Boutique homestay in Moc Chau
New destinations come and go. What was yesterday’s best kept secret is tomorrow’s spoilt “has been” destination. We all want to visit new places and have fresh experiences, but in our pursuit of un-spoilt paradises aren’t we merely sowing the seed of its eventual demise?
At Hanuman we like to think we lead the way in innovative travel experiences. We also like to think we create and implement our experiences in a responsible way. We believe that tourism practiced the right way should make better places to live as well as better places to visit. We realize that it is essential to preserve our natural and cultural treasures, but it is equally important to give host communities a voice and allow them to improve their living conditions. For this reason we often work alongside local communities and NGO’s in order to maximize the benefits to all involved. This is the path we have taken for our new Northern Vietnam products: using responsible tourism to promote sustainability according to the priorities of the locals themselves.
On a recent trip to Vietnam, Hanuman Adventure and Responsible Tourism Manager Jake Corke, wanted to experience the north in a slightly different way. Sapa is the people’s choice destination of the north, and for good reason, it is stunning! However, with hotels getting taller, trails getting busier and locals getting pushier, it’s no longer the natural haven it used to be. It’s also at least an 8 hour journey from Hanoi.
So Jake set off to explore the north west of the country. Closer to and more accessible to Hanoi, Mai Chau has been popular with travelers for some time now. But it is the gems of Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Natural Reserve to the South and Moc Chau to the North [of Mai Chau] that were the real attraction for this trip. New very comfortable and well managed home-stay accommodations have recently opened in both locations which allow amazing local experiences in areas that other tourists do not visit. Our Vietnamese partners have exclusivity to both.
Having escaped the chaotic traffic of Hanoi and its suburbs we found ourselves winding through mountain roads with rice fields and forest on either side. Arriving at the Ranger station of Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Natural Reserve, was like entering another world, this was an untouched secret garden inhabited by the Muong people. The deep roots of their ethnic culture and their isolated location have contributed to the preservation of what is a cultural and natural treasure. We spent several hours enjoying light trekking through fairyland scenery: lush forests, blue rivers, and misty waterfalls in a deep valley surrounded by limestone rock formations, palm trees, and bamboo groves. Curious locals stopped their work to share welcoming smiles and friendly waves. We stopped to enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the many small waterfalls.
Our accommodation for the night was at a home-stay owned and run by a local Muang family in a very traditional home. We were welcomed by a lady in traditional dress with a huge smile and a bowl of steaming water infused with lemon grass to refresh ourselves. There was a western toilet and a ladle yourself shower. Our dinner was simply delicious! 6 courses including barbequed pork, spring rolls, wild mushrooms and numerous local vegetables. All were served by our charming hostess Lin, the mother of the family. Her and her daughters had prepared the meal and watched from a distance checking for our approval. She was practicing her English and was obviously so proud and happy to receive us in her remote home. Dinner was followed by plenty of local rice wine. We slept on mattresses with mosquito nets on the floor. The home was spotlessly clean as was all the bedding. For such a genuine and remote homestay experience you couldn’t hope for more comfort or friendlier hospitality … we felt truly honoured.
The following morning, after a hearty breakfast, we followed the winding mountain road for a couple of hours to Mai Chau. Mai Chau can be reached directly from Hanoi in under 4 hours. The ease of access combined with its flawless beauty has attracted large numbers of visitors over the years. Yet it continues to be a peaceful and beautiful spot nestled among the ice fields beneath stunning limestone mountains. The Thai peoples here are renowned for their warm hospitality and have opened numerous home-stays in recent years. But I opted for a little bit of rustic luxury at the Mai Chau Lodge. Locally owned and run by the white Thai, this is a charming little lodge which offers more formal hotel comforts and also has a pool for cooling off in the mid day heat. There are numerous walks and hikes available through neighbouring villages where locals sell an array of colourful locally produced textiles, carvings and so on. I opted to spend the afternoon cycling through the rice fields and villages. I’d forgotten how beautiful Vietnam could be and how warm hearted and welcoming the local people are.
The following day we continued to Moc Chau. Again, the scenery on the journey was stunning. Moc Chau is all about its surroundings – a mountainous area, famous for its tea hills, limestone karsts, endless plum orchards, corn fields and dairy products. But a range of traditional and deep-rooted ethnic cultures create more interest for the discerning traveler. Remote villages are nestled among the misty valleys surrounded by crenellated karsts and dense forests. This area offers ideal biking routes, light trekking and as is so often the case in Vietnam, warm and heartfelt local hospitality. For those interested, it is possible to go and join the tea pickers in the plantations and visit the factory were the tea is processed. There are also plans for numerous agro-tourism initiatives whereby visitors can participate in the daily agricultural practices of local people. An great way to get an insight into a fascinating way of life and to experience some genuine cultural interaction.
This night we were to be the very first overnight visitors to stay in the brand new and only homestay. A local Thai stilt house had been renovated sleeping was again on (thick) mattresses on the floor, mosquito nets and fans were provided. But the biggest surprise, in such a remote location, was the toilet and shower block downstairs that gave us hot showers around the clock! This was a joint enterprise between a local tea plantation owner and our Vietnamese partners, and between them they have created something unique in Vietnam: somewhere you can escape all the other tourists, share everyday life experiences with local people, and still enjoy certain comforts that you would not imagine exist in such locations. There will now be a studio complete with its own kitchen for couples or families who want a little more comfort and privacy, or for those who would like to stay longer.
Another delicious 5 course meal was shared with our host before we polished off a couple of bottles of his home made corn brandy. It was then time to retire to our beds, a cacophony of night sounds sent us into a dreamy sleep with memories of misty mountains, a thousand shades of green, smiling faces and an alternative slice of north Vietnam. For tomorrow, it’s back to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi … but what a trip!