Covering an area of 4,660 sq kms, Hoa Binh is a mountainous region located southwest of Hanoi. It stretches from the southern borders of the Xuan Son and Ba Vi National Parks, right the way down to the northern edge of Cuc Phuong National Park.
However, there’s only one fact that really matters; hoa binh means “peace.”
Peace is a valuable currency to anyone living in Hanoi, traded in hushed whispers by locals and foreigners desperate for fresh air and lower blood pressure. To have such a picturesque province on our doorstep is a luxury worth taking advantage of.
Although Hoa Binh is reachable by motorbike, my partner and I elect to travel by private car. This takes away the backaches, soreness, dangers and dusty faces associated with motorbike trips on Vietnam’s hellish highways.
There are buses departing from My Dinh Bus Station, but the private car grants us the freedom to stop where and when we want; a necessary option when travelling through a province with such varied attractions, spread across such a large area.
The first stop is about 50km from Hanoi, and is quite a bizarre one. Bizarre until I consider the popularity of visiting cathedral crypts and crumbling church graveyards.
Lac Hong Vien Cemetery (KM52, QL6, Hoa Binh) covers nine hills across nearly 100 hectares of Ky Son District, and was the largest cemetery in Southeast Asia when it opened in 2010. With 70% of its land devoted to vegetation, the private grounds are a peaceful, beautiful and reflective place to wander around.
Designed by a team of scientists, geographers and feng shui experts, the family tombs and luxurious burial plots are reserved for those who can afford the VND12 million per square metre price tag. Anyone is welcome to come in, but all visits must be arranged in advance, by calling 0912 258822 (Vietnamese language only).
For a lunch stop offering more than just the food, a visit to Hoa Binh City is not to be missed.
“It reminds me of Florence,” says my partner, as her eyes take in the view of the city, split in half by the majestic Black River.
For one of the best views of the city, head up to Chua Phat Quang Hoa Binh (Radiant Peace Pagoda), and the adjacent Den Mau (Temple of the Mother). Situated in Tan Thinh Ward on a hill by the river, these two Buddhist complexes epitomise the name of the province, offering a peaceful retreat in which to enjoy an iced tea with the nuns, as the dogs play and a trickle of incense smoke drifts skyward.
A quick stop at a nearby com binh dan for lunch follows, from which we head back to the Black River to check out another unique feature of the city.
Hoa Binh is home to the largest hydroelectric dam in Southeast Asia. Built between 1979 and 1994 with considerable Soviet assistance, it stands 128m high and nearly 1km long. A total of 168 people were killed on its construction, and more than 11,000 households had to be relocated.
However, when it opened, the adjacent power station provided one-third of Vietnam’s electricity. A 400-ton statue of Ho Chi Minh overlooks the dam, whose order that the mighty river be calmed is said to have led to the dam’s construction.
By far the most iconic and breath-taking area of the whole province, Mai Chau is a valley of rice fields, stilt houses and imposing mountains.
About 160km from Hanoi and serving as the main destination of our trip, we overnight at one of the resorts near Mai Chau Town which has sprung up in recent years.
The journey to Mai Chau from Hoa Binh City brings to mind the famous Hai Van Pass between Danang and Hue, and offers sensational views of the province from one of the three rest stops.
The rice harvest comes twice a year (in late May and late October), and visiting as close as possible to harvest time ensures the most spectacular views, when the golden rice crop sprouts from the vivid green stems, lending the fields a resplendent glowing highlight stretching to the horizon.
When not relaxing by the pool or getting a massage at one of the many resorts, cycling from one village to another is a great way to take in the area.
Resorts such as Mai Chau Ecolodge and Sol Bungalows always have bicycles to rent, and the flat land between the mountains is very manageable, even for the very unfit or generously proportioned.
The two Lac villages and Poom Coong village are idyllic locations, made up of stilt houses and populated by a majority of Tai Don (White Thai) people. Many of the houses have their own troupe of chickens and cows, and are quick to invite visitors in for tea.
There are traditional weaved products to buy, homestays to inhabit and barbequed mountain pigs to eat.
A Green Retreat
As Sapa falls ever deeper into the clutches of commercialisation, the valleys of Mai Chau and its sparsely populated villages are an essential and welcome respite from city life. Easy to get to, and with plenty to see and do, Hoa Binh is one province everyone should set aside a few days to enjoy.
Photos by Edward Dalton