enormous tent was set up for hundreds of banqueters who appeared to be arriving at that moment.  We learned later that it was a local festival, but never could work out from anyone what sort it was.  It went on for several days.

Riding through the rice paddies on bicycles was serene and gorgeous.  The wind whipped up the stalks creating waves that rippled across the fields.  It was like watching the waves roll in on a beach – something I could sit and watch for hours.  After hours of riding aimlessly through the little paths that wound around the paddies, we made our way back to our homestay, where we cooled down with cold water and colder beers.

That night, we met a lovely couple from South America, and chatted with them for hours about travel, Australia, Argentina and Chile, and children.  We adored these two ladies, who gave us some valuable advice about travel in SA, and I hope to stay in touch with them through their travels and ours.

Like much of Vietnam, the area was dotted with caves, and Mark had read about one that was accessed by a path of 1000 steps.  He had assumed it was a figurative set of 1000 steps, you know – a journey of a thousand steps and such……so off we went to see this cave.

The journey of a thousand steps

Once we got a few hundred steps in to the climb, I realised with a sinking feeling in my gut (and a jittery feeling in my legs) that it was not a figurative set of 1000 steps, it was an actual 1000 steps.  Well, 1225 to be exact, but whose counting (everyone it seems).

I had seen the white streak running down the cliff from the rice paddies the days before, but had made an assumption that I was looking at a landslide.  I was not. It was the steps running from the ground, all the way up the highest vertical cliff to the highest mountain in the area.

See that white line? Those are steps.

And there we were, walking up its stone staircase, expecting the journey of 1000 steps to be some sort of Buddhist proverb.  Instead it was 1225 steps – all of them up.

We were drenched in sweat when we reached the mouth of the cave, and true to form, Austin started running circles “to cool down”.  That’s his logic, that if he runs, the wind will cool him down. Mark actually had to stop him because it was so hot, he was genuinely at risk of overheating if he didn’t take it easy.  The kid proves to us over and again that he is a tireless mountain goat, and I hope that one day mountain climbing or something similar becomes his passion, because my god, he’s built for it.

The entrance to the cave opened up into a large cavern that was decorated with unbelievable mineral formations that looked as though they had been created for a movie set.  They were in vivid colours and strange shapes, reaching all the way to the back of the cave. The fog rolled in as we were in the cave, and the light hitting the mist against the backdrop of the surreal scene was almost too much.  It took our breath away (figuratively, this time).

It was cool in the cave, and so amazing that we didn’t want to leave.  We lingered for about an hour, until another couple appeared, and we tore ourselves away so that they could explore in their own uninterrupted wonder.  

We went back down the hill, Austin skipping all the way down the steep stone steps while his mother’s heart skipped a beat with every bounce he took. I grew a lot of grey hair when I was pregnant with that child, and I should have taken that as a warning for what was to come!

Vietnamese hospitality

Earlier that day, we had gone exploring around the several villages on a motorbike, and found a little restaurant on a hill, overlooking the rice paddies below.  We asked if they had a menu, to which they replied (via Google Translate) that they didn’t have a menu, but would make whatever we’d like. That sounded easy enough, and the scene was just so perfect, so we agreed.

It turned out that it wasn’t whatever we’d like per se.  It was what they’d like to cook us, and we were shocked when platter after platter of amazing Vietnamese dishes were brought out to us – from the delicious squash soup to the always a winner spring rolls, and bits of fried fish – it was all fantastic.  We had expected to stop for a light lunch, but had a full feast instead, and the climb to the cave was just what we needed to work off that unexpected banquet.

Mai Chau turned out to be the perfect ending to a lovely time in Vietnam.  At times, confounding, and never as you expected it to be, both Mai Chau and Vietnam were brilliant.  

Vietnam makes you work a little harder to get out of it what you want, but it’s proud to show itself off at every chance it gets.  It is wild, serene, wacky, gorgeous and treacherous all at the same time. The people have a little more edge to them and take longer to warm up, but once they do, their hospitality is unending.  



About the author: Shalena

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