While most travelers intent on trekking northern Vietnam inevitably head to Sapa, a convenient and possibly more authentic alternative can be found a mere four hour drive from downtown Hanoi. The town of Mai Chau acts as a gateway to the lush highlands of the H’mong and Thai ethnic villages, places of incomparable natural beauty and kind and generous people.
Mai Chau itself is fairly touristy, but it is likely your tour will stop here for lunch before driving further into the countryside to begin the trek. Pack efficiently, as probably you will be carrying your packs for each full day of hiking. That being said, there were only two of us on our particular trek, along with local and Hanoi-based guides, and they arranged a motorbike taxi to take our backpacks each day and deposit them at our next home stay for us.
Most of the hiking is quite gentle and takes place along well-worn motorbike routes. Here you will pass through peaceful villages dotted with smoking huts, gorgeous terraced rice patties and any number of chickens and ducks strutting around. Everyone we encountered was quick with a smile and a wave. When it was time to break for lunch or take a quick rest, our local guide would just knock on someone’s door and they would invite us in for a cup of fresh green tea and a chat. We brought some simple presents, such as school supplies, to give out to those we visited and our host families throughout the trek.
Accommodation with the host families is very basic but clean. You may get the chance to help harvest peanuts from the garden for dinner or play with a giggling toddler, if you so choose. Some facilities will be set up for large groups, while with other hosts you may be housed in a single family home. Dinners are plentiful and taken on the floor in a big circle with the family. The women often go out of their way to cook special dishes for the hungry travelers. The meal is always washed down with multiple toasts of the local brew, a kind of rice liquor, and guests are encouraged to drink up!
Mai Chau is approximately 4-5 hours’ drive from Hanoi. Many travel companies in Hanoi offer both group and private treks of varying lengths in the Mai Chau region. The one I used and was happy with was Footprints Vietnam: http://www.footprintsvietnam.com/ If you would like to get to the town of Mai Chau by public transport, catch one of several daily direct buses from Hanoi’s My Dinh bus station.