About 135km west of Hanoi (on the road to Dien Bien Phu – and the northern loop to Sapa), Mai Chau is a rising destination for travelers looking for glimpses into ethnic-minority lives and treks in the mountains – and without the time to get to Sapa. Visits here stay in White Thai stilt houses – which can be arranged on your own if you just show up, though you’re likely to get much more out of a visit if you come with the right guide.

So far, no travel agents offer regular group tours you can join, but most can arrange (slightly pricier) private tours for you and your buddies. Where you stay can vary how much you’ll enjoy it.

The following trips are priced per person if two go, and include guide, accommodation, transport and meals:

APT (tel 04-926-2294;; 37 Dao Duy Tu St) one night $79
WIDE EYED TOURS/CULI CAFÉ (tel 04-926-2241;; 40 Luong Ngoc Quyen St) two night $135
KANGAROO TOURS (tel 04-828-9931;; 18 Bao Khanh St) one/two-night trips $130/180

→ Also, guides in Ninh Binh, south of Hanoi, swear about their services. I didn’t go with them, but they seemed to have a lot of knowledge of places where Hanoi groups go – and what they’re missing. Many travelers have enjoyed their trips. Consider it.

If you’re looking for more on Mai Chau, Rough Guide’s Vietnam has much more detail, but Lonely Planet’s Vietnam has an area map.