MAI CHAU – NORTHERN VIETNAM
Idyllic setting to relax in
The idyllic Mai Chau Valley is only 150 km from Hanoi in northern Vietnam, but looks like a completely different world. Fields and rice fields stretch as far as the eye can see, and the mountains collapse on the horizon. The only soundtrack is that of nature, the song of birds, the murmurs of buffaloes, the cries of chickens and children in the fields. Although Mai Chau has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, it has maintained its welcoming and relaxed atmosphere.
Most villages are inhabited by the Thai ethnic group, but there are others, such as Xa Linh's Hmong village. The villages are small and blend in perfectly with nature. Most of the houses are skillfully built by combining bamboo and wood with thatched roofs. The hospitality of local families is one of the main charms of the region.
Best time to visit Mai Chau
Mai Chau is suitable for year-round visits. Nevertheless, the best time of year to travel to Mai Chau is from October to November or March to April. The days are sunny but not too hot. In December, January and sometimes February, the days and especially the nights can be very cold.
The harvest season in May or at the end of September is the best time to travel to Mai Chau if you are a landscape photographer.
Summer in Vietnam lasts from May to August; with daytime temperatures ranging from 25 to 35 degrees Celsius. Be sure to wear sunscreen such as hats, sunscreen and sunglasses, but also a rain jacket, as it is subject to heavy rainfall. Bring lots of insecticides and good walking shoes if you are thinking of going off the beaten track.
In winter, November and February can be cold during the day with an average temperature of sixteen degrees, but this is the only time you will see the flowers of peach and plum blossoms.
List of traditional Mai Chau festivals
The Xen Xo Phon festival takes place in the fourth month of the lunar calendar, during which the White Thai pray for rain and good harvests with their songs and dances.
At the beginning of September, the Tet Trung Nguyen festival aims to pray for "lost souls" or "wandering spirits". According to ancient beliefs, the spirits of the deceased are released that day and returned to their families. The Vietnamese honour them by preparing all kinds of food for lost souls, including meat, rice, cakes, tickets and paper clothes.
The Muong ethnic Gong festival takes place in spring and is a unique folk ritual. Groups visit families singing and playing gongs to wish a new year for the health, prosperity and peace of the hosts.
From September to early October, new rice crop festivals are held in the region. Immediately after the rice harvest, the Tay enter the "new rice" festival. They offer the fruits of their labour to worship heaven and earth - for good weather, prosperity, a good harvest, a healthy family and express their respect for deceased ancestors.
What to do in Mai Chau?
Due to the immense natural beauty of the region, most people travel to Mai Chau to relax and enjoy the coolness. Several activities are proposed to highlight the charm of the region.
The trek from the Thai village of Ban Lac to the Hmong village of Xa Linh is a popular route to enjoy the view of the valley. It is also an excellent opportunity to meet the local population, to see them working diligently in the fields, weaving superb textiles with talent and living in harmony with nature. This 18 km trek can be difficult but the views are well worth it.
The Thung Khe mountain pass, which offers a breathtaking view of Mai Chau, is another fantastic viewpoint. This scenic route experiences all four seasons in a single day. Starting with the misty spring mornings followed by the summer afternoon sun, the cool autumn breeze in the evening and finally the cold winter night.
Discovery of agriculture
Back in the valley, there is no shortage of activities to get you closer to nature. The local population is always eager to share their agricultural know-how and way of life. Visitors can spend time with farmers to learn traditional organic farming techniques. It is a relaxing and healthy way to spend the day around birds and butterflies. It is also an excellent opportunity to get to know the different Vietnamese vegetables and choose the best ones.
Mai Chau is home not only to lush farmland and spectacular mountains, but also to impressive caves, one of which is located on top of a steep hill. The cave of Chieu is a place that has been used as a place of prayer. The cave is dotted with stalactites and stalagmites and curious rock formations. In addition to the cave itself, the view is remarkable: the village's colourful little houses below, the green fields and the imposing mountains.
