In the distance, we hear a rumble and dark clouds start to push in between two jungle-covered mountain peaks. Here in the lush valley of Mai Chau, three-and-a-half hours’ drive south-west of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, a local White Thai family has drafted a handful of neighbours to help them plant out their rice paddies. As the last, almost luminous-green, young rice plants are slotted into place (each in a good year will yield about 140 grains) fat drops begin to fall from the sky. What soon becomes a steady soaking rain, hardly fazes the rice farmers, who stand in the government-built concrete water channels to wash dark red mud off their shins, like blood.
Water is everywhere here in this valley, even when the temperature in summer pushes past 32 degrees Celsius. As well as providing homes for the frogs, fish and snails in ponds, fish farms and rice paddies it’s in the air, which is heavy with humidity and the promise of the next inevitable downpour.
This rural sanctuary in Hoa Binh Province is particularly popular on weekends with Hanoi residents because of its relative proximity. Certainly, after a week’s stay in the bustling city ourselves, it proved the perfect antidote to Hanoi’s busy pulse. Here, the most popular mode of transport is bicycle or electric cart, with several small villages dotted along the fringes of mountains, which rise abruptly from the relatively flat rice paddy terrain below. In the villages we found a healthy mix of modest home-stay accommodation and textile businesses.
We begin our stay at the Mai Chau Valley View Hotel, a relatively new four-storey hotel on the main street of the town overlooking beautiful rice paddies and the mountains behind.
On our second day, the hotel’s owner, Mr Duong, takes us on a bike ride to a White Thai village. ‘White Thai’ refers to the ethnic minority that dominates the area. Their houses are made predominantly of hardwood and built on stilts, which makes sense given the area is so prone to flooding. Some of the houses are carved and ornate, lending a slightly Swiss chalet atmosphere to the place, especially with mountains looming on all sides (which, in turn, gives off a Monkey Magic vibe, particularly when cloud and fog starts rolling in).
On our third day we take a 50-minute drive to Paco Sunday Market, where red and blue Hmong people (two sub-tribes of an ethnic minority, indentified by the colour of skirts worn by women) sell textiles, clothes, piglets, knives, crossbows, cheap plastic toys, shoes and loose-leaf tobacco.
After walking through the market (depleted somewhat thanks to everyone being busy with the corn harvest) our guide, Tuy, leads us to the local village. There we meet a shaman and his family, who live together in a low, wooden hut with compacted dirt floors and an open fire. The shaman, a smiley octogenarian with more than six grandchildren, is the village’s expert on death. He knows all the rituals and procedures necessary to ensure ancestors are properly sent on their way beyond the grave. We’d been told that the White Thai people don’t have a ‘religion’ as such – they pray mostly to their ancestors – so we were interested to ask this Hmong man what he believes happens when one dies. “You stay very still for eternity,” he says with another wide grin.
On our fourth day Mr Duong invites us to his niece’s wedding. Taking place in the local community hall at 10am, 750 people sit at low tables on blue plastic seats, feasting on sticky rice (traditional fare for weddings), barbecued pork, mango salad, chicken and watermelon. But mostly it’s about the rice wine, which we are encouraged to drink in vast amounts with everyone else by a man whose relationship to Mr Duong is uncertain to us. After a critical mass of toasts has collectively taken place the DJ fires up a karaoke machine and young men of varying vocal talents take to the stage.
Despite the rotating fans above the climate in the room is incredibly hot, sweaty and loud thanks to all the singing. Maybe it is the rice wine talking (strike that, it definitely is the rice wine) but I am moved to sing at the event, too. I’m not sure if my version of Queen’s “I want to break free” were what the bride and groom were expecting but it certainly felt right at the time.
Meanwhile, behind the stage, about 30 women are busy preparing more food and washing dishes. There is a wonderful sense of family and community going on here, we notice.
The next day, and slightly worse for wear thanks to the rice wine, we move hotels for a change of scenery to Mai Chau Eco Lodge. Here, local villagers are trained in the dark arts of hospitality and encouraged to keep their local traditions alive. Surrounded by rice paddies and mountains the views from this homespun resort are incredible. Workers here have varying degrees of English and signs encourage visitors to keep this in mind. It all seems to be about respect and providing a supportive atmosphere.
In the evening, we watch a live performance of eight traditional dances, mostly White Thai and Hmong, and are invited with other guests to join in at the end. This includes more rice wine – this time, sucked through long reed straws – and much losing of inhibitions.
With temperatures climbing into the 30s again the next day, the communal pool is popular and we also enjoy staying cool in a private plunge pool, located downstairs from our semi-detached bungalow.
Soon enough, though, a storm brews again, tropical winds rattle through the banana leaves and rain starts pelting down. In the distance, a few workers can still be seen through the water haze, endlessly slotting young rice stalks into place, while the heavens pour down upon them.