15 Apr Budget Travel in Mai Châu, Vietnam
Tucked away in the mountains of northern Vietnam, about 100 miles from Hanoi, sits the rural district of Mai Châu (pronounced: my chow). Its lush landscape and relaxing village atmosphere beckoned us from the big city, as we planned a weekend away with our friends.
While we had the option to visit a big name tourist destination like Halong Bay, we opted instead for something culturally-focused and low key, so our friends’ young family could take a break from their daily routine in Hanoi. (Plus, since the moment we landed in Vietnam, we knew we’d want to come back soon- so there was no rush to see everything at once.)
Where to Stay in Mai Châu
Mai Châu is both the name of the main town and the district, which is made up of a number of small villages. We stayed in Pom Coong Village, which seems to be the center of the area’s modest, grassroots tourism development. There are plenty of accommodation options nearby.
We were tipped off to the Ha Hien homestay by friends of our hosts. They have three large, open rooms in the village’s traditional stilt house style. Owned and run by a local family, the place is simple, affordable, and has the basic modern conveniences (flush toilets, hot water showers, electric outlets, and fans). Sharing one large room with four beds, we paid less than $4US per person a night.
Several home stays in Mai Châu are available on Airbnb.com. (Sign up for a new Airbnb account with this link and for a limited time, you can get up to $40 off your first booking.)
The homestay can also provide full or partial board, with tasty, home-cooked dinners coming in around $7 per person (less for lunch or breakfast). We were offered Western style breakfasts – bread or baguette, butter, jelly, a cheese omelette, and bananas. Lunches and dinners always had a variety of dishes, served family style with bowls of white rice. Often there were one or two pork dishes, a chicken or beef dish, and a vegetable dish. My favorite was the sticky rice stuffed in bamboo, which you peeled away like a banana and dipped in crushed, salted peanuts.
One of the ladies at the house spoke English and she was the main server at meal times. When we arrived on Friday, we were the only group at dinner, but as the weekend progressed, there were a few more diners and guests. We noticed that several of the European couples who came through had their own guide/translator. Saturday and Sunday night the home stay hosted a local dance troupe to perform a few traditional dances after dinner.
All in all, we were really happy with our choice to do a home stay at this place. The food, though a little heavier on meat than we typically eat, was great. The family was warm and welcoming- and I think they especially enjoyed hanging out with our friends’ kids. The facilities were well kept with the only real downside being the noise that inevitably comes with an open-air bedroom set up.
There are a number of home stay options in Pom Coong and the other nearby villages. Here’s the one we stayed at:
Ha Hien, No 4 Pom Coong Village, Mai Châu district
Phone: 02183 867 467 E-mail: email@example.com
Hotels and Lodges
If you’re looking for something a little less rustic, there are more typical accommodation options in Mai Châu as well.
At the Mai Chau Lodge (pictured above), rooms range from $85 to $210 US for Western-style hotel rooms.
The Sunset Boutique Hotel is a mid-range option with fantastic views. Rooms are $60 – $95, depending on the season. This one happened to be next door to our home stay, so we enjoyed the scenery from the Sunset coffee bar upstairs a few times (pictured above).
Mai Chau Eco Lodge, set amidst the rice paddies, has individual bungalows ranging from $110 to $360 US in high season.
Search here for another hotel or hostel in Mai Châu here (Disclosure: we will get a commission on your booking, at no additional cost to you). Or find a rental on Airbnb.com (sign up for a new Airbnb account with this link and for a limited time, you can get up to $40 off your first booking).
Things To Do in Mai Châu
Explore by foot or by bike
Self-powered exploration is our number one approach no matter where we go, and Mai Châu is well suited for it. The valley has a network of paved road/pathways among the various villages, as well as the dirt paths that rice farmers use to traverse the fields. These are perfect for biking, walking, and jogging – just keep an eye out for the occasional motorbike.
You can click on the images to the right to see a more detailed map of our two favorite bike rides. One is a loop through the villages, just under 4 miles. The other is an out-and-back route, which we followed for about a mile and a half before turning around- but you could easily keep going.
Bicycle rentals are available at many of the home stays, in the market, and the hotels. The bicycles are basically all the same- nice, comfortable single-speed bikes. I did see one tandem out and about, and they could also strap on a child’s seat above the back wheel of any bike for you. Our home stay “father” gave us a great deal when we rented from him – about $1 US per bike for the afternoon.
Whenever we had nothing else to do – or if the little one in our group was getting restless – we’d go out and meander through the rice fields or the craft market where there was always plenty to see. There seemed to be animals behind every corner: cows, water buffalo, ducks, chickens, cats, rabbits, wild birds, pet birds, and an interesting variety of dogs.
Temperatures were almost always agreeable for outdoor activities – not too hot, but sometimes requiring a jacket.
The craft market, which takes up several blocks of the Pom Coong village, was evidence of the growth of tourism in the community. While many of the villagers are skilled artisans, producing woven fabrics and wood carvings from their homes, it was apparent that not all of the products were locally made.
A note about tourism: Hopefully as the community continues to interact with outside visitors, the push to meet tourists’ expectations doesn’t stamp out their true culture or diminish their traditional way of life. Some might argue that the impact of tourism has already diluted Mai Châu’s authenticity. As far as we can tell, they are still maintaining that delicate balance, but it wouldn’t take much to tip the scales.
We spent one afternoon exploring the local caves, thanks to another tip from friends of our friends. The tourist “office” in the village was directing us to some caves way out of town, but there are actually some great caves to explore right within walking distance.
Guided visits into the caves can be arranged through Mai Châu Lodge. Fortunately, when we showed up without notice, someone was available to take us in. Entry was a little more than $5 US per person.
The first cavern you enter is the largest. It was once used to as a hide-out during the Vietnam war- now it’s actually used to host big events and dinners. Sparkling stalactites adorn the walls like a natural, underground ballroom. Continuing further into the mountain, you can climb upward into other smaller caverns where the air gets more and more humid. There was actually more caverns that we didn’t go into because they require crawling through low tunnels and would have been difficult to manage with small children.
If you’ve never seen a cave like this, it’s definitely worth a visit. If you’ve seen some of the world’s great caves, this one may not stack up. (I also noticed that there don’t appear to be many preventative efforts in regards to human disruption and degradation of the cave environment. If anyone knows about this, let us know.)
People come to Mai Châu to see something new and experience the simple, rural life of the minority tribespeople who live there. According to our home stay family, we broke the mold, staying more than one or two nights. The attractions are few, so the real draw is tranquility and relaxation.
We treated ourselves to mid-day coffees at the Sunset Bar next to our home stay. It’s a beautiful, airy place with a range of drinks – both Vietnamese and European style coffee drinks, smoothies, juices, and snacks. This typical Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk was about $1.25 US, while lattés and mochas were about twice that. The views from the main room or the roof-top deck are both spectacular.
If you’re serious about relaxing, massages can also be found. Otherwise, just hang out, read, nap, take a stroll, sit back, and realx!
How To Get There
It’s about a 4 hour direct bus ride from the My Dinh bus station in Hanoi to Mai Châu town center. From there you’ll need to catch a motorbike taxi or walk to the village (around a mile, give or take). Alternatively, you can drive yourself or hire a driver, which – for our group – was worth the slightly higher cost.
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