Beyond the luxurious accommodation, grounds and restaurant, the Mai Chau Ecolodge has a pool with deckchairs that invite you to fully sprawl out, and a Thai massage centre to ensure you fully unwind. A expert massage and a swim are always relaxing, but when practiced in paradise they can elevate you to a new level of zen. Set against Mai Chau’s stunning mountain backdrop, a swim here promises an unforgettable experience. I tried at first to swim my usual twenty lengths but ended up stopping to merely admire the location I found myself in. It’s truly rare to stay somewhere that can overwhelm you with its basic facilities. For my girlfriend and I these really felt anything but basic, they were highlights of a stay we will never forget. Coming to Mai Chau was an attempt to escape the stress of the city, and within the first few hours of our stay we had already left our worries far behind.
In the evening, the Ecolodge hosts a traditional dance of the Mai Chau people. This offers guests a bonafide cultural experience quite literally on their own doorstep. After a sumptuous six course dinner on our balcony (a special service that added extra romance [and candlelight!] to our dinner) we went to take our seats in front of the pool, anticipating the performance. The dancers and their accompanying band are all from the local villages with some also employed as staff at the Ecolodge. The joy they get from performing is obvious, and very infectious. Each dance uses various props and a different combination of dancers. They began with either all female or male, then evolved into a series of dances with ever more complex interactions between the two. It was charming stuff and I dare anyone to watch without cracking a smile and nodding along to the music. The best was saved for last as guests were invited up from their seats to take part. On our night they had to perform a kind of bamboo hopscotch and a ring dance with ceremonial chanting. Sure enough, hilarity ensued for both participants and audience. While I was initially too shy to strut my stuff ‘White Thai style’, I wished afterwards that I was returning the next evening so I could get involved. Those who were brave enough to dance were rewarded with a special tea. This was drunk through large straws protruding from a giant clay pot in the middle of the chanting ring. It was the ideal after-dinner entertainment and rounded off a perfect day of fun and relaxation at the Ecolodge.
Having soaked up enough sun by the pool and had every knot in our bodies massaged out, we ventured out beyond the Ecolodge perimeter to see what the Mai Chau region had to offer. Using bicycles available to all guests free of charge, we set out on the lodge’s Mai Chau tour. This took us out across the rice fields to visit the local villages. Each is a truly authentic northern Vietnamese village. The wooden architecture and traditional agricultural practices transport you back in time. Only the motorbikes, so ubiquitous in modern Vietnam, reminded us we were still in the twenty first century. In Lác village we were invited into the home of a local family. Four generations lived together in the homestead with buffalo, cows, pigs and chickens. They had a press for producing rice wine, a loom for making handwoven clothes, decorations and toys as well as various food production tools. We were given the chance to weave our own fabric which was fascinating, but very hard! While I couldn’t quite make my own scarf, the loom did provide a great photo opportunity. However, the most striking moment for me came when I attempted to use their food production tools. The act of merely de-husking rice was so laborious and challenging that it truly made me value the food that comes ready prepared for us in the supermarket. Before this I had no concept of rice production, if I’m being honest I hadn’t given it a thought. It was fantastic to have my eyes opened and feel truly thankful for the life I have. It’s an experience that will live with me for a long time. We then had a tour of their home which is made entirely from bamboo grown in their back garden. It was amazing that almost forty years after its construction the house was still going so strong. Afterwards we fed the animals before cycling back to watch the sunset fall behind the mountains on our balcony.
Our stay in Mai Chau was relaxing for sure, but it gave us so much more. It provided a glimpse into the local culture, an intimate look at lives so foreign to our own. Yet I found their lives were linked in so many ways to mine. I found connections I never knew existed and my life now feels richer for this. Now, every time I eat rice I will remember Lác village and the rice paddies of Mai Chau. For us the Ecolodge was priceless for its ability to de-stress and to provide us a key to unlock a foreign world.