In search of
By Mary Anne Ostrom
Mai Chau has long been a destination
for travelers in search of beauty. The French soldiers, or
so the story goes, would make special trips from their outpost
at Dien Bien Phu in the far northwest reaches of Vietnam to
the village ome 200 miles away. They didn't come to take advantage
of the breathtaking scenery of the surrounding mountains,
but rather the beautiful women of the Tai hill tribe who inhabited
the serene valley.
That was during Vietnam's
colonial era more than half a century ago. Today, visitors,
typically outfitted in Gramicci climbing wear and Vasque hiking
boots, arrive by minivan in search of a few peaceful days
away from Hanoi. They are infinitely more welcomed by the
ethnic tribe people, distant relatives of Thailand's mountain
people, who in their spare time away from the rice paddies
will cook, lead hikes and pull out a sleeping mat for wandering
Although Mai Chau is definitely
on the north Vietnam tourist circuit- it's the closest tourist-ready
mountain village to Hanoi which is 80 miles away - we found
that most travelers just passed through the town and surrounding
hamlets, staying maybe a night in one of the stilt houses
before going trekking or an hour to shop for embroidery work
before returning to the comforts of a hotel.
Few tourists stayed past 9
a.m. That was just about the time we were pulling ourselves
out of bed - actually, up off mats on the bamboo floor of
a stilt home, the typical abode of Vietnam's mountain people.
The living quarters are about six feet off the ground, to
provide better ventilation and shelter for the family's fowl
and water buffalo below.
We hadn't come to Mai Chau
to hike, we had come to vegetate. We had been in Vietnam for
more than two weeks when our Hanoi host, a Vietnamese journalist
who had stayed at our home in San Jose two years earlier,
suggested we head for the mountains. We'd seen the sights
of Vietnam's capital and made the must-see stops at Halong
Bay and the Perfume Pagoda. We'd been to Central Vietnam,
bodysurfing at China Beach, doing the Imperial tomb tour in
Hue and soaking up the sun in Hoi An, Vietnam's version of
Carmel. We were ready for a little change in altitude and
Raising the roof
During our two-day stay in
the Mai Chau valley, we've collected some of our fondest memories
of Vietnam. Short of getting up to our waist in mud in the
rice pad dikes, we sampled many of the activities of village
Thanks to our friend, who
doubled as a translator, we came to know the village elder,
a self-described opium trader-turned-tourist operator who
relayed the story about the French soldiers' preoccupation
with Mai Chau women; received a personalized tour of the nearby
caves from a gaggle of sixth-graders with flashlights; Iearned
of the villagers' entrepreneurial efforts to sell stilt houses
to Hanoi suburbanites; helped a young mother prepare her pigs'
third meal of the day (she spends more time cooking for the
farm animals than for her children); and chipped in a little
sweat to help a Tai man and his three dozen neighbors tile
the roof of his drcam house. The job started at 10 a.m. and
was completed by noon.
For that last effort, we were
rewarded with an invitation to a celebratory "roof-raising"
lunch along with most of the rest of the village. Being the
only tourists at a village party does carry risks. As honored
guests, we were expected to share toasts with anyone who raised
their glass. So, we spent a good part of the afternoon celebrating
the roofing accomplishment with 6-day-old rice wine. We were
afraid our presence would throw off the conconstruction schedule.
Work on the walls wouldn't resume until the next day, we were
assured, so keep drinking.
We had to return to our host's
home for a nap before we could manage the four-hour return
trip to Hanoi over bumpy, unpredictable highway 6.
By northern Vietnam's standards,
getting to and from Mai Chau is a pleasure. Nevertheless,
navigating the mountainous roads - imagine highway 9 in pea-soup
fog with water buffalo setting the pace- requires a reliable
car and a driver.
Price goes up
Although the price was double
when compared with tagging along with other tourists in a
minivan, we opted for a car with driver. When we booked the
trip, our three-person party was quoted $110 for transportation
and lodging for two days. The morning we were to leave, however,
thc price rose $20 because, as it was unconvincingly explained,the
rainy weather required a Japanese car instead of the Russian
Volga as planned. Last-minute price changes are not uncommon
But by the time the sun finally
broke through and we found ourselves several hundred feet
above Mai Chau-staring down in awe at what appeared to be
an island of palms and thatched roofs in the middle of a valley
of shimmering rice paddies - $20 seemed a pittance. Mai Chau
may not be as authentic as other hill towns - only the older
women wear traditional dress and the school children know
bits of English. But because the villagers are more used to
Australians and Europeans dropping by, American visitors are
still considered a treat. (In the north, most people shy away
from talking about the Vietnam War bccause they don't want
bad feelings to interfere with the flow of tourist dollars.
So, we weren't surprised when the men of the village who say
they were drafted by the North Vietnamese army assured us
that they never considered Americans the enemy.)
Mai Chau's town center now
has a new Western-style hotel, with rooms starting at $10
a night. But for $3- and a much more interesting experience-
we opted to stay in a stilt house down the road in the hamlet
of Chieng Chau.
Time for a story
Except for 76-year-old Ha
Cong Nham, who has been welcoming tourists between wars since
1960, most of the rest of village was at work in the rice
paddies. We had tea with Nham, who operates the only official
guest house, and it was arranged that we would stay at his
son's more private house. But we were invited back that night
to hear Nham, a vivid story-teller, play his panpipe and recount
his various careers as musician, opium trader and tourist
operator. He claims to have attracted his wife with his flute-playing
In conversations with our
host, Nham's son, we learned he was having success selling
ready-made stilt houses to city folk around Hanoi. Another
guest of his that night was contemplating buying one for $4,000,
a fortune in a country where the average annual income is
$200. But compared to Hanoi's construction standards, the
stilt house would be sturdier, larger and provide more efficient
ventilation. During our stay, the only evident shortcoming
was the bamboo floor's inability to stifle the shrieks when
the water buffalo stepped on the hen at 4 a.m.
While Mai Chau's hamlets are
in danger of losing some of their genuine flavor as more tourists
descend on Vietnam, there still is plenty of authenticity
left, including very limited sanitary facilities. Family life
goes on, with or without house guests. The wife of our host
had spent much of her day toiling in the fields before coming
home to fix us dinner. She invited the two women in our three-person
party to share a glass of wine in her kitchen as she and her
daughter ate dinner. In rural Vietnam, the women eat in the
kitchen, the men in the main room.
And for the more energetic
traveler, villagers are happy to lead overnight hikes from
Mai Chau to more remote mountain villages reached only by
scenic narrow paths.
But, in the end, it wasn't
the scenery that we marveled at most.
It was watching an entire
village pooling efforts to build a stilt house. The new homeowner
explained that he had saved profits from good rice crops,
borrowed from friends and family, and relied on the sweat
of his neighbors. They had hauled most of the home's timbers
from the forest, hand-hewed them to fit without hammering
a nail and spent 20 days making the roof tiles.
Yet, some fear Chieng Chau
is quickly losing its traditional character. Back at the stilt
house of our host, the wife was dismayed that the village's
newest home was to have a tile roof.
Against her wishes, her own
husband, too, now wanted to replace their 17-year-old thatched
roof with tile. "Things are changing too fast here,"