Heading to Mai Chau - another planet of Vietnam!

Nga Do
A friend of mine recently went to Mai Chau and when I saw the photos I knew I had to go. Mai Chau is not very well known and a lot of people didn't know where I was talking about when I said that was where I was going for the holiday. It is windy a 3 hour drive through the windy Thung Ke pass from Hanoi to get to Mai Chau. It is nestled in a picturesque valley surrounded by mountains, completely hidden from the development that you see around most of the rest of Vietnam.

We were staying at the Mai Chau Ecolodge, which was recommended by my friend. It is beautiful, situated in the middle of the valley up on a hill so you have an amazing view of the rice paddies and surrounding mountains. The ecolodge promotes environmental sustainability which are is hugely needed in this region as it is developing so quickly.

The main industry in Mai Chau is rice farming, but this is being overtaken by tourism. You can really see this in the number of young people working in the hospitality sector and the number of older people working in the rice fields. Certainly these are better jobs and they will better be able to provide for their families, but you have to wonder what will happen to the traditional way of life when there are no more people to work in the rice fields, which are a huge part of the charm of Mai Chau. 

Already you can see the effects of development and tourism. We hiked up to Chieu cave, which the staff at the hotel told us is a must see. Warning: the cave is known as the 1000 step cave (actually it is 1200 steps but who is counting) so don't do it in mid day as we did! Once we got to the top we were distracted from what is definitely a large and interesting cave by all the garbage strewn about. Needless to say we ended up packing out a lot more than what we went in with. 

Going forward it is my hope for Mai Chau that they are able to find a balance between the protection of their beautiful environment and the development that will allow for better jobs and higher incomes for the people living there. It is a fine line but if more businesses take the route of the Ecolodge it is possible that they will be able to manage that balance.  

The Ecolodge offers free use of its bicycles which we took advantage of to ride around in the rice fields and see the sites. It was great fun getting lost in the fields and the locals were always super friendly and helped us find our way again. We also discovered that many of the local women are accomplished weavers and they make thread and then the blankets or scarves right there in their homes. We chatted with a few of them and found out how long it takes them to make everything from scratch before we bought quite a few scarves to give away as gifts. As my mom said, she will always remember where she got this scarf and it will mean so much more to her having talked with the lady who made it even if you can get them cheaper at the market back in Hanoi or HCMC. 

On our last day we discovered the 'big' (for Mai Chau at least) market where the tour buses stopped off on a day tour from Hanoi and finally my pre-trip research made sense. Before deciding on Mai Chau I did some research and the Lonely Planet didn't have great things to say about it which did not mesh with my experience of the place. Luckily I didn't listen to the Lonely Planet and trusted my friend who said it is absolutely worth the trip. I suppose if your experience was of that one market from a tour bus than you would also feel that it wasn't worth the drive from Hanoi as the Lonely Planet said. I however completely disagree, it is one of my new favourite places in Vietnam and I will definitely be back, but I wont be doing it from a tour bus and neither should you! 

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