In search of beauty
By Mary Anne Ostrom
San Jose Mercury News Staff Writer

Mai Chau has long been a destination for travelers in search of beauty. The French soldiers, or so the story goes, would make special trips from their outpost at Dien Bien Phu in the far northwest reaches of Vietnam to the village ome 200 miles away. They didn't come to take advantage of the breathtaking scenery of the surrounding mountains, but rather the beautiful women of the Tai hill tribe who inhabited the serene valley.

That was during Vietnam's colonial era more than half a century ago. Today, visitors, typically outfitted in Gramicci climbing wear and Vasque hiking boots, arrive by minivan in search of a few peaceful days away from Hanoi. They are infinitely more welcomed by the ethnic tribe people, distant relatives of Thailand's mountain people, who in their spare time away from the rice paddies will cook, lead hikes and pull out a sleeping mat for wandering guests.

Although Mai Chau is definitely on the north Vietnam tourist circuit- it's the closest tourist-ready mountain village to Hanoi which is 80 miles away - we found that most travelers just passed through the town and surrounding hamlets, staying maybe a night in one of the stilt houses before going trekking or an hour to shop for embroidery work before returning to the comforts of a hotel.

Few tourists stayed past 9 a.m. That was just about the time we were pulling ourselves out of bed - actually, up off mats on the bamboo floor of a stilt home, the typical abode of Vietnam's mountain people. The living quarters are about six feet off the ground, to provide better ventilation and shelter for the family's fowl and water buffalo below.

We hadn't come to Mai Chau to hike, we had come to vegetate. We had been in Vietnam for more than two weeks when our Hanoi host, a Vietnamese journalist who had stayed at our home in San Jose two years earlier, suggested we head for the mountains. We'd seen the sights of Vietnam's capital and made the must-see stops at Halong Bay and the Perfume Pagoda. We'd been to Central Vietnam, bodysurfing at China Beach, doing the Imperial tomb tour in Hue and soaking up the sun in Hoi An, Vietnam's version of Carmel. We were ready for a little change in altitude and attitude.

Raising the roof

During our two-day stay in the Mai Chau valley, we've collected some of our fondest memories of Vietnam. Short of getting up to our waist in mud in the rice pad dikes, we sampled many of the activities of village life.

Thanks to our friend, who doubled as a translator, we came to know the village elder, a self-described opium trader-turned-tourist operator who relayed the story about the French soldiers' preoccupation with Mai Chau women; received a personalized tour of the nearby caves from a gaggle of sixth-graders with flashlights; Iearned of the villagers' entrepreneurial efforts to sell stilt houses to Hanoi suburbanites; helped a young mother prepare her pigs' third meal of the day (she spends more time cooking for the farm animals than for her children); and chipped in a little sweat to help a Tai man and his three dozen neighbors tile the roof of his drcam house. The job started at 10 a.m. and was completed by noon.

For that last effort, we were rewarded with an invitation to a celebratory "roof-raising" lunch along with most of the rest of the village. Being the only tourists at a village party does carry risks. As honored guests, we were expected to share toasts with anyone who raised their glass. So, we spent a good part of the afternoon celebrating the roofing accomplishment with 6-day-old rice wine. We were afraid our presence would throw off the conconstruction schedule. Work on the walls wouldn't resume until the next day, we were assured, so keep drinking.

We had to return to our host's home for a nap before we could manage the four-hour return trip to Hanoi over bumpy, unpredictable highway 6.

By northern Vietnam's standards, getting to and from Mai Chau is a pleasure. Nevertheless, navigating the mountainous roads - imagine highway 9 in pea-soup fog with water buffalo setting the pace- requires a reliable car and a driver.

Price goes up

Although the price was double when compared with tagging along with other tourists in a minivan, we opted for a car with driver. When we booked the trip, our three-person party was quoted $110 for transportation and lodging for two days. The morning we were to leave, however, thc price rose $20 because, as it was unconvincingly explained,the rainy weather required a Japanese car instead of the Russian Volga as planned. Last-minute price changes are not uncommon in Vietnam.

But by the time the sun finally broke through and we found ourselves several hundred feet above Mai Chau-staring down in awe at what appeared to be an island of palms and thatched roofs in the middle of a valley of shimmering rice paddies - $20 seemed a pittance. Mai Chau may not be as authentic as other hill towns - only the older women wear traditional dress and the school children know bits of English. But because the villagers are more used to Australians and Europeans dropping by, American visitors are still considered a treat. (In the north, most people shy away from talking about the Vietnam War bccause they don't want bad feelings to interfere with the flow of tourist dollars. So, we weren't surprised when the men of the village who say they were drafted by the North Vietnamese army assured us that they never considered Americans the enemy.)

Mai Chau's town center now has a new Western-style hotel, with rooms starting at $10 a night. But for $3- and a much more interesting experience- we opted to stay in a stilt house down the road in the hamlet of Chieng Chau.

Time for a story

Except for 76-year-old Ha Cong Nham, who has been welcoming tourists between wars since 1960, most of the rest of village was at work in the rice paddies. We had tea with Nham, who operates the only official guest house, and it was arranged that we would stay at his son's more private house. But we were invited back that night to hear Nham, a vivid story-teller, play his panpipe and recount his various careers as musician, opium trader and tourist operator. He claims to have attracted his wife with his flute-playing prowess.

In conversations with our host, Nham's son, we learned he was having success selling ready-made stilt houses to city folk around Hanoi. Another guest of his that night was contemplating buying one for $4,000, a fortune in a country where the average annual income is $200. But compared to Hanoi's construction standards, the stilt house would be sturdier, larger and provide more efficient ventilation. During our stay, the only evident shortcoming was the bamboo floor's inability to stifle the shrieks when the water buffalo stepped on the hen at 4 a.m.

While Mai Chau's hamlets are in danger of losing some of their genuine flavor as more tourists descend on Vietnam, there still is plenty of authenticity left, including very limited sanitary facilities. Family life goes on, with or without house guests. The wife of our host had spent much of her day toiling in the fields before coming home to fix us dinner. She invited the two women in our three-person party to share a glass of wine in her kitchen as she and her daughter ate dinner. In rural Vietnam, the women eat in the kitchen, the men in the main room.

And for the more energetic traveler, villagers are happy to lead overnight hikes from Mai Chau to more remote mountain villages reached only by scenic narrow paths.

But, in the end, it wasn't the scenery that we marveled at most.

It was watching an entire village pooling efforts to build a stilt house. The new homeowner explained that he had saved profits from good rice crops, borrowed from friends and family, and relied on the sweat of his neighbors. They had hauled most of the home's timbers from the forest, hand-hewed them to fit without hammering a nail and spent 20 days making the roof tiles.

Yet, some fear Chieng Chau is quickly losing its traditional character. Back at the stilt house of our host, the wife was dismayed that the village's newest home was to have a tile roof.

Against her wishes, her own husband, too, now wanted to replace their 17-year-old thatched roof with tile. "Things are changing too fast here," she sighed.