If you’ve ever traveled through Southeast Asia and lean towards sustainable travel, you may have observed that some places are more dedicated to those principles than others. There are parts of Vietnam that are growing too quickly for their own good, cashing in on the tourism boom that’s occurred over the last decade or so. But for every example of this kind of overgrowth, there are places that are applying the brakes and making the effort to develop responsibly. One of those places is the district of Mai Chau, in Hòa Bình Province. Located about four hours from Hanoi, the Mai Chau Valley is known as the “Jewel of the North”, and is the center of ancient Thai culture in Vietnam. It’s a beautiful, soulful place with wonderful people who are open to having visitors. It’s possible for tourism to spoil a place, and I often wonder if visitors like me with cameras and cargo shorts may be ruining what made it wonderful to begin with. But the fact is that tourism brings business, and the local people I spoke to feel that’s a good thing for Mai Chau if it’s managed the right way.
The Mai Chau Ecolodge is by far the largest resort in the immediate area, and it is (as the name implies) attempting to adhere to the principles of sustainable tourism. It’s a difficult task to accomplish: to provide a comfortable, intimate, and luxurious experience for the visitors while leaving as small a cultural and aesthetic footprint as possible. They are, for the most part, succeeding. They’ve built a low-profile resort incorporating strict architectural guidelines that keep the resort in visual harmony with the surrounding villages, and source much of their food they serve in their restaurant from the surrounding farms in the area and their own garden. Another aspect they get right is that the friendly staff and management (very important) are drawn from the local community. There are small details I noticed (e.g. no refillable soap bottles), but conversations I had with management convinced me they were working to solve those issues.
The main activities you’ll enjoy here are walking among the rice fields, bicycling throughout the surrounding villages, and hiking/cave exploration in the surrounding mountains. It is a supremely serene and quiet place, and it’s not uncommon to be sitting on your deck having morning coffee and hear someone playing music in the distance. Or to exchange greetings with an Ox herder while passing each other in the rice paddy. There’s also an effort made by the resort to expose their guests to local culture by having performers from the nearby villages present traditional music and dance forms. The guests enjoy the show (and the Thai rice wine!), and although there is some cross over between the troupes and hotel employees, these are local troupes that perform at local venues in the region.
It seems that the community around Mai Chau is incorporating the development of this property well, but I hope there aren’t many more of these types of resorts built over the coming years – it would be nice to continue to be able to look across that beautiful valley and see the mountains!