Mai Châu ở đâu? Map reading and White Thai Weaving 

Mai Chau is a seeming easy 150km cruise out of Hanoi. Only a 3-4 hour drive they say! Hmmm well, Im currently sat in my idyllic stilt house listening to White Thai women sing their folk songs in harmony with the crickets, but it didn’t start out that way. For those of you the don’t follow me on Facebook yet please click the link to read the funny story that matches the picture below of what actually happened on the first day of the rest of my life. (Reading time 4 mins)

Ready and raring to roll! Me leaving Hanoi at 12am.

Ready and raring to roll! Me leaving Hanoi at 12am.

Mission to Mai Chau

Traveling at the break neck speed of a turtle, with one nights stop over in Hoa Binh and this being my first solo motorbike trip and all, I was paranoid as hell the majority of the ride from Hanoi. I was obsessively focused on scanning the road for any and all lumps, bumps and ditches, and continuously singing the Beegees song “Ah ha ha ha staying alive, staying alive” like a mantra in my mind.  I avoided lorries like the plague and checked Google maps literally every 2 kilometers. At one point I stopped to take some pictures and the kick stand slipped beneath me and the bike tumbled on the floor. Turns out im not strong or skilled enough to  pick it up on my own yet! So lucky for me I waved down a kind gentleman who helped me go from horizontal to vertical once more. When I finally cruised down Mai Chau’s mountain road and into the valley it felt nothing short of a miracle.

Happy Home Stays

Once I arrived in the town a local guy call Tu followed me on a motorbike for over 2 km (standard) to come and stay at his home stay. I eventually caved in and the following morning without request was rewarded with a White Thai weaving lesson by his wife Tiet on her handmade home loom. I’m thinking i’m in the right place.

After breakfast I took a walk around the village and in the top right corner hidden away in a palm treed garden, over looking the rice paddy fields and forrest laden mountains, I found the home stay i’d been fantasising about. The family have a separate stilt house for guests and I’ve got the place all to myself which i couldn’t be more chuffed about.

Just Chillin

This blog post is not a guide to  Mai Chau, I can’t be bothered to explore every nook and cranny on this trip. My priority as  stated in my previous post Fears, Farewells and Fernweh is to take it easy and see what comes my way. It’s a relentless 35 degree heat by 11am gradually increasing until the sun starts setting at 5. This morning I confidently drove the bike to a near by village market at Pa Co 30km away, but the majority of my time I spending sleeping, reading, hanging out with the local women and thinking about where to go next.

Where to Stay
Home stay number 2, in the top right corner of Poom Coong Village, (turn right before Mai Chau Lodge) 70.000vnd / $3 per person per night. Food or kitchen facilities not included, I just took a 10 minute walk into the town.
Home Stay Map 

How to get there by motorbike
Hanoi to Mai Chau

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Sequins, Motorbikes and Mountains: The Best of Ha Giang in a Weekend

Heaven's Gate, Quan Ba District, Ha Giang Province

Heaven’s Gate, Quan Ba District, Ha Giang Province, Vietnam.

A weekend adventure motor biking around the mountainous province of Ha Giang in North Vietnam. 1000 metres above sea level Ha Giang boarders the southern Yunnan province of China. At last count over 60% of Vietnams hill tribe minorities call Ha Giang home, making it a culturally diverse and naturally beautiful destination to explore. There I met with local men and women on the markets and at their homes whom took great pleasure and pride in adorning me with their costumes and customs. Reading time 13 mins or scroll down to the bottom for my travel tips and advice on Ha Giang.

“HA GIANG”, “HA GIANG” I heard the guy yelling in my direction. I woke up to realise that there was only myself, the driver and bag boy left on the coach. I got down from my bunk bed, gathered my belongings and stepped out onto a flood lit derelict construction site. Wicked!! I sarcastically thought to myself, time to jump into action and figure out what to do next. It’s 4:30am. I hear sounds of chattering over the wall ahead and see an exit leading out onto a road. Looking like a rabbit in the headlights, I sense the local men sat outside the station are laughing at my expense. I hear a guy wolf whistle which instantly puts me on tenterhooks,  Vietnamese men don’t normally do that, I thought. Another “wit whooo” comes my way and I’m feeling really uneasy. I look left and right for my friend Esteban, “Wit whooooo…..DONNA!” I breathe a sigh of relief, it was him all along.

