Only a few hours southeast of Hanoi, over the mountains lies a valley of green pastures, a quaint farming village and a local ethnic feel unlike many other places I’ve travelled. As much as I have a love for Hanoi, I wanted to get away for a couple days. I had already been to the majestic Halong Bay, the rice paddy covered mountains of Sapa, the most northern market in Lao Cai (if you are to ever go try the Thang Co, a dish made from horse stomach and other good bits, a true local delicacy), and by no means should any of these be missed. This time I was looking for a place I had never heard of. A place off the beaten track as much as possible, which isn’t always the easiest thing to find. Mai Chau was it. Only recently being discovered by tourists, few had or made the time to go. I bought my ticket and was on the minibus the next morning to a homestay.
As it was winter in Hanoi it was generally grey skies, a little dreary with a chill in the air. Rising in elevation, climbing up the side of the separating mountains we drove into a fog so dense I could hardly see the edge of the road. Somehow protected from the more harsh weather on the coastal side, as soon as we reached the top and crossed over the fog cleared almost instantaneously. The sky was blue for the first time in days lighting the valley below. The sight was captivating looking out over it all. An oasis defended by the surrounding mountains.
Arriving in my homestay, a large room in a stilt house with multiple beds and the eating area below. I claimed a bed, opened the windows and was lost in amazement just by the view I stared out at. A much needed lunch was prepared family style. A soup, stir fried vegetables, salad, grilled meat, fish and rice. More than one could ask for, I was gracious for the hospitality. Every meal consisted of similar spreads, but the dishes themselves would vary.
Jumping on a bicycle for the first time in a while, it was the best way to explore the valley. Peddling along the paths in between the fields while people were tending to their winter crops: cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi. Some were preparing the fields for the coming season for planting rice. Such a communal feel as everybody worked side by side. There was fish farms to help sustain the village as well. Skimming around the outskirts of the valley beside thick bamboo forests, they creaked in the wind reminding me of the noise in 90’s horror films as they are creeping through the cottage in the woods.
I was brought to one of the oldest houses in the village by a local who explained the intricacies of building a bamboo house. Traditionally on stilts as livestock were kept underneath. There was only two rooms, one for sleeping and entertaining, the other a kitchen. The bamboo itself had a unique method of been treated. Being cut in winter at its strongest, it is then submerged in water for 6-12 months to kill off any worms that may be living there. After this it is then set over fire to be smoked strengthening, drying and protecting it from bugs. Once ready the whole village gathers and builds it as a community.
After I was taken to the local market, not very different from any I’d seen before. Fresh local produce, the sweet smell of earth and herbs in the air. Moving on to the meat section is where I saw something for the first time. A whole dog being butchered not much different than when I had seen a lamb done. I know most would cringe, cry, feel nauseated or just move away with haste. I guess it was my chefs curiosity of food, but I stood and watched with excitement. Not every day I come across something I’ve never seen before.
Mai Chau was exactly what I was looking for. A beautiful, peaceful quiet retreat for a couple days away from the cities and tourism. Not if but when I come back to Vietnam I’m sure I will be making another visit to the valley on the other side of the mountain, hoping it is just as stunning as this time.