Ninh Binh and Mai Chau vs. Sapa?


Oct 5th, 2017, 07:10 AM
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Ninh Binh and Mai Chau vs. Sapa?

My husband and I had wanted to go from Hanoi to Sapa in January and do some trekking with the Hill tribes. While it sounds beautiful, we are concerned by the commercialization and hounding to purchase things. We are wondering if anyone has travelled to Mai Chau and Ninh Binh and how they compare to Sapa ? Would we still meet Hill tribe people? Is the scenery as stunning? Is there nice trekking? We only plan to stay one night either place. In Sapa we had planned to stay in a home stay but unsure about where to stay in Mai Chau or Ninh Binh. We would take the overnight train to and from Sapa and unsure the best way to get to Mai Chau and/ or Ninh Binh? Maybe a private driver ? If so, does he stay there to bring us back to Hanoi?
hurrygirl is offline  
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Oct 5th, 2017, 08:09 AM
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I would avoid Sapa mainly for the reasons you have outlined. The scenery is very dramatic; steep rice terraces, mountains etc. Fanasipan is Vietnam’s highest. To get away from the rampant commercialism, you would need to get well off the beaten track. It requires an overnight train from Hanoi or a very long car journey on the new highway.

We first visited Mai Chau years ago when we were the only westerners staying in one of two homestays in the village. We visited again a couple of years ago and there were around 50 homestays. At weekends most of Hanoi seems to escape there and it has become very tacky. That said, if you get out into some of the more remote villages, it is still wonderful. The scenery, although perhaps not as dramatic as Sapa, is still amazing. I remember getting up at dawn and walking for miles through the misty rice fields to the next village where I was invested in for tea by some old lady. Wonderful! The people are less pushy than those in Sapa!

Mai Chau Ecolodge gets rave reviews from people who have stayed there.

Ninh Binh is usually described as Halong Bay on land. Similar karst scenery but with rivers rather than sea. The town itself is not pretty, so I would definitely go for a Homestay. Great to cycle around the area and of course a boat along the river. There is one area which gets very busy with group tours, blaring music on the boats etc. But that is easily avoided.

The Vietnam section of our blog has a lot of photos and detail of our time there @ See the posts on Ninh Binh and "Mountain Trekking"

A day in each is not enough! We took 4/5 days to get from Mai Chau to Ninh Binh some trekking some driving. It was one of our most memorable trips in Vietnam ( and we have spent a LOT of time there). We adjusted our trip to do more trekking and less driving ( a decision I doubted was wise on a couple of occasions!). The homestays were basic, comfortable and the most welcoming people! Food was excellent.

I was less than impressed with Halong and frankly, in your position, I would consider, dropping HB/BTL in favour of more time in this area.

It is a 3 hour drive to Mai Chau and a similar distance to Ninh Binh so a lot of your time would be spent in a car.
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Oct 5th, 2017, 11:39 AM
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Thanks so much for your advice. Could we bike to the more remote villages around MainChau? I was thinking we would have a driver take us to Mai Chau from Hanoi. We really wanted to see Sapa more but like we have both said it is probably best to avoid it. We would have to get another driver to take us to Ninh Binh as well which I am not so sure how easy that would be to arrange.
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Oct 5th, 2017, 02:41 PM
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Biking around the Mai Chau valley would be great. It is pretty flat and lends itself to that. Just make sure that your accomodation has bikes though. Not all do.

It is pretty easy to get transport arranged, either Direct with a taxi driver, an agency or, probably best via your accommodation. The more expensive your hotel, the more expensive the car will be though.

Hanoi sits at the top of a triangle connecting Mai Chau and Ninh Binh. Roughly three hours between each so it could make sense to organise a short tour where your driver/guide would stay with you. It probably won’t work out much more expensive.
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Oct 5th, 2017, 06:15 PM
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I do not think January is a good time for Sapa. Mai Chau (2 nights - A peaceful place to relax) or Ninh Binh (1 night - Trang An, Tam Coc and Cuc Phuong National park) and you can get there by private car or bus.
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Oct 5th, 2017, 11:00 PM
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Trekking at Mai Chau always has. AAT offers this service (car, driver, other service). Depending on the number of days you treckking, we have the right program ( cars 7 seat ỏ 16 seat ).
At Ninh Bình ( Trang An or Tam Coc )/1 day by cars 4 seat.
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Oct 6th, 2017, 06:11 PM
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If you want to see both MC and NB, do it all as one trip with private driver, starting and ending in Hanoi. Personaly with only two nights, i would skip NB and spend both nights in/near Mai Chau.

I didnt go to Sapa so cant compare. You will see tribal people in all villages. Some might be out of town, but the same agent you use if you book a two day trip with car and driver, can tell you where and have the driver take you there. (To throw out a few names-- I used Custom Vietnam Travel for my trip; they do the trips to that area as well as all over VN. Other Fodorites have happily used themas well. Crellston recommends Ethnic Travel. There are others--compare.)

I stayed at Mai Chau Ecolodge and loved it, but it is very different from the homestay you say you planned in Sapa. MC Ecolodge is a resort type hotel in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains, slightly out of Mai Chau town. For me, it was a welcome change after some very "rustic' places earlier in the trip. Once there, you can easily bike on trails through the adjoining rice paddies to nearby villages. Check tripadvisor reviews for descriptions and photos (I have some on there as well under same name, Calinurse).
As Crellston says, the homestay experience in the Mai Chau area (I think the villages are called lac 1 and lac 2) is pretty cluttered now. Still fun, but hardly out in the boondocks. I had lunch at one homestay with spectacularly beautiful surroundings, but was glad i didnt stay overnight there. That said, there are homestays further afield.
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Oct 10th, 2017, 04:39 PM
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We went to Sapa and Mai Chau/Ninh binh in May. Sapa I think will be cold in January anyhow, but of the two would choose the latter. We hired a driver through Ethnic Travel. The scenery is beautiful. Sapa has the great landscape and ethnic minorities, but there is lots of construction and it seemed far more commercial in my opinion. The landscape in Ninh Binh and Mai Chau is fantastic.
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