Ha Giang City is No Sapa
I spend my first day in Ha Giang City just chilling out with some friends who are living there teaching English. They were working all weekend and I was hesitant to travel up into the mountains on my own. For one I don’t think I would get that far and I felt a bit paranoid about getting lost or in an accident. As a solo female traveller and don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I read online and my friends confirm that there is a guy in town that offers motorbike tours, normally for 3 or 4 days. So I set off to convince Jonny Nam Tran to take a day out of his normal adventurous schedule to chaperone/babysit me for a day. As I wondered around I realize Ha Giang City is nothing like Sapa. In Sapa everyone is a “Del Boy“. You can’t go to the toilet without someone asking you if you want to do a homestay, go on a trek or buy a bracelet, bag or blanket. Elaborately dressed Hmong and Dao women with children strapped to their backs line the streets with handmade ethnic textiles, crafts and jewellery.  Coaches, buses and motorbikes wizz through the busy streets as tourists sip on their lattes in the French cafes overlooking the chaos. It’s full on, but at least you know you’re in the right place. Ha Giang is not set up for tourism at all, I only saw a couple of very basic hotels, cafes and convenience stores. Getting around to see the sights would not to be that easy without Jonny. No one is trying to sell me anything, no one gives a crap that I am there, and from what I can tell there is nothing to do apart from make my plans to head for the hills.

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Silk Spinning, Shrines and Sun Rises in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ankor Wat at Sunrise, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ankor Wat at Sunrise, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Occupied by monks and monkeys, and surrounded by tropical forests and flourishing gardens, Siem Reap in Cambodia is famously home to some of the most mesmerising archeological architecture in the world. The UNESCO protected Angkor world heritage site houses the astonishing ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire. Dating back to the 9th Century the site covers a colossal 400sq kilometers and is literally littered with temples and Tuk-tuks. I had 3 memorable days of meeting musical monks, learning to spin silk with local artisans and temple trekking. I fell in love with it’s colourful and cheery people, fascinated by the meticulous attention to detail of the dramatic masonry, and got lost in the wondrous awe of the diverse ancient architecture. Siem Reap is hand’s down my favourite destination so far, lets see why…. Reading time 10 mins.


Temple Trekking

Before the crack of dawn, there is 4am. This is the time your alarm will go off if you want to see the sun rise behind the magnificent silhouette of the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat. What you don’t want to do, is drink a skin full the night before (just saying). It was my birthday and to celebrate I booked a long awaited weekend from Hanoi to Siem Reap. My friend and I arranged a Tuk-tuk to collect us at 4:30am. It was pitch black and surprisingly very cold driving to the entrance of Angkor Archeological Park which was about 25 minuets away from the city centre.

When we arrived I was naively shocked by how many people were there. Hundreds of Tuk-tuk drivers, motorbikes, coaches, tour groups, families and backpackers, all pushing in line to get their entrance permit.  We arrived at Angkor Wat with just enough time to find a good spot for sunrise. The energy was electric with the anticipation of seeing the building shrouded in darkness in the near distance. Known as the 7th wonder of the world, nothing can really prepare you for just how beautiful it is, maybe I’m romanticising over my memories but shear scale of Angkor cannot really be described.

Built by King Suryavarman II the monument was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It’s outer walls are ornately decorated with stone carvings of stories, myths and legends from life time lived long ago. The design itself is meant to represent the cosmic world and the universe on earth. The five peaks in the centre of the building correspond to the five peaks of the mountain Meru located in the Himalayas in India, and the 200 meter wide moat is surrounded by flooded gardens, ponds and rivers to symbolise the ocean. It took over 30 years to construct and spans over 500 aches.

The park is practically impossible to explore by foot and at $20 per day walking would not be the most economical option either. We had a great Tuk-tuk driver who spoke fluent English and seemed really proud to explain and accompany us around the sights. Temple trekking in Siem Reap was one of the most surprising and impressive experiences that I had seriously under estimated. “You’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all” right? Believe it or not (for those at home) that’s how it sometimes feels traveling in South East Asia. People become desensitised through over exposure of everything being amazing all the time. This is fondly referred to in backpacker land as being “templed out”. But NOT in Siem Reap. Every site is completely different. Competition was fierce as each Khmer King had his own memorable mark to make in place of the previous ruler.  The diversity of the environment, the design aesthetics, the style of architecture, the stone, the colour, and the craftsmanship is all different, making you feel like Christopher Columbas with every new site explored.

Musical Monks

Although Angkor was built as a place of Hindu worship in the 12th century, the grounds have been recycled over the centuries to accommodate different religious faiths of the ruling king of the time. Currently enclosed within the gardens of Angkor Wat today is a working Buddhist monastery. It was here wondering around I fell completely in love with the kind nature, cheery but peaceful ambiance of both Cambodia and Buddhism.The sweet smell of incense burned gently in the air, and there was a faint sound of wind chimes and mantras being chanted in the distance. Everywhere you turned there was a beautiful kaleidoscope of rainbow coloured paintings, fabric, decorations and shrines, all in honour of Buddha and his teachings.

