The Brigadoon of Vietnam, Mai Chau nestles in a serene valley of Hoa Binh Province that has been called one of the most beautiful spots in the country. Like the fictitious town that rises every 100 years, Mai Chau appears out of the mist as if in a dream. The town itself is inhabited mainly by the majority Kinh Vietnamese, but White Thai villages dot the paddy-rich valley, and this is where you're likely to spend most of your time.
The White (and later the Black) Thai migrated to Vietnam from what is now Thailand about 2,000 years ago, and they incorporate elements of both cultures. The Mai Chau Valley has a number of Thai and Muong villages where hospitality is genuine and memorable, and visiting them, either as part of a trek or independently, is easy. The valley is flat and several guesthouses, homestays, and hotels have bicycles for rent, so take off on two wheels and explore. A warm welcome and waved greeting from the children of each village is virtually guaranteed.
The homestay scene has become a burgeoning industry in recent times, and many of the tours from Hanoi include an overnight stay in a White Thai house. In fact, many of the village dwellings are closer to guesthouses than what you might associate with a homestay. Many have Western toilets and sometimes even satellite television in the common rooms. If you overnight in a stilt house, expect a comfortable roll up mattress and a mosquito net. Authentic extras include unlimited use of a tobacco bong (thuoc lao) and giant vats of rice wine.
The Mai Chau market teems with villagers selling everything from hand-carved opium pipes to flayed pigs. Except for some women, most villagers have given up wearing traditional garb. Although many villagers still farm, tourism and panning for gold have become the most lucrative industries.