Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mai Chau Weekend

Our first trip out of Hanoi was to Mai Chau, a small village about 135km from the Capital. There are a number of ways to get there however we opted for the easiest (and less expensive) option, the public bus. The bus left from Giap Bat bus station. A foreign face will get a lot of attention there and amidst the chaos it was hard to find where we had to leave from. Celine found the correct area and we jumped on right on time.

The fare is 50,000 Dong ($3.5AUD) per person and the trip will take around 3 and a half hours. It is not the most pleasant journey in the world but one can’t argue with that price. Once out of the suburbs of Hanoi and into the countryside you can really see the beauty that Vietnam has to offer. The first sight of Mai Chau is a bird’s eye view as we hug another of the endless bends on the mountains looking down to the valley below. The town’s activity is principally located on the one long street which we enter off the mountain.

Once dropped off in town we were met by a number of guys asking if they can help. As I was looking for a woman, Madame Linh, all offers were met with mild attention. When I said I was looking for Madame Linh a friendly looking guy nods his head and shows us a card. I had my doubts on the validity of his claim but Celine thought he looked the man for the job. Turns out she was right and after a short trip on the moto we turned off the main road and passed a small lake with rice patties on either side. We entered the little stilts village and after passing a few houses stopped and met our host, Madame Linh. From the first glance we could see a kind and happy person. Madame Linh can’t speak English so all correspondence was made with hand gestures or a quick reference to our phrase book. She lives with her husband and his father. Their English is zero as well.

The house is amazing. It is on stilts and the structure is made of wood. There is a group of stairs to climb to enter the main room. The floor is made of rattan and bamboo and there are a number of windows in the main room. There is no glass in the windows and that is the intention. Off to the side of the main room is the kitchen. Downstairs, under the main room is a sitting area and nearby are the toilets and shower. The house is extremely simple and all the other houses in the village are similar. I would come to learn that their lifestyle is uncomplicated and everyone you meet is happy and it would seem content.

After our initial greetings we explored the town. There is not a great deal happening but there is always a cheerful smile to see, or someone who is only too keen to have a chat. The local kids, excited just to use the little English they know, wave enthusiastically as you walk by. Men deep in thought play Chinese chess while workers are busy putting up new buildings. We stopped for a Bia Hoi and an ice cream and I tasted the local pork rolls, wrapped in bamboo leaf.

Our bed for the evening was a very thin mattress on the floor of the main room. We had pillows and a mosquito net for a cost of 50,000 Dong per person for the night. Dinner was made over a fire in the kitchen and it was delicious and plentiful with various meat and vegetable dishes. Guests usually eat separately however Celine asked them to join us. They did and the dinner rolled along well: we chatted to the best of our abilities and laughed a lot. Proceedings were helped along with the inclusion of xeo, rice wine. I will have to work out the etiquette when drinking xeo because at the moment it seems your glass is filled when empty and when full it should be consumed. It is a vicious circle. Nonetheless (or possibly because of it) it was a thoroughly enjoyable dinner.

The night was spent indulging in copious amounts of xeo. There was a nearby party when our host, Madame Linh’s husband was partying away the night. We joined at an outside open grass area not far from the stilt houses. There was music playing, a bonfire and many young Vietnamese having a good time. Being foreigners we were a notable attraction. I was jumping the fire at one point, having a dance off the next followed by more shots of xeo. Everyone was so friendly and Celine and I were having a great time. We stumbled home around midnight.

The crow of the rooster begins at a little past 6 in the morning. There is no sleep in allowed in Mai Chau but the early morning wake up call pushes you to jump on the back of a moto and head 40 km to the Hmong markets. Our drivers picked us up and we headed up the mountain to the weekly Sunday market. Here you will find traditionally made clothes, bags and things for the wall. You can buy a live piglet or perhaps sample some of the local food. The market was good to see but perhaps the highlight was wandering up the road and into the villages, seeing where the local Hmong people live and how they live their life.

That night we had another delicious meal. Madame Linh is an amazing cook. If you are heading to Mai Chau I suggest Madame Linh. I am hungry just writing this. After dinner I had a smoke (of tobacco) with Grandpa out of his pipe (a bit like a bong) a few shots of xeo and we both enjoyed a laugh. The next morning we were to leave on the bus for Hanoi. It was an awesome weekend.

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