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Isolated Mai Chau is a 139km trip from Hanoi, and 66km further on from Hoa Binh. Though it's not far, the trip from Hoa Binh to here takes almost two hours by motorbike due to the mountainous terrain.
Mai Chau is in a valley just over the biggest hump, about 10km from the Song Da river and only 150 metres above sea level. The village presents an idyllic rural valley that could easily charm you into staying longer than intended. Nestled between two towering cliffs and surrounded by emerald green paddies, it is an enchanting sight as you wind down the cliff side.
In spring Mai Chau is a bright, almost parrot-green and by autumn this green transforms into golden hues as the rice approaches harvest. Taking the time to watch these transitions of colour seems like a perfectly useful way to spend your time while there.
Beware that whilst a beautiful time of year, Mai Chau can become unbearably hot in June / July with little respite from the heat as electricity doesn't come on until the evening.
Those bemoaning the dearth of truly budget accommodation in Vietnam will be happy to learn that this is one place you can stay for a song. The star attraction here is a 'homestay' in a stilt house in one of the two ethnic White Thai villages, Ban Pom Coong and Ban Lac. While both are run by ethnic minority families who have lived on and worked the land for generations, this is hardly like trucking into a Karen village in northern Thailand and staying in the spare room of someone's house.
The 'bare bones' accommodation is purpose-built to give tourists the 'homestay' experience, while the watchful eye of the government makes sure they have western toilets, ample bedding, and sometimes even satellite TVs in the common rooms.
Ban Lac is the more developed of the two villages, with more gift shops and a busier nightlife — what there is of it — but there's little to differentiate the accommodation on offer. The lodgings are mostly traditional stilt houses with large communal rooms where you can sleep on a mat laid upon a squeaky, split bamboo floor, for just about the same cheap price everywhere. The sleeps are really a loss leader — they make the real money off the food you eat, and the curios and textiles you buy. Not to mention, the liquor you drink. A typical charge is 150,000 VND / person for dinner, breakfast, and a bed although some are a bit cheaper. You could save 'small money' by eating in town, but family-style Vietnamese cooking is generally far superior to restaurant fare, and you wouldn't want to miss out on the nightly group meals.
Despite this tourist-driven set-up, and the regular influx of visitors, the villages remain a relatively peaceful retreat, and it's heartening to see how the influx of tourist dollars hasn't changed the essential character of the locals, which we gauge to be as warm and easy-going as you please.
As far as eating is concerned, all guesthouses in the villages offer food at quite reasonable prices and varying standards. If they don't live up to your expectations there is little option other than to track back into town to try the local restaurants. Be warned though you will struggle to find anything of outstanding worth there.
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