Roosters are sounding the alarm that dawn is on its way. Rain is gently falling on the straw roof overhead after much heavier storms overnight. The open-air room I’m sleeping in smells fresh and earthy and damp. A chill in the air prompts me to draw a well-worn blanket up to my chin as I gradually begin to open my eyes. Everything looks hazy through the delicate lace of the mosquito netting that surrounds my “bed”, but I can just make out the figures of my family sleeping on their own foam mattresses a few feet away. It’s my 33rd birthday, and I smile as I realize there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be at this moment than this – on the floor of a Vietnamese stilt house, surrounded by rice fields and mountains in a tiny rural village in Mai Chau.
Northern Vietnam’s infamously beautiful rice fields and terraces have always been high on my ‘places to see’ list, so when we began planning our trip to Hanoi, I knew we’d be making a side journey somewhere nearby to see them. One of the best places (at least in terms of dramatic scenery) near Hanoi to see the rice terraces, as well as hike, is in Sapa, about as far north as you can go in Vietnam without crossing over the border into China. The only trouble with Sapa is that it requires a time-consuming journey of a minimum of 8 hours to reach from Hanoi, which just wasn’t feasible for our week-long trip that also needed to include days in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, and so we began searching for alternatives. That was when Mai Chau landed on our radar.
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A rural area west of Hanoi where bright yellow and green rice fields grow amid a mountainous landscape, Mai Chau makes for an attractive alternative to Sapa for those visiting northern Vietnam on a limited time-frame. Small White Thai villages are scattered throughout the region, and it’s in one of these villages where we spent two incredible days and one (very memorable) night.
Immediately upon arriving in Mai Chau after a 4-hour bus journey from Hanoi, I no longer felt like I’d “settled” by choosing to visit this region rather than Sapa. We’d managed to arrive just a week before the rice harvest would be taking place, and all of the rice fields were just bursting with color! All I wanted to do was head directly for those emerald fields, meander along the narrow paths between them, and take photos of everything I passed, but as most tourists to Mai Chau do, we’d arrived as part of an organized tour, and lunch was the first thing on the agenda. After a delicious meal of local dishes prepared by the family who own the homestay we’d be staying at, our small group was told to rest for a few hours before our bike tour of Mai Chau later that afternoon.
I don’t know about you, but when I arrive in a new place, especially one as gorgeous as Mai Chau, the last thing I want to do is “rest up”. With Cory and Lexie heading off to work on her bike-riding skills (it had been years since any of us had been on a bike) and the rest of our group shuffling off to their beds or wherever people go when they rest, I was looking at taking a photo walk through Mai Chau, entirely on my own without anything for navigation, when a friendly Israeli guy from our group agreed to go with me. For the next two hours, we walked down dirt paths and through seemingly endless fields heavy with rice waiting to be harvested. The sun was shining directly overhead, making the fields around us appear to glow. We walked so far, we ended up getting lost, making it back to our village with only 10 minutes to spare before our afternoon bike tour, but I’m so glad we chose to explore instead of resting. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this would be our last time to see the sun in Mai Chau.
MAI CHAU NATURE PLACE
Before I get into the activities our overnight tour in Mai Chau included, I want to share a little about the place we stayed. Mai Chau is no stranger to tourism, but thankfully, homestays make up the majority of accommodations for tourists, sparing the region (at least for now) from scenery spoiled by large hotels and tacky souvenir shops. Homestays in Vietnam are typically family-run and consist of a shared room with a number of beds on the upper floor of a traditional stilt house. While I get that sleeping hostel-style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, our Vietnamese homestay ranks all the way at the top of the list of coolest places I’ve ever stayed.
We stayed at Mai Chau Nature Place, a large homestay that offered both traditional shared sleeping arrangements and a few private bungalows. Of course we chose the traditional homestay option, because when in Vietnam, right? Besides, in a world over-saturated with bland budget hotels and overrated luxury resorts, it’s experiences like these we’ll remember the most, so bring on the mosquito nets and mattresses on the floor, I say!
That being said, I was thankful I didn’t have to give up all my creature comforts at Mai Chau Nature Place. Most importantly, they have regular plumbing which means western toilets. Hallelujah! Although, using them in the middle of the night is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, because spiders. Big ones. Thankfully we didn’t see any where we were sleeping, but we were told to never put our shoes on without shaking them first, so they very well could have been hiding. (FYI: I had Cory check my mattress twice before bed, then create an impenetrable seal around it with the mosquito netting, because I’m hardcore like that.) They also have showers, but no hot water, and electricity.
The tour we booked through Mai Chau Nature Place was all-inclusive and only cost $52 USD/per person, a price I thought was amazingly cheap considering it covered our transportation to and from Hanoi, our accommodations, four meals, and three organized activities. I’m telling you, Vietnam is where it’s at for budget travelers! For those not arriving as part of a tour, a bed in the shared homestay and breakfast the next morning would only run you about $6.
