Finding home in Vietnam.

It’s the winter of 2010, and I’m embarking on my most adventurous journey to date, in Northwest Vietnam. Only I don’t know it yet. After failing to beat the crowds in the Mekong Delta, we have pledged not to take the ‘touristy’ circuit again. Instead of taking the train from Hanoi to Sapa (a popular hill station), we’ve set out along the Northwestern hinterlands of Vietnam, and our conviction to make it to Sapa on land via this route rests on the blog of one guy who said the journey is possible. There is no more information to be found online; no bus timings, no trains, no places to stay, not even the names of the smaller towns & villages we may pass by. This is the story of one such village.

We arrive at the local bus stop of Hanoi, and in broken language, communicate the route we want to embark on. Buses leave for Mai Chau, the first of the small towns we could break our journey at for the night, every few minutes, we are told, but they carry no names and you need to know the right one to hail. A kind soul decides to accompany us as we wait for our bus, and when the bus arrives, tells the driver where we must alight. We leave the traffic of Hanoi behind in no time, and drive through empty roads edged with pastures of green, that occasionally culminate in a faint outline of the mountains beyond.

Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi, Vietnam landscapes
Landscapes on the way to Mai Chau.

From time to time, young men come to us to practice their English. Typically, they ask how we are and reply to it too, and count from one to ten. We smile often; beyond ten, that’s the only language we have in common. In sign language, one man asks if we have a place to stay in Mai Chau, and when we nod no, he shows us a visiting card of his friend who can offer us a room in his house. We decline the offer, determined not to get touted and find our own way around, but he insists in words we don’t understand and dials his friend.

About five hours into the journey, the bus halts and we are signalled to alight. A big, chubby man called Ho, the friend of our man on the bus, is waiting for us with a wide smile and his motorbike. We politely tell him that we’d like to eat, famished as we are, and then walk around to find a place by ourselves. Would he please leave without us? But Ho wouldn’t hear of it. He drags his bike along as we stroll, and points out a little shop where we could eat pho, the Vietnamese staple of boiled noodles & soup, and literally that in its vegetarian version. We have a change of heart seeing him wait patiently as we eat, and agree to go to stay at his house for the night.

On his bike, we ride to his tiny village. Large paddies of rice greet us. The mountains beyond are covered in mist. The breeze is cool, and the sun is about to set. Ho maneuvers his way along a narrow path, and many small turns later, we arrive at his wooden house raised on stilts. His wife, Binh, is waiting for us with a big smile, just as Ho was when we had alighted. The upper deck of the house is one big room. Binh has fixed our bed in one corner, separated by a curtain. She, her husband and their teenage daughter sleep on the other end, in a similar enclosure. The ‘kitchen’ narrowly extends along the walls.

Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, rice paddy vietnam, Ben Lac village, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi
Greeted by rice paddies & misty mountains in Mai Chau.
Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, traditional house vietnam, Ben Lac village, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi
A typical house in Vietnam.

We freshen up and head out for a walk in the serene surroundings we’ve landed in. Houses are sparse here, and not many people can be seen on the road. The people we do see smile heartily but speak no English, and we thank our stars for Ho’s insistence on staying at his place. We reach home after dark, and Ho brings out a notebook with names of the people who have stayed with him before, and goes on to show us a list of places he could be our guide to, from which we realize that be belongs to the White Thai tribe of the region. We tell him of our plan to continue down this route tomorrow towards Sapa, and in his abrupt way, he dismisses it as “not possible”, one of the few English phrases he is familiar with. I offer to help Binh with her cooking as an excuse to ask her the multitude of questions I have about her life in Mai Chau. Realizing she doesn’t speak much English, my questions assume yes / no choices, and to everything, her answer is a yes with a little laugh.

Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, mountain mist, Ben Lac village, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi
Misty abodes.

After a hearty meal and shots of some nasty local liquor that Ho deemed as customary, we settle into our cozy bed to rejuvenate for the adventures of the days to come. We cycle to a nearby river the next morning, along the misty slopes of the village, past paddy fields & banana plantations, watching women heading up into the mountains to find firewood. Over breakfast, Ho & Binh try convincing us to stay longer, but we remain resolute to continue as far as this road will take us, and as deep into Vietnam’s hinterlands. We part with hugs, and I make a mental note of coming back someday to my ‘home’ in yet another part of the world.

Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, river, Ben Lac village, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi
Early morning at the river.
Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, rice paddies, biking, Ben Lac village, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi
Biking along the rice paddies.
Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, mountain women, Ben Lac village, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi
A woman heads into the mountains to collect firewood.
Northwest Vietnam, offbeat Vietnam, white thai tribe, Ben Lac village, Off the beaten track, Vietnam travel blog, Mai Chau, small towns near Hanoi
Bidding goodbye to Ho & Binh.

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  1. samareshbiswal says:

    nice post. how many days & what all places u visited ?

    1. Almost a week to reach Sapa through the many small villages & towns we crossed 🙂

    1. It was Debra, and this was just the start. Saw and experienced so much more in those hinterlands, especially without the language.

  2. I loved the greens and the mist. Beautiful!

    1. Welcome back to the blog, Amit! Even in winter, it was amazing how green the mountains were.

  3. It seems something out of a story book!
    Hearing about such nice people makes your day a lil more nicer! 🙂

    1. Haha 🙂 Yeap, you find the nicest of people in the most unexpected of places.

  4. Lovely post…very fresh. Inspired to travel to Vietnam soon, which I have been putting off for far too long 🙁

    1. Thanks 🙂 Let me know when you go. Lots of recommendations for you!

  5. Wow simply amazing…adding Vietnam to my travel list for sure…keep rocking Shivya. Cheers

    1. It’s definitely worth putting it way up on the list 🙂

  6. Shivya,

    I ve written you an e-mail. Hope you would reply.

  7. Amazing!!! I am heading to Vietnam & Cambodia tomorrow…any recommendations?

  8. Hi Shivya!

    I’m planning to visit Mai Chau coming January. Would really appreciate if I could have the details of your hosts. I am travelling alone and would like to stay with them.


  9. We appreciate you sharing this uplifting experience with us through your Vietnam tour package
    and serving as a gentle reminder of the compassion that is all around us and can often be discovered in the most unlikely places. Your story is a wonderful example of the deep connections that travel can make.

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