A Letter to Mai Chau

by aengelson | September 27th, 2011

On the road leading to Ban Lac village, near Mai Chau, Vietnam.

This past weekend, we packed the family into a public bus and traveled to Mai Chau, a village in the mountains west of Hanoi. After I returned, my writers’ group did a writing project where each of us wrote a letter to a landscape we’d recently seen. Here’s my letter:

(to see more photos of our trip, click on any picture in this post or on this link)

Dear Road From Mai Chau to Ha Noi:

I really hardly had a chance to see you, since the bus driver was gunning the engine and swerving between oncoming cement trucks and motorbikes; and in the interest of keeping my stomach from overturning, I kept my eyes firmly in my Vietnamese lesson book. Plus, I was comforting Fiona so that she could keep the morning’s breakfast from making a reappearance on the seat in front of us.

To find calmness in Vietnam, you must pay. In time, in effort, or in money. But thanks to you, road, we arrived. Mai Chau–that quiet valley thick with infant-green rice fields and a slow-bicycle pace so counter to the helter-skelter of the city. Mai Chau–where flocks of white egrets are born from the green fields, lazily rise and turn, and then sink down on their wings, disappearing into green again.

A farmer of the White Thai tribe carries a load in Ban Lac village.

I know life isn’t as simple as it looks here. There’s the farmer who lost an arm playing with a gun as a child. And the party snitch who makes it his business to know what everyone’s doing in Ban Lac village, and perhaps make a profit if the information has value. There are the children of the village who grow up and leave home to earn money, only rarely able to return to family and friends. This village is not poor–it is infused with tourist cash. But further up the valley, life here is eked out with little. And yet there’s an abundance, a wealth that you feel is lost once you leave the valley. It’s lost on the the long, dull strip of businesses that line you, the road from Mai Chau to Hanoi.

As I careen and bump on your rough pavement, my eye seeks something different, meaningful. But it’s just a generic string of commerce: your same-same motorbike repair shops, cơm-phở stands, dog meat restaurants, sordid nhà nghỉ motels, and petrol stations.

Riding the bus between Mai Chau and Hanoi, Vietnam.

In Mai Chau, there’s less commerce, but more abundance. Life is not easy here, but there is a grace here, a slowness. An ease, an elegance. Sure, the villagers have to cater to us–the itinerant visitors and all their quirks and demands. And yet it seems many of those who live in Mai Chau genuinely enjoy it here.

Or at least they’ve found fragments of joy in this place–in meeting new friends, growing families, keeping intact the long threads of tradition, or living among the rhythms of the land. Those rhythms are palpable here: Sunrise, sunset. Rain, sun. Winter, spring, summer, fall. Planting, harvest. Birth, marriage, death. And birth once again.

You, the road from Mai Chau to Hanoi, you are not straight, but in fact a circle–taking me there and away and back again…

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.


[The Emperor] said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”
And [Marco] Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


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