When staying in Hanoi in the northern part of Vietnam, there are a few places that travellers are encouraged to visit. A sailing cruise on Ha Long Bay is probably the most popular because it is something that can be tailored to your budget and abilities – you can have a relaxed few days (or longer!) cruising in luxury; or have an active break involving kayaks, hill-walking, swimming at the rest! The other place that lots of people choose to visit is Sapa. Originally established as a hill station by the French in 1922, this mountainous region in north west Vietnam is famed for its trekking, views over the rice fields and local hill tribe population. Travel to Sapa is either by train (usually overnight) or by bus. The actual town is small and in recent years has turned into tourist Mecca. But people go to Sapa to trek into the mountains and usually camp as part of the experience.
We know plenty of people who say that their time trekking in Sapa was a highlight of their trip to Vietnam. We also know lots of families who did an ‘easy trek’ aimed at those with younger children. After researching the options extensively however, we decided that Sapa was not for us.
The main reason for this was because when we left the UK in November 2014, we knew that we would be spending the majority of our time in Australia during peak summer season and hot, tropical South East Asia. Therefore we did not bring clothing or footwear suitable for trekking, or indeed colder, wet weather. We currently wear flip-flops every day and each have a pair of emergency trainers, which are usually worn on travel days. We also only have 1 pair of trousers each and a barely waterproof cagoule jacket. Add to this a girl who isn’t that keen on walking (even though she is actually very good at it!) and the additional expense of travelling to Sapa, which is one of the only destinations that charges full price adult fares for kids on trains and has high prices for accommodation. Because of all of these things, the decision was that Sapa was not for us.
So what could we do instead? We are an active family and love exploring, cycling and countryside expeditions. I don’t ‘do’ camping. We talked to our host at the hotel in Hanoi and he suggested Mai Chau as a good alternative.
Mai Chau is a tiny provincial town in the north west of Vietnam, approximately 3.5 hours drive from the capital Hanoi. Populated mainly by white Thais, the work in the area consists of farming rice in the expansive emerald green paddy fields and creating woven textiles. The Lonely Planet Guide says, “Mai Chau is not for hard-core explorers; but if you are looking to bike ride, hike and relax, this is the place to go.” For our family, it sounded perfect!
We booked to stay 2 days and 1 night at Mai Chau Nature Place and
paid $65 per adult, 75% for our 10 year old and half price for our 7 year old. this included return bus journey from our hotel in Hanoi, all meals, accommodation and guide-led activities.
During the first day we cycled into the local village centre, through the paddy rice fields and explored the local market. We also climbed the 1000 steps (probably more!) to a huge cave that hid locals and soldiers alike during the Vietnam War. The kids helped cook the evening BBQ and we enjoyed a performance of local music and dance, which was an unusual experience, mainly because the chap assigned to the beating of the drum actually had less rhythm than me…!
Despite luxury bungalow accommodation being available, complete with air-con and en-suites, we opted to stay the night in the traditional bamboo hut dormitory, just like the one we had seen at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. This made our experience unforgettable, even on our backpacker budget!
Would I recommend Mai Chau to other people? Yes definitely. It’s a great alternative to Sapa if you want a non-touristy, active break and are keen to venture out into the countryside, but without needing proper trekking supplies. It’s also good for families with younger children who enjoy a variety of activities and are happy to walk and cycle independently. For us, it was certainly one of our trip highlights.