Another cave, located in Pu Kha Mountain, is the Mo Luong cave. This captivating underground labyrinth is easily accessible and has two entrances. It is composed of four spectacular caves, each elegantly decorated by altered rock formations that glisten in the light that shines through the darkness. Some of the most special formations are the bright white stalactites that drip from the ceiling.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve
A short trip from Mai Chau takes you to Pu Luong Nature Reserve. This beautifully preserved region includes a rich primary rainforest, limestone peaks and fertile agricultural land. It is a fantastic place to explore the wilderness or take a break to meet the locals and enjoy a cup of refreshing tea. The magnificent landscape can be discovered on foot or by bike, which can easily be rented from one of the villages.
Traditional weaving craft in Mai Chau
Immersion in local culture
In addition to sleeping in a beautifully designed traditional house, you can also discover the warmth of the families that live there. You can enjoy a hearty dinner with the host family, then moments around the local rice alcohol. The sleeping areas in these wooden structures are spacious and open, giving them a pure and simple atmosphere. The nights in Mai Chau are quiet and peaceful to relax after a day of discovery.
Members of Thai ethnic minorities are known for their creativity, which is reflected in the brocade they weave by hand. Women sit in front of their machines, skillfully manipulating the coloured threads to create incredibly detailed patterns.
Another traditional art is Thai folk dance in which stories of traditional life are told in the form of dances. The young women wear their best traditional clothes and dance either accompanied by music or an orchestra of traditional songs and acclamations. In the jovial atmosphere of the representations, they become a cloud of colours as they elegantly glide through the air shaking their colourful fans.
As with the rest of Vietnam, the Sunday market is the most popular social event of the week. People from all surrounding villages gather to sell their goods and meet their friends. The Pa Co market is only 20 km from Mai Chau and is open every Sunday. You can see the local Hmong population dressed in their best outfits, the colourful weaving of their outfits enhanced by the bright sunshine. Next to the colourful brocade stands, other handmade items, local products and animals are sold.
What to eat at Mai Chau?
One of the most popular dishes in Mai Chau is com lam. Its main ingredient is sticky rice. This special dish also requires banana leaves and a bamboo pipe. Additional or optional ingredients are coconut milk and coconut pulp.
The sticky rice is first prepared by washing and infusing two to three hours before being placed in the bamboo tube. This dish requires talent and patience, and Thai women are known to be experts in making good and delicious com lam. The secret is to ensure a careful and appropriate rotation during the cooking process. Failure can result in a pulpy and poor quality dish.
When the rice is cooked, the bamboo skin is removed and only the thin film remains that will be peeled before you take a bite. Imagine the aromatic blend of banana leaves, bamboo and sticky rice combined with a fusion of exquisite coconut, sesame, rice and bamboo flavours. It is best to enjoy a serving of Com Lam with rice alcohol and grilled meat.
Chicken Ga doi
Ga doi is a chicken that is not raised in a normal or industrial way. It is a kind of free chicken, meaning that they are dropped on the hill to look for their own food. Since these chickens are not fed like normal farmed chickens, they are smaller and lighter. Their meat is very flavoured, tough and very tasty.
Chicken is usually steamed along a lime leaf or cooked on smokeless charcoal after marinating with Mac ken, a typical local spice.
Grilled freshwater fish
This stream fish is small in size and not always available on the market. In addition to grilling, you can also enjoy fried fish.
Organic pork skewers
In the villages, they raise their pigs naturally or organically - fed only vegetables and food without stimulants. To prepare the pork for barbecue, it is first marinated in turmeric, seasonings and lemongrass. The secret of the best pork skewer is not to grill it too much. Cooking must be slow, until the pig's skin turns golden.
Sticky rice is one of the most common substitutes for regular rice. If you visit Mai Chau, you will probably find a portion of steamed sticky rice. This type of rice is planted, cultivated and harvested on terraced rice fields.
To prepare it, the rice is soaked for a few hours - to soften it - before steaming it. Thai women use wooden steam cookers instead of pots to prepare this rice meal. However, the process can be a little complicated and it really takes effort. Once the scented smell is turned off, the rice is then taken out of the steamer and placed in a bamboo basket. This is done before the rice is really cooked. The rice is then turned over before being placed back in the steamer to finish cooking. This sticky rice is perfect for grilling fish, pork or chicken.
Bitter bamboo shoots
The shoots are harvested in the forest and then soaked in rice vinegar or simply dried to be eaten. The first bite may be a little bitter, but you will feel the sweet taste once swallowed.