Nick finally reaches Mai Chau Valley...

12th March 2014 | by Nick

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...and throws the Cuc Phuong National Park and ‘Halong on Land’ into the equation. Over four days, he unearths some great rural adventures for clients eager to break away from the city and explore Vietnam’s back yard.

'Hanoi was still the hectic, fun, and entertaining city that I remembered so vividly from my previous visit to the Vietnamese capital three years before. As an early riser back home, my body clock goes into dysfunctional overdrive mode when in Asia, much to my wife’s dismay, and I tend to startle even the Asians by bumbling about the streets at what is an ungodly hour even by their standards.

Nonetheless, Hanoi is my kind of city. From 4 a.m onwards, the streets surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake (as well as many of the city’s other parks) are jostling with Hanoins jogging, walking, playing badminton... there are groups of women practising Tai Chi, old men stretching their life-beaten bodies... there’s even a make-shift ‘street gym’, complete with dumbbells, set up on the pavement each morning to the west side of the lake.

Whether you join in or find yourself a comfy spot with a strong cup of Vietnamese coffee, it’s a wonderful place to welcome the day before trudging back to your hotel as the humidity rises and the mopeds reclaim the streets once again.

I wasn’t to be in Hanoi for long, though, and after a number of hotel inspections (and as much Pho as I could eat in 24 hours), I set off south with Nam, my guide for the next four days. First stop was the city of Ninh Binh, three hours south of Hanoi, initially passing through small satellite towns before they gave way to the ever-present and most welcome sight of the rice paddies.

The city itself is far from remarkable and would not feature on many travellers' itineraries if it weren't for the immense beauty of the surrounding region, and for several nearby attractions that require using Ninh Binh as a place to sleep.

The highlight for me was undoubtedly my visit to the village of Voun Thi. The village is a one hour bike ride from the outskirts of the city, passing through a particularly picturesque rural landscape.

Imagine cycling through ancient villages, and across rice paddies with looming limestone karsts forming a quite astounding backdrop - they don’t call this region ‘Halong on Land’ for nothing. The people we passed along the way were clearly not used to droves of tourists, and the welcoming smiles and ‘xin chào’ (hello) were genuine.

Upon reaching Voun Thi I was greeted by Trang, an extremely friendly mother of eleven, who welcomed me in for a cup of tea and a chat (with the help of Nam!). This relaxed sitting about didn’t last long, however, as I was soon in the nearby fields with Tun, getting involved with some fishing and learning rice paddy irrigation techniques. At other times of the year, rice harvesting and planting are also possible, but in early April the shoots were still too young and green.

Returning to the village, I was ushered into the kitchen for a brief demonstration in the art of preparing and cooking spring rolls, before I was encouraged to get started on lunch!

Fortunately this wasn’t my first attempt, having been to several cooking classes in Vietnam previously, and I think I may have even quite impressed my tutor with my well rounded offerings… well, perhaps not. Nonetheless, these were soon in the pan along with the fish we'd bagged in the field earlier, and it wasn’t long before I joined the family for a tasty lunch, with Nam ensuring the conversation between us all didn’t stop for a minute.

Having said our goodbyes, we were back on the bikes for another hour or so, passing groups of children who chased alongside me, shrieking with joy when I stopped and showed them a picture of themselves on my camera.

Travellers on a slightly more relaxed timetable can take a boat ride amongst the huge limestone karsts and into the many caves - a great alternative to the nearby, and very touristy, Tam Coc Caves. During the morning I spent in the region I spotted just one other tourist, ensuring a far more peaceful and spectacular experience.

All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable days I had spent in rural Vietnam for a very long time. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the village received far less visitors than I expected and the locals were genuinely keen to meet me and share their experiences, as well as learn more about mine.

After a night in Ninh Binh’s noisy city centre - which did nothing but remind me of all the bad things about Vietnam during my very first visit in 1993 (noisy, polluted and bad Western food!) - our next stop was Cuc Phuong National Park. I had wanted to come here for a very long time, since several of my clients returned talking almost deliriously about the various birdlife and the wildlife they had spotted during their visits.

Before we left Ninh Binh, we stopped to visit another of its highlights - the fascinating temples dedicated to King Dinh and King Le, the two remaining sanctuaries of the ancient citadel, and older than the better-known citadel in Hue. I was the only foreign tourist at the site that afternoon, and was eagerly accepted by the many Vietnamese, who are always keen to pay respect to their great ancestors.

As we travelled on to Cuc Phuong, we continued to pass through a continuous backdrop of limestone karsts. My perception had always been that ‘Halong on Land’ was a relatively small area, but over three days the karsts barely left my side.
Cuc Phuong is the oldest national park in Vietnam, and a wide range of wildlife and birdlife can be found within its boundaries. Also found within the park are both a primate and turtle sanctuary. Mountain biking is popular and there are well-run community-based tourism initiatives, helping to ensure that nearby the communities of Muong people benefit from the park's popularity by arranging guided treks and overnight home-stays.

