There’s only so much of Hanoi you can take. Sooner or later you’re going to want to escape the chaos and head to the countryside, and one of the easiest places to reach when you do is Mai Chau.
You could get here on a package tour, and spend a few days being herded around gift shops paying commission to your tour guide. You could bus it, on one of the regular busses that run from Hanoi. Or, you can do what we did, and get here independently on two wheels using hired motorcycles, as part of a longer journey north towards Sapa.
The journey here was, admittedly, horrendous. We managed to choose a day of torrential rain to take our first journey into the wonderful world of motorbiking. At times it was only the massive plastic poncho I was wearing that came between me and death by drowning. It took about five hours. It was little short of hell. Cold, watery, shivering hell.
But what can I say – Mai Chau was worth every inch of rain sodden, pot holed puddly tarmac! The town of Mai Chau itself is unremarkable, but the valley it’s set in, nestled between tree lined hills and rolling rice fields, is an astonishingly beautiful place. It’d be easy to kill several very pleasantly paced days here escaping the mayhem of Hanoi, taking short walks through the fields and sitting back reading the time away. It’s the little oasis of calm and quiet that might just save you from going insane.
Tucked away amongst the fields, just out of Mai Chau, turning right from the road as the town centre ends (it’s well sign posted) is the small town of Ban Pom Coong (I shudder to think how many Aussies have gone to Mai Chau and joked about a town where all the Poms are banned. After all, I imagine they’d quite like such a thing. They might stand a chance at cricket then).
Ban Pom Coong features a number of Thai stilt houses where tourists can stay overnight, although it’s a place firmly on the beaten tourist track and there is a sense that it’s lost a little authenticity. Souvenir shops line the streets flogging all sorts of stuff you’ve never wanted, and the rooms themselves are hardly what you’d call basic. The town itself is still worth exploring by foot, however: narrow lanes frequently open out into spectacular scenery; chickens and ducks roam the paths along the way; and the locals will serve you some pretty tasty food if you ask them (although if it’s quiet, feel free to drive them down on price. We did and got a 60% reduction!)
We hadn’t booked any accommodation in Mai Chau, intending to simply find lodgings on arrival. When we finally rolled up, weather beaten, soaked through and muddy from the bike ride, we stopped at the first place we saw: the Mai Chau Inn (soon to be renamed the Mai Chai Valley, for all the difference that’ll make). You’ll find it right on the edge of town after you ride through from north to south. It’s a small family run affair – just eight rooms and a small dining area. But it’s a cracking little place, with comfortable beds, cosy wood lined rooms, hot showers and spacious balconies overlooking the rice fields and mountains that stretch around the town for miles on end.
The reason I’m going on about it so much is that Lonely Planet doesn’t mention Mai Chau Inn. It does, however, mention Mai Chau Lodge, 50 metres further up the road where you’ll get the same level of accommodation for five times the price. My advice: don’t stay in Mai Chau Lodge, which costs anything up to $100 a night. Don’t stay in the village, which is barely authentic, and where you can’t really see much from the rooms. Stay in Mai Chau Inn instead. Our twin room cost just $20 a night, and we got the sense we could have haggled this price down further (alas, the sight of a hot shower and comfortable beds after our bike ride put haggling for luxury pretty low on our list of priorities)
Whether you’re just looking for somewhere to get a breath of fresh air after the chaos of Hanoi, or whether, like us, you need places to stop off on the route north to Sapa, Mai Chau is a brilliant place to waste a few days. Hire a bike and come and see for yourself – you won’t regret it! (but bring a poncho…)