Mai Chau & Pu Luong, Vietnam- Sierra
Updated: Jan 4, 2018
ALTERNATIVES TO SA PA–MAI CHAU AND PU LUONG
First-time travelers to Vietnam often follow some kind of variation of this classic, “tried and tested” route in North Vietnam– Ha Noi–> Sa Pa–> Ha Long, and then on to the central or southern regions.
Classic Sa Pa photo during the rice harvest in October –but you won’t be seeing this view during the winter months….
While Sa Pa is easily accessible by road and rail and gives a 100% chance of interactions with ethnic minorities, it is also over-developed and a perpetual construction site, as companies within Vietnam start to “mine the gold” so to speak of Sa Pa’s impressive countryside views of terraced rice fields, tall peaks, and fertile valleys. However, during peak travel season when many North Americans and Europeans travel to Vietnam for the winter months, they do not realize that it is also winter here too, and it can get down-right chilly!
During the winter months of December-February, it is very possible that snow will fall in Sa Pa, and due to the mountainous landscape, a chance that even if you travel all the way to Lao Cai, there will not be chance to see much with the thick layer of fog that wraps the mountain at this time of year. The rice terraces, which most visitors wish to see, will have already been harvested, leaving the mountains looking slightly barren, awaiting the new planting season when spring starts.
Vietnam’s northern provinces are all stunning and hold tons to discover for the intrepid traveler–therefore, if you are planning your first trip to Vietnam or as a new expat looking for new places to check out, there are many incredible spots besides Sa Pa to experience stunning scenery, empty roads, and authentic, ethical interactions with the ethnic minorities living throughout the area.
MAI CHAU/PU LUONG NATURE RESERVE ( 3.5-4.5 hours south-west of Ha Noi by bus, car, or motorbike)
View of the Rice Paddies in May from Mai Chau Eco Lodge
Mai Chau and Pu Luong are great alternatives to Sa Pa, especially if you are short on time or visiting in the winter months. Mai Chau is situated in a valley so it is always green and relatively warm. Mai Chau is also home to 7 different ethnic minorities, the majority belonging to either the White or Black Thai group. Here, you can see the archetypal wooden stilt houses inhabited by these tribes, and many offer homestays of varying degrees of authenticity to international and domestic travelers alike.
Have a soak in a traditionally-inspired bath at the Mai Chau Ecolodge if you’re in the mood for pampering–otherwise there are many local homestays that you can stay at to support local communities–no need to book ahead, just go!
Homestays are worth it alone for the great hospitality and AMAZING local foods you get to try!
Traditionally, the Black Thai wear darker colored clothing, like a black blouse with a high collar and a black skirt, while the White Thai prefer brighter colors like pink or green and wear a white blouse with a heart-shaped or V-shaped collar and a black skirt. The women in the White Thai group also traditionally wear their hair in buns at the nape of their neck if they are single and as a top-knot when married. If the White Thai wear a head covering it will also be brightly colored as opposed to the Black Thai whose head covering is darkly colored with a few bright accents.
Here are a few White Thai women dressed in traditional clothing
This is a sample of women from the Black Thai group.
Can you guess…are these girls Black or White Thai? Hint, look at the collar and hairstyle
Mai Chau is a wonderful place to support local communities by eating their food, staying in their homes, and having face-to-face interactions in a natural setting. Mai Chau also has tons of outdoorsy activities that can be enjoyed year-round like cycling or trekking.
Obligatory Mai Chau photo snapped by my husband
On the edge of Mai Chau, the Pu Luong Nature Reserve begins and stretches all the way to Cuc Phuong National Park. Not many tourists travel to the reserve so it’s the perfect alternative to the over-saturated feel that some people feel when visiting Sa Pa. There is one ecolodge called Pu Luong Retreat as well as many cute homestays to choose from in the area to suit all budgets and tastes.
If you want to stay in a totally “off-the-beaten-track” spot, away from the crowds with an outstanding biodiversity along with quiet villages of ethnic minorities, this is the place for you!
Inside the Pu Luong Nature Reserve
No crowds here…