Vietnam Vacation: Mai Chau

Although we could easily have spent an entire week in Hanoi, Hanna wanted us to experience more of Vietnam. We certainly had no objection. Early on it looked like we would be able to tag along on a staff retreat to the coastal city of Hoi An, but the retreat was rescheduled to a date after our departure. I was keen on seeing Ha Long Bay, one of the New7Wonders of Nature, however December weather is iffy on whether it will be a clear enough day. Hanna’s supervisor, JP, offered to organize an outing to one of his favorite getaways: Mai Chau, a native Thai district in the mountains about 135km (85 miles)  northwest of Hanoi.

JP, his wife Aimee and daughters Celeste and Bella, Ken and Gail, teachers at Concordia International School Hanoi, Hanna’s coworkers Sarah and Mary, and we five Hartmans piled into a fifteen-passenger minibus. About two hours later we pulled into the village of Ban Lac.

The Mai Chau district is known for its stilt houses built from bamboo and timber. Houses are elevated about 10-12 feet above the ground to both protect the houses from the elements and provide shelter for animals. Our guest house was a single large room, divided into separate sleeping areas by suspending quilts for walls. There were separate “rooms” for Phil and me, Ken and Gail, the Cima family, and the four single girls. Lucky Joseph, being the only single male, got a space all to himself. A pallet was made up for each person from a stack of quilts and a pillow (we brought our own pillow cases along). We were shown where extra quilts were kept in case we got cold during the night. Then a mosquito net was suspended over each sleeping area.

Mai Chau guest house
Sleeping area with pallet and mosquito netting.

Our group was large enough to have a sleeping area to ourselves. Smaller groups might be placed with other guests, especially during busier times of the year.

Bathrooms were downstairs, as well as a common eating and gathering area. Each building had two bathrooms, with a sink outside. There was no separate area for the shower inside the bathroom, simply a shower head on the wall and a drain on the floor.

Laura relaxing in the common area. Bathrooms can be seen in the background.

Lunch and dinner were served family style, with a wide variety of dishes (described in my earlier post, Vietnam Vacation: Food). Meals are included in the lodging rate, but beverages are priced a la carte. Each individual or family kept an honor system tally of beverages available from a refrigerator in the common area. We drank mostly bottled water, except for Joseph who indulged his soda addiction. Phil and I sampled a bottle of Vietnamese red wine with dinner. Let’s just say Vietnam is not renowned for its wine. We ended up giving most of the bottle to JP to use at the next communion service.

Mai Chau is also known for its homespun textiles. There were numerous stalls in the village, each displaying a variety of scarves, quilt tops and other products characteristic of the area. Nothing goes to waste – fabric scraps are used to fashion hacky-sack balls, caps and purses.

Mai Chau textiles.
We bought about 40 homespun Mai Chau scarves, enough for Phil to distribute his female employees and other colleagues. Some of the weavers cut scarves straight off their looms to meet our demand.
Laura buying a tiger stripe scarf. By now she had gotten fairly proficient at bartering.

The afternoon of the first day a group of us – JP and Bella, Sarah, Mary, Hanna, Laura and I – rented bicycles to explore the outlying areas, while Phil and Joseph decided to hike. The weather was comfortably mild and the roadways and paths were not too challenging considering we were in the mountains.

We saw several types of industry during our two hour ride,

Man working with water buffalo in a rice paddy.
I believe this is a rice mill.
Brick factory.
This is some sort of medicinal root cultivated for export to China.

passed a school with friendly children,

“Hallooo . . . “

crossed a rickety bridge,

JP and Bella, Laura, Sarah and Mary crossing the rickety bridge.
Don’t look down.

encountered a number of dogs,

Laura playing with some puppies.
Tired mamma dog with her puppies.
The dogs we encountered in Vietnam were not threatening, but were not friendly either.

rested on a bridge,

Bikes on bridge.
My girls.

and were invited to tea.

This home was located across the road from the brick factory. The owner invited us to join him for tea.
Our host. He told us stories about his son, who is serving in the military.

Next week I will continue with the memorable evening we spent at Mai Chau.

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