After Halong Bay and getting back to Hanoi Ben and I were on the fence about whether to go to Sapa in northern Vietnam. Sapa is set in beautiful mountain country and affords lots of trekking opportunities but the weather forecast was bad. I love hiking but not when its pouring rain and I am constantly slipping and falling.
So instead of Sapa we elected to go to Mai Chau, a lesser-visited Vietnamese town set in a valley west of Hanoi. We ended up making a good choice. Some friends we met in Halong Bay who had already scheduled their Sapa trip to occur after Halong Bay said Sapa was awful – two days of attempting to trek but mostly falling on slippery muddy paths.
We bought our tickets to Mai Chau in Halong’s bus station to avoid the overcharging we experienced in Hue. Our trip to Mai Chau from Halong Bay was not without incident.
Buses break down all the time in SE Asia, particularly if they are “local” buses which I mentioned earlier in the first Phong Nha post. If they tell you its going to be a 4 hour bus ride, expect at least 6. Nothing is on time and you shouldn’t expect it to be.
We arrived in Mai Chau late in the evening. The town was very quiet and almost everything was closed. No need to strictly enforce a curfew here because there is nothing going on. We wandered a few hundred meters and eventually found a guesthouse run by a nice Vietnamese family. We were hungry so we less than optimistically ventured out into the dead street in hopes of finding a restaurant still open.
We eventually came to a house that looked like they were serving food. A group of six young Vietnamese men and one woman were eating quietly in the back of the restaurant. The young woman came up to us and helped Ben and I order because the woman serving spoke no English. But she did cook us up a good meal. Afterwards the woman who had helped translate invited Ben and I to come back and join her friends for some rice wine.
And so it goes in rural Vietnam. Over the next three days Ben and I spent in Vietnam I was unable to eat one meal without taking at least 6-8 (and usually more) small shots of rice wine. Unlike in big cities and touristy areas in rural Vietnam the locals rarely see or interact with foreigners.
So when a foreigner walks into the restaurant they are eating in, they see it as chance they must take to share some rice wine shots with you. Mostly just the guys – every single male in the bar must share a shot with you. The men will take turns pouring you a shot, pouring themselves one, saying what they pronounced as “Seen-My” (cheers, I learned “Seen-My” well after the three days I spent in rural Vietnam) ith you, and then throwing it down together. I could tell that each one of them felt honored to be doing the shot with me. They were genuinely happy – just like I am sharing the story with you now, this a story they could tell to their friends and family as well.
This marks a big difference between the Vietnamese people that deal with tourists and the ones that don’t. The former group will not smile when dealing with you and may try to extort or scam you and the latter will share what little they have with you and ask for nothing, just happy to be having an experience with you. I like the latter better.
Because every male in each restaurant feels compelled share a rice wine shot with you, you start to feel pretty warm pretty quick. And then of course they do group shots.
Like the rice wine I drank in Hue with the moto drivers this stuff tasted a bit like Vodka and was pretty strong.
My hangover the next morning was bad but not as bad as it could have been – the “shots” I took the night before were about 1/3 the size of what people in the U.S. would consider a regular shot – thank goodness.
It was rainy and cool in Mai Chau that morning but it wasn’t pouring so I put on my raincoat and started what ended up being a six hour hike.
Mist was settling down in the valley that is Mai Chau as I started my trek.
I decided to head out to the local White Thai village near Mai Chau.
These ethnic minority villages are made up of people that immigrated from Thailand many years ago. Local women quietly weave on their looms and hang their wares for display.
Like in Cambodia and in most villages I’ve seen in SE Asia the houses are all on stilts to avoid rain and flood water.
The villages were rudimentary several years ago but because Mai Chau has become a place where people can come to do “homestays” with the villagers (where they stay a night and eat dinner in the locals’ hut), electricity and other modern comforts have followed.
In the flattest parts of the valley there is lush farmland.
After about an hour I was completely lost but kept wandering deeper into the villages, many times along small dirt paths that seemed to lead to nowhere.
One of the roads was not quite finished yet.
But the locals seemed to get around on it just fine.
In every village there were mother hens protecting their little ones.
The livestock wander freely and openly throughout the village which always makes me wonder how the villagers know which chickens, cows, pigs, etc. are theirs, as opposed to their neighbors.
I guess these cows were tied up.
But most of them roam freely and with all the lush farmland they have a big selection of places they can eat.
There were also lots of ducks, which would mostly congregate in the rice paddy.
Everyone else was hiding out under huts to avoid the rain but these guys were having a time of it.
They didn’t like me though – I think I sent them running.
Several spots along the trek were deliberately dug out to retain water and a rudimentary irrigation system would run water out of these spots to other more needy areas.
There were lots of these pink flowers along the trek.
And by the flowers, lots of these butterflies.
Kids that I would run into in these villages would stop and stare or follow me on their bike, making me realize just how alien I probably looked to them, especially with my beard.
At one point a group of them deliberately biked behind me for about five minutes, intermittently saying “Hello!” and ‘Match!” (how they pronounced my name, after I answered the only question they knew). I finally turned around and told them I was going to take their picture.
They loved seeing themselves on camera when I showed them the shot I had taken. I stopped and spoke with a local family hanging out under their thatched roof hut. The gentleman on the left was proud to show me his new baby girl.
Older women in the village would see my beard and make sounds to indicate they were frightened. I would laugh and “fro” the beard out even more, which would send them squawking and running. Vietnamese men don’t grow hair like Westerners do and I grow more hair than most Westerners so my beard is something of a spectacle over here.
The night before I had showed the young woman that had translated for Ben and I and then invited us back to share rice wine a photo of me clean shaven in Bangkok. She had said “I don’t recognize this man (in the photo) because he is handsome and that,” pointing to my beard, “is not.” Touche.
After spending about four hours hiking through the villages I headed back towards the town. About 100 meters from the main street in town there is a big set of stairs that stretches up the mountainside.
Having no idea where they would lead me I began my ascent. After only five minutes I was rewarded with a nice view over the small town of Mai Chau.
Another twenty minutes and the view was even better.
After about 45 minutes of quickly gaining elevation I was sucking wind and hoping for an end to the never-ending staircase. I finally got my reward when all of a sudden the mouth of a cave appeared.
It was a welcome sight.
The cave was surprisingly big and had many similar interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations I’d seen in the other caves in Vietnam.
Hiking all the way back led me to an area that was pitch black.
There was no commercial lighting in this cave, which made it a good point to turn around.
I hiked back out and enjoyed the silence of the cave for a bit.
I was not the first to meditate in this cave – there were alters and incense set in various places in the cave. After relaxing I hiked back out of the cave.
Later that night I got dinner at another small restaurant and was again way more rice wine than I wanted to drink by some locals that saw me eating alone and invited me to join them.
When I explained to them (through hand motions) that earlier that day the older women in the villages had run away from my beard they all laughed. The men indicated they had never grown facial hair. They must just not be as manly as me.