Mai Chau is around four hours from Hanoi, and remains fairly untouched by mass tourism. The scenic valley is dotted with farms and villages, and it is a wonderful experience to slowly cycle through the fields and towns, chatting to friendly locals as you go. Weaving is also a popular industry here, and it is possible to see local women working at their looms on their front porch, or selling colourful scarves and textiles at the markets.
In the hills surrounding Mai Chau there are a number of ethnic minority villages, with tribes including Black Thai, White Thai and Hmong. Whilst the villages are fairly modern, some of the older generation still wear traditional clothing, which for women can include skirts in kaleidoscopic colours, and for men, loose harem-style trousers. There is a large market on Sundays, where many of the hilltribe people come to sell handicrafts and other local produce.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve offers some of the most magnificent scenery in Vietnam, with stunning valleys, lush rice terraces and winding rivers punctuated by wooden water wheels. It is also a brilliant opportunity to get off the beaten track without feeling too far from civilisation; it is only around 90 minutes from Mai Chau, and so can be done as a day trip from here, or four to five hours from Hanoi.
Pu Luong really is in the very early stages of tourism, therefore accommodation tends to be homestays or fairly basic lodges, and western visitors should not expect locals to speak much English. However this is all part of the charm and this is a place where days can be spent cycling or trekking through the spectacular landscapes, rafting down the rivers, or simply soaking up the serene atmosphere.