My morning was spent visiting the two sanctuaries, which are doing extremely good work to help protect primates and turtles that are rescued from homes or injured in the wilds of Northern Vietnam.

In the afternoon I joined local expert and guide, Tran, for some bird-watching and to explore caves where several pre-historic graves had been discovered. I certainly can’t claim to have recognised them myself but I am assured that I spotted a Pied Falconet, a Red Headed Drogan and a Rufus Tail Robin during my short stint with the binoculars... not bad for an amateur, I’m told!

The park's accommodation is basic but sufficient for a short stay, with great lake views and nothing but the sounds of the rainforest to entertain you after dark. The local guides that I met were of a very high standard and truly passionate about their work, making any time you spend with them, even as a complete novice, an absolute joy.

One word of advice – avoid Cuc Phuong National Park at weekends if you can. School trips and large family groups can soon change the feeling of peace and tranquillity.

My final stop was, I hoped, going to be the highlight - my long overdue visit to the Mai Chau Valley, a trip I previously had to cancel due to bad weather. This time, thankfully, I wouldn't be disappointed.

Descending into Vietnam’s Mai Chau Valley is a moment I shall remember for a very long time.

The lush green rice terraces spread out deep in the valley below. On either side, farmers toiled on what appeared impossibly steep gradients, ploughing their small plots with the assistance of mules that looked resigned to another day’s hard graft. The sun was finally shining and to me, the tourist in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, the day could not have smelled sweeter.

Having checked in at the delightful Mai Chau Lodge, Nam and I discussed the afternoon's plan as Mr Tu, our driver, slipped away for a well deserved sleep after the hot, bumpy five hour drive from Cuc Phuong National Park that morning. I opted for some cycling in the nearby villages, hoping for the chance to delve in amongst the green fields that had dazzled me on the road earlier.

There are a number of activities, such as visiting more remote minority tribe village’s, however these required more time in the car and I was now keen to stretch my legs and enjoy the weather. Having made a quick visit to the nearby ‘soldier cave’, a supply storage depot on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, we set off by bike to the villages that lined the valley to the rear of the Mai Chau Lodge.

First stop was the village Poom Coong, pleasant but relatively touristy due to its short distance from the road, and the disproportionate number of small guesthouses and ‘homestays’. However as we started to cycle up the valley side, we left all of that behind, passing through the Thái villages of Lac, Nhot and Na Meo. This is what I came here for!

Vietnam is home to a total of 54 minority tribes, and the Thái’s (not to be confused with the people of Thailand) made this region, south of Hanoi, their homeland 1000s of years ago. Much of the traditional costume has now been replaced with more Western apparel, but the way of living has changed little over the years. The cycling was great and the views as we got higher were breathtaking.

Any stay in Mai Chau can only be enhanced by the delightful Lodge. Views from most of the rooms are of the picturesque rice paddies, and beyond to villages that climb up the valley sides. The property, which is soon to be upgraded with new ‘Paddy Field Villas’ complete with private pools(!), is extremely comfortable; the local Thái staff are fantastic and the facilities are superb, with the pool being the highlight after a long day's riding or trekking.

The drive back to Hanoi was softened by the knowledge that not only was a wonderful supper no doubt awaiting me, but also that I was flying to Cambodia in the morning – always so much easier than flying home!

During the journey I was surprised to see Nam throw some litter from the car window - very unlike him - but he soon turned to me and explained that he had just thrown money from the window - this surprised me even more! It was because of the funeral procession that we'd just passed - the tradition is the Vietnamese way of helping to ensure safe passage into the next life for the recently deceased.

One more night in Hanoi to endure (!) before my flight to Phnom Penh, so I decided to join the Hanoins in doing what they do best, namely snacking! Many of you will know about Pho, and perhaps also Hanoi’s famous fresh spring rolls. However, fewer know about the multitude of other dishes that locals will often travel many miles to sample on a night out with friends.

The outlets are basic restaurants, with plastic tables and seating for as few as 10 people at a time, and they will usually serve just one dish. It’s just as easy to arrive on your own as it is in a group of three or four, with everyone making space for each other, creating a very social atmosphere. I often wonder how many relationships must have started at places such as this in Asia, and how stuffy our approach to eating out in England can seem in comparison.

I spent a wonderful evening searching for delicacies or restaurants that I had been told about by locals, guides and expats. I couldn’t start to name them all, but the one that stands out in my mind - and if I try hard I can still taste - is Banh Cuon, served at Banh Cuon Thanh Van in Hang Ca.

Ban Cuon is a speciality of northern Vietnam and is made from a sheet of rice flour, often ‘created’ over a hot saucepan lid, then stuffed with ground pork and minced wood ear mushrooms. It’s a joy to watch being made and an absolute delight to eat. The perfect end to another wonderful Vietnam experience.'

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