Set back from the main drag, there was a communal tea room where monks were playing traditional Cambodian musical instruments and welcoming passing tourists to participate. Being the musical misfit that I am, I gladly took part in embarrassing myself just for the experience of having a go and spending a bit more time in their beautiful environment.

Ankor Silk Farm

On day 3 I visited the Artisans of Angkor Silk Farm. As educational centers go it’s pretty well organised and hands on. You can book a free tour on arrival or just walk around and the super friendly staff in each section will explain about silk worm cultivation. You get to go to the mulberry bush plantations where the silk worms traditionally live and feed. Learn about the hibernation and incubation cycle. See them being boiled alive 😦 and even have a go (i specifically requested this) at removing the  silk thread from the cocoon and spinning silk like a real life spinster! A life long ambition of mine. After that you can read all about natural dying ingredients before seeing the silk woven into luxurious brocades on the hand looms. There is even an exhibition of traditional Cambodian silk textiles and costume history. Boom! What more could a cultural fashion and textiles lecturer want? I highly recommend this place.

Cambodian Calamity Concluded

A long weekend in Siem Reap was a hard pushed escapade to fit it all in, but I’m so glad I did it. Sometimes we/me can put things off waiting for the right time to do it all at once. Just arriving in Cambodia for this trip was a personal victory for me. In 2011 I had flown into Bangkok and travelled directly to the Thai Cambodian boarder with high hopes of spending a 3 weeks gallivanting around on my first solo adventure. However this didn’t pan out. As I presented my passport to the boarder control officer, the page with my visa attached painstakingly fluttered out and landed on the floor. “You no come Cambodia. You go Bangkok and see you embassy”. Flabbergasted, confused and gutted, I returned to Bangkok and spent 3 days in and out of the British embassy. With an emergency visa in hand my Cambodian expedition had finished before it had even got off the ground, my options were to go home or stay in Thailand. I chose the latter and dedicated my remaining time to traveling Thailand, a previously shunned option.

This trip to Cambodia was just a sweet snapshot of what the country has in store for me. In 2014 I hitch hiked from Thailand to Cambodia on Christmas day to Koh Rong Island, that was an incredible journey but not really suitable content for this blog. On my way back to Hanoi I stopped in Siem Reap City and cycled my way about town taking snapshots of the local street style fashion. My experiences thus far in Cambodia have challenged and inspired me on both a personal and professional level. I’m so looking forward to going back in 2015 and exploring the full potential the country has to offer.

Has anyone else had a planned adventure stopped in it’s tracks and had to adopt a new strategy? If so i would love to hear about what happened in the comments below. 

Useful References

Carrie Parry How Silk is made fibre to fabric
Youtube Silk Farm Cambodia: This is how silk is made
Artisans of Angkor Angkor Silk Farm
Tourism Cambodia Angkor Wat 
UNESCO Angkor World Heritage Site
Round the world traveler Angkor Archaeological Park

Shopping and Sleep Overs: Homestays with the Red Dao in Sapa, Vietnam

Rice paddy fields, Ta Phin, Sapa, North Vietnam

Rice paddy fields, Ta Phin, Sapa, North Vietnam

Referred to as the “Tonkinese Alps” Sa Pa is located near the boarder of China and is known as one of the hidden jewels of North Vietnam. It is the kind of place you see in those addictive brain twinkie internet viral posts, “30 places to see before you die!!” But this is justifiable for two very good reasons. The first being the gobsmackingly beautiful scenery; lush green rice paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see. They overlap in surreal tier formations, covering the mountainous peaks that reach high towards the sky. Secondly, you get the rare opportunity to meet the culturally rich hill tribe population; the Black Hmong and Red Dao people have a strong visual presence in the area. Wearing and sewing their much admired handicrafts, they live in nearby family villages and can be seen everywhere from selling in Sapa Square to collecting fire wood in the forests. I went to Sa Pa on two separate occasions in the Spring of 2014. I spent one the night at a Red Dao homestay enjoying their cheery and welcoming hospitality, and the rest of my time learning all I could about the textiles, jewellery and costume that makes them so famously recognisable. Reading time 12 mins or scroll to the bottom of the post for my travel tips and advice on Sapa and homestays.


“Where you staaay?” “Where you staaay?” “What’ss your naaame?” “You buy from meee?”, “What’ss your naaame?” “Why you noo buy from meee???”

This is the intense greeting you can expect to receive as you step off the mini bus and onto Sapa’s P Chau May road, the main thoroughfare in town. Hmong women line the streets waiting to bombard the next delivery of unsuspecting wealthy tourists. Being touted before you even step onto solid ground can be very overwhelming and often give you the wrong impression about a place, but bare with it. My tactic for dealing with this anywhere is always; smile, don’t make direct eye contact, collect my bag and head to the nearest café with Wi-Fi (which there are plenty of in Sapa). After you dodge the crowds and check into a hotel you can take some time to potter around and make plans for the next few days. Over 3 nights and 4 days my friends and I normally decide to shop, spa, hike and hire a motorbike.

