Asia,  TDM,  Travel Journal,  Vietnam

Mai Chau (Vietnam): an alternative to Sapa

That’s it, we are in Vietnam, in Hanoi at my parents’ house. For our first getaway in Vietnam, we chose to go to Mai Chau, a valley nested in a mountainous zone still little exploited

Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

Ba Vì

As we are by car, we make a small detour to Ba Vì, an area known for its cow’s milk and dairy products. It’s not easy in Vietnam to find an area suitable for raising dairy cows. Milk cows don’t eat the same food as buffaloes. Farmers have to trade their rice fields for grass to feed their cash cows

We stop at the store Sữa Ất Thảo, where you can drink milk, eat yoghurt and caramel creams. The prices are very reasonable, about 3€ for a dozen fresh yoghurts. I didn’t take any pictures sorry, I was busy eating 😀

Ba Vì is also a tourist area for locals. When I was a child, day trips with my school were often made to the area, because it’s not very far from Hanoi, but it’s exotic and varied enough to have a little fun

It is also in this area that there are several thermal springs, waterfalls and lakes of all kinds

Usually we swim at Khoáng nóng Thanh Thủy where the freshly pumped water is hot (70-80°C) but they are exceptionally closed a few days before the lunar new year to renovate and prepare for the many tourists who will come here during the festival of Tết (Vietnamese lunar new year)

Kim Bôi

As a result, we go to another source of water, this time mineral, which is called Kim Bôi (full name: Suối nước nóng Kim Bôi). We have lunch at a restaurant next door

The speciality here (well, as soon as we go to the mountain in fact) is Cơm lam, sticky rice cooked in bamboo. I’m putting you a picture taken in Cambodia because I forgot to take some – and in Cambodia, you can find about the same thing

There are two swimming pools in Kim Bôi but today only one is open because there aren’t many customers. The water is only 38°C, it’s a tepid shiver for us especially when it’s cold outside. But we can take a very hot shower in the changing room. The bathing here is more adapted in summer

After swimming, we walk around and enjoy the pure mountain air

Here, the bikers “tamper” with the kitchen gloves so they don’t freeze their fingers while driving

There is a noisy haggling between a group of customers and a hen and cock seller. The chickens are sold by KG and the rooster costs more than the hen because the rooster is used as an offering for the lunar new year

Note: offering: the rooster is cooked – the head included – then the incense is burned and put on the altar of the ancestors. Once the incense has been burned, the rooster can be lowered and eaten

Mai Châu

The landscapes are sumptuous. The path that leads us to Mai Châu looks like a dream. We slowly go up to the clouds, then the clouds disappear to give way to a dream landscape bathed in the soft warmth of the sun. It is so pleasant to feel the warmth of the sun on a humid winter day in the North of Vietnam

At the arrival of Mai Châu, there is a view point where you can observe the valley from above

Then we need about 15 km to go down to the bottom. The time to sink into a road under construction and almost fall into the rice fields, we finally arrive at Pẻm, which hosts us tonight

His homestay (number 32 in the village Ban Lac 1) is the only one with a huge parking lot for our car. The owners are from minority ethnic groups, like most of the inhabitants of Northern Vietnam. Pẻm is of Thai origin, the same ethnicity as the Thai people in Thailand. His mother tongue still looks a lot like the current Thai. Our guide in Cambodia explained to us that at the beginning, the Thais didn’t really have their own country, and then they took a small piece of each country to make up their own

Its homestay is composed of two mountain houses, two nhà sàn. They are houses on stilts, while there is no water below. Normally, the staircase is made of wood and retractable. This way, you are protected from the wild animals in the mountains like tigers, leopards etc. The first floor is reserved for the animals (chickens, suckling pigs, dogs…) and the kitchen

Now the homestays use the space on the first floor as a restaurant and bathrooms. The large room upstairs is used as a dormitory, capable of accommodating up to 40 people, or separated into 2-3 rooms

At Pẻm, there are 3 single rooms downstairs that smell a bit damp, but it’s super clean and built in wood, which allows better insulation in winter and coolness in summer

Each double room costs 300 000VND/night. We ask if there is anything to eat. But the answer is negative: at all the homestays, it is better to book in advance, the market is closed, they can’t shop and cook for us like that. We spot two or three restaurants next door but nothing makes us feel like it

We cross the rice fields to go to the next village (Ban Lake 2). In fact, at the beginning, we wanted to go to another village, but as we got lost, we found ourselves in Ban Lake 2. This new village is more authentic than the other one. We see an old woman heating her foot in front of the wood fire. Her son, who has lost half of his teeth, comes to say hello. We ask him if he has something to eat, he answers us, with a strong accent, that there isn’thing left in the kitchen and that they have eaten everything

