Wednesday 20 October

Near Mai Chau

Jay has decided to remain in Hanoi to do some of the sights that she missed on Thursday, while the rest of us head off for the hill tribes. The weather is cooler this morning as we set off. There are five of us on the tour, plus the guide and driver. We leave Hanoi behind, and soon we are bouncing through the hills on increasingly rough roads. All the time, the weather is turning wetter and colder.

We arrive at Lac Village, Mai Chau mid-morning. The village itself was built in 1994 for tourists, but is inhabited by genuine Tai people, we are informed. We are shown into a stilt house and are politely reminded to remove our shoes as we enter. The floor is about eight feet off the ground and is made from bamboo canes that have been split lengthways and unrolled. They seem perilously thin and flexible, and the ground is visible through the gaps.

Our guide begins by giving us an opening talk about the Tai people. The elderly owner of this particular house comes and goes while he is talking, and we are introduced to his daughter. It all seems a little staged.

We have been promised a walk through the village and the surrounding area after lunch. It is raining on and off, and in contrast to Hanoi it feels bitterly cold. I seriously regret having not packed long trousers and a jumper, and think of my rain jacket that I left in the Royal Plaza Hotel wardrobe.

Stilt Houses

Inside a Stilt House

My spirits improve a little when our guide appears with a purple cagoule that he has managed to borrow for me. Our walk out of the village takes us along a path that progressively becomes more and more muddy. We visit a couple of stilt houses as we go. In the first, we are offered tea. Polite conversation is difficult given the language barrier. At the second house, we are offered a rice-wine liqueur by the head of the household. He is rather insistent that we try some. I manage to keep a low profile and escape the ordeal. John and James take a tiny sip each, and from the expression on their faces don’t need to say anything. But special treatment is reserved for our guide by our host, who takes great delight in insisting that he drink two fingers worth. The stuff is lethal, and as soon as our guide manages to eject the foul liquid out of the window, we make our escape.

That evening, we are given a display of Tai dancing in our stilt house for which a French group joins us. The flimsy bamboo floor I was worried about earlier proves to be quite up to the job and as the evening draws to a close, audience participation is requested. We are led in an enormously fun dance in which we step nimbly between bamboo poles that are alternately rapped on the floor and banged together. The final dance requires less concentration, and is evidently very patriotic—the words of the chorus in which we join: “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.”