Sapa town is the first place I have ever been that brought my interest in cultural costume to life. From any point in the town you can look out in all directions and see a moving montage of red, black and green uniforms. It’s a bit like being in a real life Where’s Waldo picture. Images of people wearing glorious, vivid, and elaborate costumes are no longer fictional faces flat behind a screen, they are now stood in front of me shoving their wears under my nose for closer inspection. These people are extremely saavy at selling their souvenirs and I am extremely happy to go along with it.

It quickly becomes apparent that many of the hill tribe people have an adequate command of multiple languages; French and English are widely spoken. Surprisingly Vietnamese is only spoke by local business owners, and the minority people themselves have their own language with different tribal dialects to communicate in. Unlike most visitors who are there to buy a bed spread, bag and the compulsory traveller bracelet, I knew straight away I wanted to experience wearing a whole outfit and in the process spend more time talking to the women who made them. So with that in mind I skipped the retail shops and headed straight for the street stalls and market.

Sapa market is full on
With a cornucopia of options and low prices, stallholder’s competitive emotions can range from exotically charming to desperately forceful. It’s hard to know where to look when every direction you turn comes with the Sapa mantra “you, buy from meeee?? iiiiii giiive yooou dissscount!!” I finally settle down to talk to a couple of Red Dao women making jackets and bags on their foot peddled sewing machines. They try and sell me another bag. I politely decline and I explain that I am more interested in what they are wearing instead of selling. Intrigued by my request, one of the ladies pulls out 2 big bags from under the table filled with the traditional clothes they sell to each other. With a embroidered jacket in one hand and tassles in the other she smiles and say’s “you tryyy??” Cha-Ching! There’s a unanimous feeling we both hit the jack pot. Continue reading

Leaves, Bees and Hemp: Traditional Hill Tribe Textiles with the Black Hmong in Sapa

black hmong village sapa vietnam

Black Hmong Village, Sapa, Lao Cai, Vietnam

Sa Pa in the North West province of Lao Cai is one of the most un-missable destinations on the Vietnamese map. Boasting a spectacular picture perfect mountainous terrain and home to some of Vietnams 53 living ethnic minority groups, it’s hardly difficult to see why I have been there 3 times already. In January 2014 I took a day trip from Sapa city to visit a secluded Black Hmong village where there was an 90 year old lady and her family still handcrafting traditional costumes. Made almost entirely from the natural landscape they live amongst, here I was able to participate in workshops learning about traditional bees wax batik, natural dying from the indigo plant and how to cultivate hemp fibre for fashion. Reading time 10 mins or scroll to the bottom of the post for my travel tips and advice on Sapa.


So I’m in a weird juxtaposition between trying to keep as still as possible, and wanting to ricochet off the minibus interior. I’ve spent over an hour swaying from left and right, bouncing up and down, and jolting back forth, whilst forcing down half a bag of  crystallised ginger for breakfast.  OMG. Kill me now. “Are we there yet?” We arrive in just enough time to keep my dignity and put my stomach back in it’s rightful place. Our guide greets us and we commence on the walk to the destined village  which is only a 1 hour hike away.

Along my pilgrimage to the epicenter of natural fashion, we encountered many of the regional wildlife and domestic livestock living remotely in the area. Luminous green ducks, muddy buffalo, horny potbelly piglets (yep), chickens, butterflies and little birdies, all had free to range to roam around their landscape. Local villagers were living out their daily routines, working in the rice fields, collecting fire wood and cooking. Children could be seen playing in the streams, climbing rocks and trees, and curiously peering at me out of wonder. There was a small celebratory gathering hosted by a local charity who were distributing much needed resources such as stationary and toys for the children traveling to a school nearby.  Sapa is famous for it’s landscape and although I didn’t take many photos on this particular trip, it is near impossible for me not to mention the monumental views of the jungle covered mountains that surrounded our path. Touching the heavens and topped with ethereal white cloud it was impossible to gage their true scale, giving them the impression of an infinite reach.

Hmong Homes
As we drew closer to the village, tale telling signs of textile production reveal themselves embellishing the vicinity. Freshly dyed indigo fabrics drip dry on a bamboo washing line. By use of a foot peddled sewing machine or practicing their hand embroidery skills, creative young women can be seen sat outside their homes constructing the very garments that form the fashionable part of their cultural identity. The village it’s self is a makeshift yet firmly established combination of homes, huts and out houses, made from a collaboration of wood, stone, bamboo, corrugated steel sheets and concrete.

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