Hoa Binh is a lush, mountainous province in Vietnam's north-western region, some 74 kilometres south-west of Hanoi. Exploring this sparsely-populated region of Vietnam, enjoy scenic trekking tours and the chance to see the distinct cultures of the colourful hill-tribe people who live here, the Muong, Kinh, Thai, Tay, Dzao, Hmong and Hoa people.
Hoa Binh town is the largest community to visit in this province of ten districts, while those seeking more a more remote escape travel 60 kilometres further west to see the traditional stilt-houses and verdant landscape of the Mai Chau valley. Those who time it right can gain more insight into hill-tribe traditions by joining a local festival, or any time of year offers the chance to pick up some of the vivid and intricate locally made crafts and clothing in the market.
Driving tours along the precarious yet picturesque mountain passes are an exciting way to explore the beautiful countryside and, for those with the strength and stamina, cycling is another ideal way to see the sights of Hoa Binh province. Hoa Binh means 'peace' and indeed this is one of the most peaceful and pleasant areas you'll find in Vietnam.
Hoa Binh Attractions
With vibrant green rice paddies and rows of traditional houses on stilts, Mai Chau is Hoa Binh's most idyllic district. A number of families offer home-stays or tours of their stilted homes, which are hand-crafted with a local hard wood and palm-leaf thatch roofing. Enjoy a peek into the daily life of a hill-tribe family and folk dancing or gong music shows in the evening. On the way to Mai Chau from Hoa Binh town, stop along the Doc Koon pass to take in the spectacular views over the valley. Kim Boi hot springs, about 30 kilometres from Hoa Binh town, offers a restorative and refreshing retreat while the surrounding Thuong Tien nature reserve is home to many rare animals including the clouded leopard and sun bear.
Hoa Binh Museum features an interesting collection of war memorabilia including an amphibious vehicle left behind by the French. Across the bridge from here is the Russian-built hydroelectric station with a memorial set up for the 161 workers who perished during its construction. The Song Da Reservoir created as part of the hydroelectric project now serves as a scenic park, with boat trips available to Ba Khan Islands or Than Nhan village, home to the Dzao tribe.
Hoa Binh Restaurants/ Dining Scene
Hoa Binh dining is largely done at local houses or small restaurants in the villages or along Highway 6. Don't expect much in the way of world-class cuisine or fancy cafes here - though some restaurants serve western-style meals you're better off eating the local dishes. Rice is the staple, served with grilled meat and fresh vegetables. North-western Vietnam cuisine is spiced with black pepper more often than chilli, so flavours are more subtle than the fiery dishes of central Vietnam.
Crab is a favourite, as well as freshwater fish, prawns, oysters and mussels. One of the most popular dishes to try is rice cooked in bamboo with grilled meat. Vietnam's famous noodle soup (pho) is widely available in most restaurants. Those seeking a more upmarket dining experience visit the restaurant at Mai Chau Lodge, with set-menu meals to enjoy in a pleasant alfresco setting overlooking the resort's lake and pool. For a real local drinking experience try the locally-made rice wine, unique to Hoa Binh made with an array of forest leaves and starch; this potent fermented drink is usually sipped from pipes dipped into a shared pot.
Hoa Binh Nightlife
Though electricity has extended into even the most remote villages of Hoa Binh, life in this province still pretty much shuts down to sleep in the evening hours. As the Lonely Planet describes it, "Even the dogs seem mellow." Evening folk dance and music performances are occasionally put on by the local hill-tribe people, which you'll be able to catch if you're doing a home-stay or tour of a local village.
Otherwise, simply enjoy the stillness and serenity of the Hoa Binh night, and indulge in some stargazing while listening to the forest rhythms. If staying in the Mai Chau valley, visit the Veranda Bar at Mai Chau Lodge to sample its nightly beer and cocktail happy-hour specials and a decent wine selection. Those seeking more nightlife excitement head to the bright lights of Hanoi, just a few hours away by car.
Hoa Binh Shopping
As the heart of Vietnam's hill-tribe culture, Hoa Binh has a rich variety of textiles and traditional arts and crafts sold in the village markets. Be sure to also visit some local homes and watch the creation of beautiful fabrics and clothing by the skilled hands of ladies weaving on their looms. Mai Chau has a Sunday market, which brings in tribes-people from the surrounding hills to sell their wares including their signature tho cam embroidered fabrics and agricultural products including bananas and corn. Polite bargaining is the norm here; be sure to keep it light and friendly.
Arts and crafts unique to Hoa Binh include go lua, figures and furniture sculpted from tree trunks; mats, hand baskets, hats, fruit trays and lampshades made with hand-made bamboo wattle; and beautiful brocade weaving using indigo dyed cotton and coloured silk on hand-crafted looms. The brocade fabrics are then made into pillow cases, tablecloths, bed spreads and other decorative items for the home.
Hoa Binh Activities
Hoa Binh's mountainous terrain with lakes, caves and forests is an outdoor lover's dream. Trekking is the most popular activity in Hoa Binh, with guided tours available to take you into tribal villages, along rice fields and up some challenging hills. Mai Chau serves as a base for most of the province's trekking journeys. Among the most popular is an 18-kilometre trek that leads from Lac village in Mai Chau up a mountain pass through White Thai tribal territory to Xa Linh village, where the Hmong people live. The trek is usually done over two days with a one-night's stay at a village. The caves of Hoa Binh are fascinating not only for their stunning geographical features but as historical sites containing many ancient artefacts. Spelunkers and rock-climbers can be amateur archaeologists at the same time, at such sites as Khu Trai mountain cave with thousands of fragments of ancient pottery, rice and stone and a trail that dates back tens of thousands of years. Cho Cave and Muoi Cave also contain ancient relics. The Mai Chau Lodge resort offers half- and full-day kayaking tours of its neighbouring lake, which includes a walk past a waterfall to a Muong style house.
Hoa Binh Information: How to get there, good to know
Hoa Binh is 74 kilometres away from Hanoi, with public buses regularly plying the route on a trip that takes about two hours. Since the buses are notoriously slow, most travellers opt to book their own transportation on a 4WD rental vehicle, with or without a driver. The main roads are nearly all paved yet still challenging to drive, and during the rainy season (May-September) you'll need to watch out for landslides. Mai Chau, located in the western part of Hoa Binh province, is 135 kilometres from Hanoi. There is no direct public transport connecting Mai Chau and Hanoi, but it's possible to take a bus to Tong Dau, and from there catch a taxi to Mai Chau village. More adventurous types choose to rent a motorbike, widely available in Hanoi, and enjoy an exciting ride along the northwest 'loop' from Mai Chau to Son La, then Dien Bien Phu, up to Lai Chau and Sapa, and back to Hanoi.
Tip: When visiting the hill-tribe people, be sure to ask for permission first before taking a photograph, since some believe that cameras will 'capture' their spirit.