Mai Chau

20 Sep

Our first trip away from Hanoi was to Mai Chau, a rural district about three hours southwest of the city by bus. While we thought we were going to go to Sapa – the valley everyone associates rice paddies and endless greenery with – we were told that Mai Chau delivers a similar, closer and less touristy experience. We booked a trip through the hostel for three days and two nights that included a homestay experience and extensive motorbike rides. On the morning of September 11 we embarked on a bus at 8:00 AM with about 15 other travelers. 

It was our first bus experience in Vietnam and it certainly lived up to the hype. Bus drivers navigate just like motorbikers, playing chicken with each other and making endless risky maneuvers. We flew down country roads, with the progression into the rural becoming more and more evident based on items for sale on the sides of the streets, including live animals alongside the dead, such as the deceased, yellow, petrified looking chickens next to a cage jam-packed with live chickens waiting to receive the same fateful end as their neighbors. Cows graze along the roads with their owners waiting patiently to return them to their lodging. Often times here, cattle will be pulled by a string attached to a bull ring in their nose or worse, by a string looped directly through their nose. The animal cruelty in this country can be very hard to look past and it reminds you that travel is not always a blissful, romantic experience. Often times it opens your eyes to some pretty unsettling images that can be hard to shake. It does have me thinking about animal cruelty at home and whether it actually is better than this, or just far less apparent. On this bus ride we also witnessed what appeared to be the immediate aftermath ofa motorbike incident with an individual unmoving on the ground face down, his bike a few feet away from him and his helmet about 15 feet away. Three other people seemed to be standing around him, looking only slightly concerned and the bus driver simply drove around it without a second thought. We could basically only hope that the man was okay or that help was on the way. 

It wasn’t all bad of course, it never is. The bus eventually started easing upward, giving us a magnificent view of the valley, with the river snaking between the mountains. After going what felt like all the way up a mountain, we made our way down into the valley and arrived at our homestay. We stayed in the top floor of a family home, down a little secluded road. Prior to sleeping here and actually having the two most excellent sleeps I have had in Vietnam so far, I would have described the situation as roughing it. Small cots on the ground with a tiny blanket, pillow, and dingy mosquito net. No air conditioning in these parts of ‘Nam, so the mosquito nets were certainly necessary in our little open air concept living situation. After lunch (we had plenty of incredible authentic meals here) we went on a bike ride exploring the surrounding area. The moment the valley opens up and you find yourself swallowed by the surrounding fields and mountains, you realize how truly small you are in this world; it’s breathtaking.

That evening we had a “motorbike lesson” in the most informal of terms. Our homestay mother basically hopped on a bike pointed to a couple of levers, buttons, gear changes and told us to go down to the bottom of the lane to do a quick test run to decide if we wanted to drive the bikes ourselves or be driven by a local the following day. Before I could even process what was happening, I was driving a motorbike down a dusky lane with gnats flying into my face. After my two minute, flat road ride, I determined I had excellent motorbike skills and would fare very well as my own driver the following day on our ride around Mai Chau. (Full disclosure, I was very wrong.) That evening we watched some traditional Vietnamese dancing before I snuck off early to bed, where I slept like a baby in the quiet countryside, until the chickens and goats went off at the crack of dawn, of course. 

It was around breakfast on the second day that we started to realize what a really good group of people we were on this trip with. I imagine it’s very rare that you find yourself amidst a motley crew of people from all over the world that somehow click, have a great time and actually care for each other right off the bat (made evidently clear by the responses to my imminent motorbike falls). After breakfast we embarked on our 40 km journey that would take all day. No one really warned me that we would be going through earth, wind and fire on this ride. Seriously, so many turns, winding roads on cliffs without barriers, so much mud, so much speed expected from us. We even encountered a mudslide roadblock and the guide had to ride all the bikes over it. Within the first hour of the journey I was the first person to have a minor fall. We were going through an extremely muddy area and my back tire spun out. I caught myself with my hand in the mud and the bike punished me with a few bruises. After a quick clean up I was back on the road, until another fall later that day, when one of the girls sped into a ditch at the side of the road, taking a gnarly fall. I was directly behind her and panicked as soon as I saw her go down. I attempted to bike over to her but forgot how to break in my frantic state and ended up down right next to her. Shoulder scraped and bruised, knee cut up and swollen, shins cut up, a few more bruises. Luckily, Liz and Pete were there to offer me up some band aids while the others worked at lifting the bikes. Its at this point folks that I was never the same again. I had to ride so slowly the whole time, but no one was upset about it and Dan and Esther even happily rode behind me to watch out for me even after I told them they could go ahead if they wanted to (I was definitely praying they’d maintain position). Even with my falls, panicked driving and stress knots in my back, the views were incredible given how far up we got. We also got to stop and see a localbamboo factory in action which is nothing like I expected. I might summarize that experience in a separate post. 

We also went to a cave that we were told was accessible by hiking. What our guide did not tell us is that this “hike” was simply a vertical and endless stair climb. It was a sweaty workout to end the day. The cave itself was monstrous, given the area it was in,with steps to get down into it and multiple different crevices to explore. 

That night beers were necessary. We pushed the tables together and got everyone involved in a competitive game of spoons – an elimination card game that Jess taught us. Our homestay mom brought us out a plastic container of rice wine with shot glasses and Nicolas had us taking shots on shots on shots. Rice wine is not pleasant, end of story, but somehow Nicolas got us to finish the container and then some. After a few of those and a few beers, we all slept like babies.

On our third and final day, after seeing the puppies that had been born during the night, we were to do a 15 km motorbike ride. While shorter than the day before, I knew that I did not have it in me to drive. For a few dollars I had our tour guide Tu take me on the back of his bike and boy was the experience a total 180 from the day before. I was so relaxed as Tu pointed out different landmarks to me such as the local school and the hospital his mom works at. We rode bikes to lake Hoa Binh, where we took a rickety fishing boat across the ominous water and parked at a small waterfall. Here we were given the opportunity to swim and jump off the water falls. While I did not get that rebellious, the water was so perfect and we had such a good time messing around, watching each other jump and trying to get the perfect group selfie without drowning. 

After we returned from the lake we had a final lunch and a quick outfit change before getting on a small cart to be driven to town to our bus, which was too big to fit down the small local lanes. After a relaxing bus ride home we were quickly reintroduced to the madness of Hanoi, had a much needed shower and got to booking out next trip.


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