Our most enduring memory from Vietnam was, hands down, a three-day trip to Mai Chau, a mountain village town southwest of Hanoi known for its ethnic minorities, rice farming, bamboo production (lots of chopsticks!) and most crucial to us, an experience similar to the popular Sapa trekking in the northwest without the commercialism.
Though gaining traction amongst travelers recently, Mai Chau is still a sanctuary compared to what we heard about Sapa and its multitude of visitors. True, Sapa has grander mountains, but we didn’t like that most of the minority tribes dress in traditional garb just to catch the attention of tourists and their wallets.
Mai Chau was much more relaxed.
We did book a tour, but only as a means of transport. (It didn’t end up feeling like a tour at all, especially since it was only us and another young couple from Jakarta.) The tour ended at 3pm, but we stayed for two nights, left to do whatever we’d like.
We came prepared with the Vietnamese translation of, “Can we stay your home?” — homestays are common in the SE Asian villages — but to our luck, our tour guide was actually from Mai Chau, so we stayed at his family’s place. It was, in fact, an official homestay with lodging set-up for tourists, but that didn’t take away the charm. And once the tour left, we felt like, and were treated like, family. They gave us snacks, invited us to a community party and, with some broken English, even cracked some jokes. Being in this place was exactly what we needed after feeling shell-shocked and frustrated in big city Hanoi.
We spent our days bicycling the stunning countryside — made up of rolling green hills, geometric-shaped rice field paddies, villagers working tirelessly, adorable babies — and feasted like kings with all the food our guide’s sister cooked for us. (Few people in the village understood English, but we got on just fine.)
There were two particular highlights*.
The first was motorbiking through the country. We didn’t have a plan, or even a map; we just drove. (Well, Eaman drove; I played passenger.) Every corner would reveal another huge mountain that made us feel like ants on a dirt road. It was wonderful to have the independence to stop wherever we felt like, and in the process, we met some rascal boys from another village, who were way too ready to play model for Eaman’s camera. (One was particularly tricky and kept pointing to the vague outline of a wallet in Eaman’s pocket. He was so insistent that, in the end, we gave him a couple of small bills.)
The other was being the honored guests at a traditional dance party. (Bear with me, as the unabridged version paints the best picture.) The village hosts a dance performance a few times a week and on our first night in Mai Chau, we heard the drums across the street and ventured over. It certainly wasn’t anything fancy — just a dining area cleared of chairs and tables.
The night started with traditional Thai village dance, but there was a group of rowdy (a.k.a. drunk) Vietnamese men and women eager to get this party started. And so began this weird alternation between traditional dance (from the villagers) and live singing (from the rowdy bunch). Pretty soon, the party music won out. Singers would change, the power would go out (as it happens a few times a night in Mai Chau), the back-up generators would turn on and the music would get less ballad-y, more dance-y.
Being the only tourists at the performance, we stood out. Next thing we knew, we were dragged up to the “stage” and forced to dance. We didn’t know how to dance to songs we didn’t recognize, but we just clapped, jumped and made it work.
As the night went on, there was can-can, congo lines, bamboo dancing and, the marquee of any traditional village performance, the communal rice wine jug. We were prodded to take swigs of the liquor via bamboo straws in a ceramic pot. That stuff is crazy strong and I hate liquor, so I took one sip for memory’s sake and faked the others.
Once the song and dance time was over, it was time to eat — and they wouldn’t let us go without food. Over spoonfuls of chicken rice soup, we communicated as best we could — that is to say, not very much. What we gleaned from our chat was they were from Danang (another city in central Vietnam), they were on vacation, and Eaman and I had good bodies. It was priceless.
I didn’t have my camera and my phone somehow deleted the blurry pictures I did take, but that’s how it works, doesn’t it? It’s when you don’t prepare that the magic happens. And this was a night crazier than any club party in Buenos Aires or rave in Hong Kong could ever be.
But that’s not the only reason we fell in love with Mai Chau. We loved the scenery, we loved the silence and, most of all, we loved the spirited, hard-working people, who were so friendly that the heavy language barrier melted away with their friendly smiles. Funnily enough, it was easier speaking to them than it was to the locals in the city who knew more English.
This is why we love the country — so much more heart.
*There was another memory from this trip that wasn’t so much a highlight as it was a really strange incident. While we were motorbiking, I noticed a woman in a small ditch in front of someone’s house. We back-tracked and couldn’t tell if she was dead or just passed out. The people in the house noticed us and came outside, so we did our best hand-gesturing to alert them about the woman. One of the young men replied, “I will call the police,” and without skipping a beat, “Would you like something to drink?” We said no and left, thinking maybe it was best not to interfere. When we came back around on our way back to Mai Chau, the woman was gone. Hopefully, we did the right thing.