We walk a little and discover another homestay. This homestay, leaning against the mountain, has 2 bungalows and 2 magnificent rooms offering an impressive view on the valley (double room at 500000VND/night). As they are serving food to the 4 French tourists, we ask them if there isn’t something left for us. At the beginning, they say no, and then, as we insist, they accept to serve us some vegetables and meat

Then, as they misestimated the amount of food to cook for the other tourists, they served us some rice which they made too much, then a salad, then peanuts, then some extra meat. Finally, we find ourselves with a complete meal for 200 000VND for 4 people (7€) ahahah

May Market Châu & Hang Chiêù

The next morning, we are woken up at 4:30 am by the roosters, then the ducks and then the cows. We try to fall asleep until 8 o’clock

We walk 1Km to the food market near Nhà Văn Hóa Thị Trấn Mai Châu (type this on Google maps to find the exact location). Every morning, farmers come to sell their products on the sidewalk. Sometimes you wonder how some of them can survive because even if they sell everything they have, they make 2€ max

Near the market there are a lot of restaurants selling soups and soups. Ravioli are served with a sauce full of meat, that’s how it is in the mountains. So it is with a full belly that we venture to Hang Chiêù

There is a small sign indicating the road to the cave “Hang Chiêù”. We were told that it was pretty so we decided to climb the steps. Without knowing that they are 1200 steps which await us ! Just to go there

Admission costs 10,000VND/person. The first steps are a bit damaged because of a big stone that fell from the top of the mountain. By the way, you can still see this huge stone stopped by bamboos. The family that sells entrance tickets also sells sugar cane juice. We ask them to prepare the sugar canes for our return

I don’t know how long it took us to climb all that. We are moreover very surprised to cross a lot of locals who go back and forth several times a day to fetch bamboo (for the heating) or bananas (to give food to the buffaloes in winter)

JB admires the ease with which the Vietnamese manage to talk to each other like this without knowing each other. In reality, it is quite acceptable, in the countryside, for a perfect stranger, especially a tourist, to ask “what are you doing? Where are you going like that?” – the other will answer honestly, and if the current is going well, they will exchange intimate information such as whether or not they have a boyfriend/girlfriend, how many children they have, how much money they earn per month etc

Let’s go back to our cave. The path that leads there gives us some nice points of view

And when you see the big tree in front of the cave and the cave itself, you are so happy to see that all these efforts were not in vain

It’s super super nice ! No artificial light, just a few steps to facilitate the visit. Besides, we are alone !

Here we go again for 1200 steps. The idea of a fresh sugar cane juice motivates us, despite our shaky legs. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the bottom, the saleswoman informs us that there is a power cut. No electricity, no juice. She still serves us some tea

JB is hallucinated by the number of times we drink tea during the day. Bitter tea on top of that, not French scented tea. As soon as we arrive somewhere, the owner receives us and serves us tea. When we finish eating in a restaurant, there is always a tea service at the end, free of charge. We can use it or have it served to us. Tea is the equivalent of coffee in France. To receive, and to finish a meal

On this, we return to the homestay to pack our suitcase, then we take again the car to return to Hanoi. The son-in-law of our owner speaks fluent English and tells us that if we had stayed there longer, he could have taken us to visit a dam next to it and explore the jungle. It isn’ted, and that only gives us a pretext to return there


Mai Châu is an alternative to Sapa, for those who don’t have much time and still want to discover the mountains of Northern Vietnam. Even if the landscapes do not equal those of Sapa, Mai Châu is still not very touristy and offers interesting local experiences, especially on weekends when everyone meets around a wood fire and dances together

Part 2: Practical Tips

How to get there

Many tourist agencies offer tours of 2 days, 1 night until Mai Chau (without stopping at the hot springs like we do). Ask about the accommodation, if it is a nhà sàn (more authentic) or a hotel

On site, you can rent tandem bikes or golf cars


Exchange rate in February 2018 : 1 euro = 28,000VND
100,000VND = 3,5€

  • Transport: free for us
  • Homestay: 300,000VND/double room/night – hot water, very clean room
  • Meals: between 20,000VND and 50,000VND/person/meal maxi
  • Entrance ticket for the cave: 10,000VND/person
  • Restaurant in Kim Bôi: 100,000VND/person
  • Entrance to the Kim Bôi pool: 65,000VND/person

Contact details of our homestay

Double room: 300 000VND/night for 2 persons
Dormitory: I don’t know

Hot shower, very clean room. Mosquito net provided

Contact details of the other homestay

The one leaning against the mountain. Nice view
Bungalow: 300 000VND/night for two
Room: 500 000VND/night for two adults, one child

telephone : (+84)962627132
Email : havanthiep36(@)gmail(.)com

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