Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
53Trip End Jun 29, 2011
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Our destination is Mai Chau, a small village at the mouth of a serious of valleys. We’re doing a homestay where we stay in a traditional Vietnamese house, eat the local grub and be taken on a couple of tours of the village and area by a local. The views on entering Mai Chau take your breath away. We arrive early morning, and there is still a fair bit of mist around, so with the sun breaking through the (holy crap! Sorry, writing this whilst on a night train from Mumbai to Agra and just seen an elephant walking past the train, cool!) cloud, the mountains breaking back up in to the clouds and the lush green of the rice fields below, it’s a far cry from the grey of Hanoi a couple of hours ago.
We pull up at a bamboo house 10ft up in the air on stilts in the centre of the village (we later learn that the reason the houses are on stilts, isn’t so much for decoration, but a very practical use – it keeps the tigers out! That’s completely true, there are around 50 known to the village up in the hills. Though they haven’t had one wonder into the village for some time, there is always the risk one will). Looking at our home for the next couple of days, we think we done pretty well again on the negotiations front as ours is bar far the best and most authentic looking house in the village. It’s not until Willy clambers up the stairs to our room that we realise this might be the second best house in the village. Bar some concrete foundations, the house is completely made from bamboo. And even though Will has lost over 2 stone since we went travelling the 50 year old bamboo hasn’t the strength it once did and his foot goes straight through the floor and exits in the kitchen below to greet the lady of the house who is cooking our lunch! With the introductions over we sit down for some local food. And its good, really good. Fried spring rolls, fried tofu, fried chicken, fried green things and rice not fried. It taste delicious, but we’re sure all this frying can’t be any good for our insides! At 1pm we are joined by Xuan (pronounced 'swa-hn’) lady of the village to take us on a tour. She’s not just anybody, but the main head honcho of the village. Everybody knows her and she knows everyone. The tour is by bicycle around the village, into the feet of the mountains and then round to her place for tea! The bikes we’ve been given from the house we are staying in aren’t really road worthy. Beaks is ok, well it has 2 sets of working brakes which is 4 times as many as Will has, to which he discovers when trying to slow on a downhill section. Whizzing past everyone, he stops some 100ft away in the distance, inches from face planting it into a rice field! Xuan, our guide finds this hilarious! We make it to hers and sit down for a couple of their local tea. It’s a cross between green tea and earl grey with no milk. And it is good, really good. The four of us go through at least a pot each. Whilst sat on her floor, she brings us various books that hundreds of tourists have written in for her over the years she has been showing people around her village. She is fascinated to learn that we are from England, as she says that in almost 10 years, we’re only the 3 lot of English to pass through here. We find this very hard to believe considering in Hanoi 90% of all tourists are Brits. So sifting through the books we discover that we are one of probably thousand of fellow Brits to pass through this way, but don’t have the heart to tell here. Many of the people that have visited her have sent her postcards from their home towns and cities, so we’ve promised to send her one from London and Bath. We’re given a gift each, a small fabric thing to go round our wrists. Following some more tea and photos with her in traditional scarfs which all the women of the village make, we head back to the village for a cold bear some dinner and an urgent pee, as 6 cups of tea each has gone straight through both of us! We are left to our own devices later on, and for Beak, this of course means shopping! We’ve purchased a fair bit over the past 4 ½ months, everything from fabric to hang on walls, bowls from lake Titicaca in Bolivia, paintings games from Peru, kitchen ware from Aus, beads from New Zealand, tea sets and more bowls from Thailand, but as yet no throws or massive pieces of ornate and delicate material. Until Beak spots a huge, and we mean HUGE piece of clothe on a homestay stall opposite our place. Our negotiation skills have been exemplary up until now, managing to secure pretty much everything for 50% below the marked or given price. Here, seeing how the locals live and the time and effort they put into making the fabrics (on the tour previously today, we were shown all the ladies making the very cloth we’re considering buying) we both look at each other and thinking the exact same thing hand over 300,000 dong without even battering an ounce of bargaining greatness! It’s a stunning piece of material so we’re happy and the lady who sold it to us is obviously very happy as probably the first time ever a tourist hasn’t had to haggle with her!
Following a fairly good night’s sleep watching the world and mosquitoes go by through the huge hole and slats in our room we’re up early for breakfast (bread and jam for us westerners, some soup-noodle ting for the Thai girl on our tour) we begin a walk which will take us up over 1,000 steps high into the hills a cave some hour or so away from the village. We arrive at the bottom of the steps and look up to see them vanishing in the sky. Setting off, Willy begins to count everyone to see if there really are 1,000 steps. After only 200, the Thai girl has had enough, refuses to go any further and sits down on the 200th step to wait for us until we are back down! We’re not sure what she thought 1,000 steps would be in the tour description, perhaps the world’s largest escalator?! It’s wasn’t easy going we’ll grant her that, what with the 35c heat and almost vertical steps clambering up on your hands and knees, but when you hit the 968th step (32 steps have been stolen or simply 1,000t is an exaggeration to make them sound better!) and are greeted to a huge cave on the side of a mountain it’s well worth the effort. Even more so when Xuan begins to tell us the history of the cave; During the Vietnam war, over 5,000 people sought refuge in it. It’s a big cave, really big, but no way near big enough to hold 5,000. Xuan explains that many of the children were sent down deeper into the cave into the many hundreds of crack and potholes which lead endlessly on. The cave saved almost everyone from the villages below, as almost every building was either completely flattened or burnt to the ground by the Americans.
It’s a lot quicker to go down steps then clamber up them, but when you have 968 to go down, after 200 your legs begin to burn and when you eventually reach the bottom, off the 968th one, you end up walking like Jar-Jar Binks from star wars, well that was the case for Beak anyway as of course she had to try and beat Will on the way down!
Making it back to the village just in for some lunch and to say our goodbyes to Xuan and the rest of the villagers, we jump in the car for our 4 hour ride back to Hanoi. We arrive back in Hanoi at the hotel just in time to pick up our bags catch our bus we booked through the hotel, that will take us over the Vietnam boarder and into Laos to the capital Vientiene, its only a 15hour bus ride, so we’ll have plenty of time to catch a connecting 4 hour bus ride north to Vang Vieng to go tubing, or will we?.....