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Shortly after checking into the Mai Chau Nature Lodge our tour group guide Minh had us test some rental bicycles for size. Mine fit perfectly and soon we were off on the winding roads shared only by a few motorbikes. Pedaling beside rice paddies, we watched women up to their knees in mud tending their precious crops. Zigzagging through small villages, we peeked under the stilt houses and in yards to see water buffalos, chickens, ducks and pigs.

Colorful cloth, skirts and bags were on display outside numerous shops and I stopped to ask for prices, picking up some hand woven scarves that would thrill my friends at home. The shop keeper told me most families own a loom and that some designs, such as the intricate White Thai wedding blankets can take a month or more to make. I was intrigued with one vendor who whittled miniature stilt houses as well as the many stands that offered large ceramic urns of a beverage the region is famous for — sticky rice wine called ruou de in Vietnamese. I didn’t try any since the jars were large and sealed. Plus, they were far too large for one person.

Later that night, after a delicious dinner of pork sausage wrapped in pomelo leaves, chicken cooked with bamboo shoots and grilled river fish, our group huddled around a small platform built into the side of a rock near our lodge. “You’re in for a treat,” Minh promised. Suddenly the stage was filled with gloriously costumed White Thai women, waving fans and singing in high clear voices. They swirled and sang and a narrator gave us some background on the stories behind the dances. Known as xoe dances, they depicted aspects of the hill tribe’s daily life including harvest time and courtship.

The next day, after more cycling, hiking and shopping, we had another surprise. Minh led us back to the stage. “Are you thirsty?” he asked. An urn of sticky rice was brought out and long bamboo straws were handed round. “Drink up!” said Minh. The only drink I’ve shared with someone was a soda. I was a little hesitant, but figured I might not have this chance again. Plus, I didn’t want to offend my host and the alcohol would kill any germs. I sipped and found the wine was delicious, very light and sweet. Even the kids were allowed a small drink.

Mai Chau is a delightful place to quench your thirst, commune with nature and get acquainted with the traditions of the local hill-dwelling people. It’s also a great spot to relax and be mindful of life’s little pleasures. For anybody who yearns to get away from the hustle and bustle of big city life, this place is a real treasure.

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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.