Rice Fields and Limestone Towers
After a few days in the busy capital of Hanoi, we took a bus to the countryside. Vietnam is such a beautiful country and our next two destinations were just the beginning of that.
Recommended by our food tour guide in Hanoi, we made our way toward the stunning village of Mai Chau.
Buses and Baguettes
To get to Mai Chau we took a 4-hour bus from the city. Our bus was more like a really large van and was quite interesting. We were the only tourists on the bus and definitely got some stares. Leaving Hanoi, we were both a little stressed and Ty was in a frustrated mood that morning. As were sitting in the last row of the bus and Ty’s bad mood festered, a Vietnamese couple sitting a few rows up kept turning to look at us and giggling.
This irritated Ty more and he was just about to say something when suddenly, the guy turned around and offered him a baguette with a huge smile on his face. The Vietnamese guy was about 20 and had about 5 more loaves in his lap. We didn’t know what to do and tried to deny it politely but he kept offering so eventually Ty took it. It seemed to make the guy so happy that we took the bread offered and it was actually so delicious, light, and sweet. The guy continued to turn back and giggle but now we were giggling too. He then handed us his phone and on it was Vietnamese to English translation, asking how we were doing.
Thankful for Google Translate
We talked back and forth through the Google Translate app for the remainder of the 3-hour bus ride. He asked us where we were from, our names, where we planned to go, and how we were liking Vietnam. Ty’s mood definitely lifted with this friendly interaction and we were offered a second baguette when our new friend got off the bus at his stop. It was such a funny and interesting exchange, we couldn’t speak the same language and yet this guy was offering us food and so interested to know us! He was so kind and we appreciated the snack on the long bus ride!
Arrival in Mai Chau
We arrived in Mai Chau which is not a huge tourist destination for foreigners, it is more common for people who live in Vietnam. Our homestay had messaged us offering a ride to the accommodation so we let them know the time we would be arriving in the town. A few minutes later two guys on motorbikes pulled up and with very little understanding of what they were saying, we climbed on the back of each hoping it was truly our ride. This was a bit nerve-wracking but we made it to the homestay safely.
Our guesthouse sat outside of town on the edge of rice fields with a stunning view of the mountains behind them. We were greeted by the owner who showed us our room and offered us some of his homemade rice and cassava wine (the beginning of our rice wine tastings in Vietnam…but more on that later).
Homestay with a View
The homestay was beautiful with a large bamboo patio, a dorm-styled upper floor, and a few private rooms like the one pictured below, where we stayed. Our host was extremely friendly and shared some ideas for our short stay and let us know when dinner would be ready. Since we had arrived in the early afternoon, we decided to go for a walk around the rice fields. The path winding through the fields was paved and offered closeup views of the bright green rice plants, the people harvesting the rice, and a stunning backdrop.
We were told that within the next week, all of the rice would be harvested. So our timing was perfect to see the bright green fields before they were cut down.
For dinner, we were served a huge platter of vegetarian-friendly food and plenty of rice wine was offered (although it was WAY too strong for us and we lightly sipped our first serving slowly). There were a few other groups of travelers staying that we chatted with that evening before going to bed. One pair was a father-son duo motorbiking through Vietnam for a month. Another was a Vietnamese family that visits Mai Chau frequently to escape the city. Everyone was so nice.
Riding Around Mai Chau
The next morning, we rented bicycles from the homestay and explored a farther stretch of Mai Chau and the surrounding villages. We hit a very touristy area with buses full of high schoolers who had come in for a field trip from Hanoi. Luckily this was on the other side of Mai Chau from where we stayed.
In Vietnam, there are 54 different ethnic groups, living throughout the country. Mai Chau is home to some Hmong, Black Thai, and White Thai groups. There are a variety of differences between them but one noticeable difference for guests is their daily and ceremonial dress, and weaving patterns. Throughout Mai Chau, there were many homestays with hand looms selling handwoven scarves, dresses, and more. They were beautiful and so brightly colored, we spent a lot of time admiring their art.
We really enjoyed our time riding around the rice fields of Mai Chau and taking in the stunning views. Although it is a touristy destination, it’s nothing compared to the more well-known sites and it was nice to escape that feeling. Just look at these views!
After two days in Mai Chau, we headed to a destination that had been high on our list for years – Tam Coc. Tam Coc is a smaller tourist town outside the larger city of Ninh Binh. It is a popular destination and is known for its unique cave system and being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We arrived at our next accommodation, Tam Coc Rice Fields Homestay, and had such a lovely stay that we extended for a few extra nights not wanting to leave. Dan is the owner of the guesthouse and he works basically all day every day for his guests, while his family lives in his hometown a few hours away. His wife comes on the weekends to help but she and their daughters live at home with his mother. He was one of the kindest hosts we’d had and we enjoyed our nightly chats with him.
While in Tam Coc, we explored the area by scooter, visited the Trang An Complex, hiked in Cuc Phuong National Park, and climbed to the top of the Hang Mua Viewpoint.
Trang An is a village next to Tam Coc that offers a stunning boat tour through the karst landscape formations. If you have seen the movie Kong: Skull Island, you might have even seen some of these landscape sights yourself since the movie was partially filmed here in 2016.
We climbed into our boat with another couple and were rowed around by one of the strongest women ever. Each boat is rowed by a woman, for roughly 3 hours, with only a few stops. These ladies are incredible. The views were absolutely magical and reminded us of our trip to Khao Sok National Park because of the towering limestone formations.
On our 3-hour ride around, we went through many different caves, stopped at a few temples, and took in the amazing landscape with awe. We had been looking forward to this from the beginning of our trip planning and it did not disappoint!
Cuc Phong National Park
Although the weather wasn’t the best, we made the 2-hour drive to Cuc Phuong National Park for a day trip. Cuc Phuong is Vietnam’s first national park and largest nature preserve. If booking a tour, there are a few different options for visiting, however, when visiting by yourself there is one main trail to hike.
This trail takes you through the dense jungle and is home to ancient large trees, including the 1000-year-old tree.
We didn’t see much wildlife while hiking but it did feel nice to be outside hiking through the jungle! On our way home, we drove through the countryside. It was beautiful! We were stopped by groups of cows and goats crossing the road and Sam tried driving a scooter for the first time (pretty successfully if I might add).
Hang Mua Viewpoint
One of the last exciting things we did in Tam Coc was climb to the Hang Mua Viewpoint. However, it may not have been the smartest idea after such a long and tiring hike in Cuc Phuong. Our legs were shaky already and with 500+ stairs to climb, we were definitely tired once we reached the top.
The long climb up the stairs was definitely worth it for the view at the end. We watched the sunset over the hills and admired the view from the entire area. The viewpoint is very popular among tourists so it was busy at the top but that didn’t take away from the amazing views it offered. Just breathtaking.
Leaving Tam Coc
After extending a few extra days than originally planned, exploring the countryside, and enjoying all that Tam Coc had to offer, we made our way to our next destination. Tam Coc, although touristy, was such a wonderful place and we’re still not over the incredible scenery we enjoyed. We also want to shout out our lovely homestay host Dan, because he made our stay in Tam Coc even more special with his welcoming and friendly demeanor.
Mai Chau and Tam Coc were just the beginning of the incredible landscapes we saw in Vietnam. Read all about them in our next posts!
Until next time,
Sam and Ty