A hidden gem, an idyllic valley, hemmed in by hills, the Mai Chau area is world away from Hanoi’s hustle. The small town is quaint and unappealing, but just outside, a patchwork of rice fields rolls out, speckled by tiny Thai villages. A traditional stilt house was to be my bed for the night.
The local villagers welcomed us into their homestay. The villagers out here are mostly White Thai, distant relatives of Vietnam’s bordering countries. They cooked us an incredible spread of food, the first real Vietnamese feast I had eaten since arriving in Vietnam. Cycling is a way of life here, the local guide took us through the surrounding villages and rice paddy fields. The scenery was surreal, lush green fields, water Buffalo, beautiful brown cows, children playing alongside their mothers as they work silently in the vast landscape. A masterful Thai weaver, making the traditional dress of the villagers, although now only worn for special occasions and for show for tourists. No strong armed bartering took place, instead polite bargaining to buy a masterpiece.
Sweltering in the heat, a stop off at the local swimming lake was beckoning, where the local teenagers were having a smoke and a swim, the typical hangout. The water almost feeling warm but cool enough to sooth the sun’s burn. Continuing on, leaving being the welcomed swim. A game of pool and a beer in a nearby village. And it was time to head back. Typhoons being a regular occurrence in the tropical climate of the mountains. Soaking the ground, thunder rattles the ground and lightning lights up the skies, the clay dirt creating thick red rivers that cascade down the rocky paths. Bringing with it, cold air, bliss. It was time for bed.
Woken up to the rural soundtrack, defined by the gurgle of the irrigation streams and birdsong. It was nice to be back in the countryside. Eggs, bread and fresh tomatoes filled us up. A quick motorbike lesson for mum and we were off. Taking to the roads for the first time. First stop, the local village for some gas, simple as it may seem, nothing is simple about driving in Vietnam, road rules are simply not a concept nor is the centre line. Lately, especially the stunning climb into the mountains, as passengers we were using the tactic to either close your eyes and hope for the best or just look the other way. It seemed to work the best, as I could see the headline in the paper already. But now we were in control and concentration was the key.
The entire motorbike trek took us through many villages, rice fields seemed to be endless, water buffalo roamed freely, and the limestone cliffs rose sharply around the edges of the valleys. We stopped at the local Bamboo Chopstick factory, an absolutely insane outfit, were speed and precision were of utmost importance. The chopsticks literally flew out.
As we climbed deep into the vast jungle and up the mountains. The views we awe-inspiring, im pretty sure I had a smile on my face the entire time and couldn’t muster a frown if I tried. The sun once again burning down, I tried to drive with my arms upside down to tan the only white bits left.
Next was lunch in a local village, our hosts couldn’t speak a word of English, but certainly knew how to cook, a huge array of local food was laid out in front of us. Cans of coke to regain some sugar and caffeine as we were fading in the immense heat. After lunch we hopped back on the bikes, assuming a different seating position to avoid the numb parts. More confident and needing to cool down we hooned down the valley, stopped for a dip in a local waterfall which had me smiling again, the local kids played and included me in their games and lead me to the good spots to swim and jump from. Mum watched from the shallows. The water was cool and refreshing, something we needed more than we knew, what lay ahead would bear us down.
A mountain of rubble lay in front of us, weaving through the jungle, the never-ending staircase to, I would love to say heaven but it simply was, hell, the heat nearly killed us. If the swim wasn’t wet enough we were certainly dripping now. Who needs a gym membership when you can climb to the top of the mountain. Once at the top, a huge cathedral-like cave opened up, cold air inside. It was absolutely incredible, but certainly would have looked better down the bottom, whose silly idea was it to put it so high up. Stalactites decorated the high ceilings and stalagmites rose sharply from the floor. The cool air a godsend, as now we had to go back down. Legs shaking, knees weak and sweat pouring off us, we eventually made it back to the village. Even though sit bones were tender, the pain was welcomed as our legs had given up the ghost.
A short ride back to the homestay. A drink was not only needed, it was deserved. Shortly after mum fell out of the hammock (to which I found hilarious) the locals took me up the road for beer and snacks. What an experience, the beer was cold and refreshing, brewed locally, soaked peanuts by the hundreds, deep-fried tofu, sautéed frog and stir fry eel. What a feast! And what an incredible experience to sit with the locals and share their daily life. The Cheshire cat grin was back. Returning to the homestay where another dinner was waiting for me.
Traditional Vietnamese dancing told the story of the villagers, a journey through time. A few interactive dances which were hilarious followed by rice wine and beer. Everyone was exhausted so bed was on the cards before midnight. The following day another adventure.