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Most travelers interested in traveling around Southeast Asia have heard of Sapa, Vietnam—an area showcased by incredible photos of lush green rice fields terraced on the side of mountains, and colorful local ethnic minority women and men working the rice fields.
Sapa has long been on the popular traveler’s route from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. But there are surprising alternatives to Sapa, Vietnam. Have you ever heard of Mai Châu?
Off the path, a bit more and equally as beautiful, Mai Châu (pronounced “my chou”) just might be the new alternative to Sapa, Vietnam.
Where is Mai Chau?
Mai Chau is located 160 km from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, approximately a four-hour drive, depending on traffic along Highway 6. Mai Chau is situated in the Northwest region of Vietnam, in the province of Hoa Binh.
When arriving in the region, your first glimpse of Mai Chau is from the famous Thung Khe Pass, which sits at 1,000 meters above sea level. In the verdant green valley below sits Mai Chau. If you’re sitting on the left-hand side of the bus or car, you will witness some of the most breathtaking views in all of Vietnam during your four-hour journey. Some bus transfers actually allow a stop at the lookout for a photo opportunity, or to enjoy a snack from many of the local vendors.
Why Visit Mai Chau?
What draws travelers to Mai Chau?
Mai Chau is more like a village than a major town in the region. With only one main road running through the village, travelers can quickly explore all of its charms. The local market attracts a few travelers, but trekking is the main drawcard. The market caters to locals and the local ethnic minorities who bring their produce down from the mountains to sell. The market is a hive of activity on Sundays more so than other days.
The reasons why most travelers take time out of their Vietnamese itinerary to visit Mai Chau is the opportunity to trek or bike through the terraced rice fields, learn more about the local ethnic minority tribes, kayak, cave, and visit the local villages nearby.
Mai Chau can be easily reached from Hanoi on a day trip, although it’s likely best to spend a weekend or longer to enjoy the peace and quiet the Vietnamese countryside offers.
Mai Chau is what Sapa was like 20 years ago.
Sapa was once a sleepy village—a colonial hill town popular with the French and Government officials to escape the heat of Hanoi. Sapa nowadays is suffering from ‘over-tourism,’ many responsible travelers are looking for Sapa alternatives to enjoy a more off-the-path trekking experience.
Mai Chau is still a sleepy village where tourism has slowly gained momentum, but it still remains a place to unwind and relax from the busyness of Hanoi. Life runs at a slower pace in Mai Chau. The experience is authentic and not contrived.
Travelers can still see workers in the rice fields, their conical hats bobbing up and down between the rows of rice. Locals rise early before the sun, heading out to the rice fields until around 11 am when they return home to escape the heat of the midday sun. The fields become busy again around 4 pm, and they work until they run out of daylight hours. Harvest takes place during the month of October, which is a popular time to visit Mai Chau.
Visiting on a day trip? Mai Chau: Full-Day Group Tour From Hanoi With Lunch
Best Things to Do in Mai Chau
Just like for those visiting Sapa, trekking is one of the most popular things to do in Mai Chau. You can choose a half-day or full-day trek into the terraced mountainside, or opt for a multi-day trek, spending your evenings in homestays along the way.
Day treks range from easy- to medium-difficulty, whereas many overnight treks are classified as difficult.
If you’re up for a full-day trek, we recommend the one-day (eight-hour) Pu Long Nature Reserve Trek. The trek leaves Mai Chau and stops at a chopstick factory along the way. Chopsticks were traditionally made from bamboo in a manual and time-consuming method—the noise must be deafening for the locals who work at the factory.
During the Pu Long Trek (Pu Long means ‘Great Mountain’), you wind down through the valley, passing many terraced rice fields and small villages of the White Thai ethnic minority group. Their houses are different compared to some of the other ethnic minorities in the region. The wooden houses are built on stilts and are said to be similar to a turtle. The roof is the back or shell of the turtle, the room is classified as the body, the legs of the turtle are the stilts of the house, and the head of the turtle is the ladder that is drawn up each night when the family retires inside.
The houses are cooler being higher up, and their animals are housed underneath when required.
The White Thai people along the Pu Long Trek grow rice for their family. Some of the villages we passed also grew corn, pineapples, and peanuts—all also for personal use. The wealthier families may even own a buffalo or two—buffalos are then their main possession and since they cost up to US $2,000 for one. If you’re fortunate to have more than one you are considered very wealthy, indeed.