BIKING THROUGH MAI CHAU
After everyone rested up following lunch (or ran back from their photo walk, barely making it in time), our group met back up for a bike tour through Mai Chau. Proving that indeed you can forget how to ride a bike, Lexie had to hitch a ride on the back of our guide’s motorbike for the entire tour. The rest of us rode on rickety bicycles for three hours through the same rice fields and neighboring villages I’d just walked through on my photo walk. I’m still thankful for that walk, though. Taking decent photos when you refuse to release the death grip on your handlebars is an impossible task. (Hey, when it’s been six years since you’ve ridden a bike, it can be a little scary, okay?)
With the weight of needing to take photos off my shoulders, I was able to relax and simply enjoy the scenery as we biked down the many roads, gravel drives, and dirt paths running alongside the rice fields. We shared the path with all sorts of animals roaming free – dogs, chickens, even cows – which kept me on my toes. As the sun began to set, the vivid greens and yellows of the fields deepened into a gorgeous golden hue, helping me to forget, at least for a moment, how incredibly sore your bum can get after biking on bumpy trails for three hours. I was so exhausted after our bike ride, I struggled to stay awake through dinner and fell into my mosquito-netted haven of rest before 9pm. (To be fair, so did everyone else. When they say there is zero nightlife in Mai Chau, they mean it. The whole village was pitch black by the time I went to bed.)
A FOGGY MORNING WALK
The one bonus of an early bedtime is the ability to rise easily the next morning before the sun even gets up. I slept better in our homestay than I have while traveling in a very long time. We had heavy thunderstorms overnight, but there is something incredibly comforting about sleeping in a room with open windows during a storm, and so I slept right through most of it. The roosters, however, were an alarm clock I couldn’t turn off, and so both Lex and I were up by 5am on the morning of my 33rd birthday, hopeful we’d be able to catch the sunrise as it came up over the rice fields.
As soon as we left our homestay, we knew we wouldn’t be seeing any sunrise. From the tops of the mountains to the rice fields below, a thick layer of fog had settled over Mai Chau. We could even feel it on our skin as we walked down paths we couldn’t see to the end of. Fairly soon after what we could only guess was sunrise, the fog began to lift and I was able to take some photos in the morning light that became some of my very favorites from our whole trip. A foggy walk with my best girl, photos I’m proud of – I couldn’t have asked for a better start to a birthday!
VILLAGES & RICE TERRACES TOUR
After breakfast, we headed out with our guide for a morning bike ride* to some of Mai Chau’s more remote villages and a walk through the jungle to see the rice terraces. Despite the rain, I enjoyed this even more than our sunset bike ride the day before, and not just because the biking portion was significantly shorter. One of our first stops on the tour was at a village where they were in the process of building a new stilt house. The whole community was involved, passing heavy tiles assembly line-style across the road, up a ladder, and onto the second level of the house. How do I know the tiles were heavy? Because as soon as the ladies on the road saw me taking photos, they enthusiastically motioned for me to come join them, and I wasn’t going to turn down an offer like that. Helped build a house in Vietnam: check!
After visiting another village similar to the one we’d just seen (and getting to see all sorts of sweet baby animals), we headed even deeper into the jungle to see some of Mai Chau’s rice terraces. While nowhere near as impressive as those in Sapa, these were still incredibly beautiful to see, even in the pouring rain. Since Mai Chau’s rice terraces are at a much higher elevation than the fields in the valley below, to reach them required a thigh-killer of a bike ride up a steep incline, but it also made for one exhilarating bike ride on our way back down. The rain was pelting our skin as we biked at full speed back to our homestay, and I had a grin like a madwoman on my face the whole entire time.
*Why yes, I am wearing the exact same clothes I wore on the previous day’s bike ride. I slept in them, too. We all did. Our tour organizer asked that we only bring necessities, so all we brought with us were the clothes on our backs and the camera bag!
CONQUERING 1,000 STEPS CAVE
We were fed a much-needed hearty lunch on return to our homestay, and then we were given the option of resting until we took the bus back to Hanoi or going on our third bike excursion of the trip to 1,000 Steps Cave. Of course we took the cave option. We didn’t have a guide for this excursion, so Lexie had to ride on the back of Cory’s bicycle until we got to the cave. We also had very little in the way of directions to get there, but we somehow made it, already exhausted even before we tackled the 1,000 steps.
Which they really should have named 1,300 Steps Cave, actually. I consider myself to be a reasonably fit person, but in the past 24 hours I had gone on a 2-hour walk, a 3-hour bike ride, an entirely uphill bike ride, a hike through the jungle, and yet another bike ride to the cave and I was spent. I had to stop and rest every 100 steps, which Lexie was kind enough to count out loud so we’d always know how much further we had to go. Reaching the top was like reaching nirvana, especially after discovering at step 1,000 that we still had a good ways to go. Both the cave and the view of the Mai Chau valley were worth the steps it took to reach them, of course, but from the moment we reached the top I was already dreading going down. Oh, well. Guess I live here now!
It took almost as long to get down the steps as it did to go up them since we were all walking on Jello-legs at that point. On our bike ride back, I alternated between riding standing up to give my sore bum a break (why are bicycle seats so bloody uncomfortable?!) and sitting down so my legs wouldn’t give out. We made it back to the homestay just in time to catch our bus back to Hanoi. I was dirty, smelly, completely and utterly worn out, but also ridiculously happy. I have never in my life had such an active birthday, or in recent years, such a memorable one. Birthday #34 has quite a lot to live up to!
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