There are seven minority groups in total in Vietnam’s Hoa Binh Province. The White Thai, H’Mong, Zao, Muong, Tay, and Hoa a Viet. The trek that you choose determines which ethnic groups you visit.
Most memorable trekking option? From Hanoi: Mai Chau Valley Homestay with Bike Ride and Trek
There are several biking options available:
- A short two-hour bike ride through three of the local villages in and around Mai Chau.
- A half-day bike ride through the terraced rice fields visiting local villages.
- A full-day bike ride which can be up to 50 km in length on a ten-speed bike riding along pathways through the rice fields, mountains, and valleys stopping to visit local villages along the way.
Just going for the day? Book your bike ride as a part of the day trip to maximize your time enjoying the countryside. The Full-Day Bike Tour of Mai Chau from Ha Noi is a great option.
You can choose between a half-day 5 km or full day 10 km kayak adventure. The half-day adventure involves kayaking to Pho Moi Village, where you can enjoy a cup of tea before returning back to your hotel.
The full-day kayaking adventure takes place on the Hoa Binh Reservoir, visiting local villages and floating fish farms.
Making it a weekend trip? Fishing and Farming: 3-Day Trip to Mai Chau from Hanoi
Your level of experience will determine the number of caves and tunnels you can visit at Mu Luong Cave—you can book these experiences directly in Mai Chau if you’re staying for the weekend.
For rock-climbing enthusiasts, there are nine available routes—from easy to advanced levels—that you can enjoy in and around Mai Chau.
If trekking and cycling is too exhausting, opt to visit some of the local villages within walking distance of the town. During the visit, you will learn how to weave a traditional White Thai scarf and enjoy tea in the process. Even if you go on a trek, considering visiting the handicraft villages as it makes for a great way to enjoy this Sapa alternative, where being in Mai Chau is half of the experience.
Your cooking classes in Mai Chau start with a visit to the local market early in the morning to choose the day’s produce for the three dishes that you’ll learn to make during the class with your local chef.
Where to Stay
Our personal recommendation is the Mai Chau Lodge, which is situated at the edge of the town and within a few minutes walk to some of the best local ethnic villages.
Mai Chau Lodge also offers tours that cover trekking, cycling, kayaking, caving, cooking, and market visits. And, they run a shuttle service from Hanoi for guests, which makes it easy to get there.
How to Get to There
Mai Chau is an easily-accessible 4-hour drive from Hanoi. As there is no train service, you have three options available: bus, bike, or taxi.
Several bus companies ply the route, and the fare ranges between US $8 and US $13. These buses can take up to 4.5 hours since they stop along the way.
A taxi can cost up to US $175 for the journey and takes up to 4 hours.
If you’re an experienced motorbike rider, this option is available. You can hire a motorbike in Hanoi for approximately US $15 – 20 per day. The journey to Mai Chau takes up to 4.5 hours by motorbike.
Road Conditions: Traffic is heavy in and out of Hanoi. Like any mountain pass, Thung Khe Pass had many bends. Some consider the road dangerous because of the number of bends and the large number of trucks using the road on a daily basis. The pass is also foggy during certain times of the year, making the road hazardous. Take this into consideration when deciding how to get to Mai Chau. Also consider securing travel insurance since you’ll be in a remote area, which is when having great travel insurance comes in particularly handy if anything goes wrong.
Best Time to Visit Mai Chau
The best time to visit is during the months of March to May, and then later in the year during September and October. The weather is cooler during these periods. Harvest time takes place during October, and many travelers also visit at this time.
We visited during the month of July when daytime temperatures were reaching in the high 30s ºC (upwards of 90 ºF). Trekking during these high temperatures can take a lot out of you if you are not conditioned to trekking at this time, which is again why it’s important to have travel insurance before visiting.
Other passport holders should check before booking flights to Vietnam. Some passport holders, depending on the planned length of stay and whether arriving by aircraft or by land, may need to obtain a Vietnamese e-visa prior to arrival. Vietnamese visas can be expensive depending on where you are from, so always research to ensure you have planned beforehand to secure your visa.
By Jane Dempster-Smith
Jane is the co-founder of To Travel Too an Australian Baby Boomer Lifestyle Website. Jane and her husband Duncan sacked the corporate world in 2013 and have been on the road ever since, inspiring others to enjoy a life of adventure. They live by their two mantras—‘age is no barrier when it comes to travel’ and ‘chase time not money’. You can also follow their adventures on Facebook