Deep in the mountainous region of Yen Bai, Mu Cang Chai is easily the best spot in Vietnam to view rice terraces. Here, rugged mountains are covered with ripening rice paddies, making them looks like golden stairways.
Encircled by a series of verdant mountains, Mu Cang Chai is a rural district in the Northwest of Vietnam. It’s located about 300 kilometres from Hanoi and is best known for its towering rice terraces. The area itself is in fullest beauty during the autumn, when all the mountains slopes are cloaked in a sea of gold.
Similar to Sapa, Mu Cang Chai is home to several ethnic minority groups. Yet the district hasn’t been overwhelmed by mass tourism. That’s why the locals, mostly Hmong and Thai people, still live a fairly rustic life. They are down-to-earth, and thus visitors can learn a few things about their unique culture.
Rice Terrace Cultivation
Centuries ago, the ancestors of local hill tribes created the rice terraces for a very basic reason: to grow rice. Normally, rice flourishes in waterlogged condition. Flooded areas such as the Mekong Delta is, therefore, ideal for rice growing. But in order to cultivate rice in a vertical condition, farmers need to control the downward flow of water. It results in a terraced system, in which water is stored and carried off the fields in a non-erosive manner.
From Tu Le to Mu Cang Chai, these agricultural feats of precision still thrive today. They represent the ingenuity, resourcefulness and hard work of the indeginous people.
Tu Le Valley
The first stop on my North West journey is Tu Le – a captivating valley 50 kilometres from the town of Mu Cang Chai. It’s characterised by immense rice paddies embraced by verdant hills and mountains. Unlike other places in Yen Bai, the fields here lay a much closer feeling, rather than clinging on steep slopes or deep valleys. Amidst this green carpet is a large stream. It twists and turns like a piece of silver silk, providing irrigation to the whole area.
It’s hard to believe that this valley was one of Vietnam’s largest opium fields. Just thirty years ago, Tu Le was so notorious that people called it “the kingdom of poppy tree”, with nearly every household grew and consumed this toxic plant. Things only changed in the 90s when the banning of opium came into effect. Endless fields of poppy tree were forcibly destroyed and replaced by high-yielding rice varieties.
The result is clearly visible in today Tu Le. Locals not only have enough rice to eat, but they can also sell their agricultural products to visitors. In fact, Tu Le’s delicious sticky rice has become a nationwide brandname. And its cốm (green rice flakes) is among the best in Vietnam, with sweet aroma and beautiful colour.
Khau Pha Moutain Pass
From Tu Le, followed National Route 32, we reached Khau Pha on the next morning. With a length of over 30 kilometres, it’s one of four most majestic (and challenging) moutain passes in Vietnam. The path winds and squeezes through roling mountains, offering visitors a panoramic view of the valleys below.
Unfortunately for us, we didn’t get this fantastic view due to a thick layer of cloud. At the elevation of 1,200 to 1,500 metres above sea level, this moutain pass is often blankted by cloud. That’s why the Thai name it Khau Pha, meaning “the horn that reaches heaven”.
Mu Cang Chai
The scenery suddenly changed after we got through Khau Pha Pass. Here, the familiar image of spacious fields is replaced by staggering rice terraces. They are carved into steep mountainsides, just like stairways that seemingly ascend to the sky above. Seasonal change further enhances this profound beauty, as green rice becomes yellow as it ripens. It turns the whole area into a sea of gold, creating an irresitible poetic landscape.
In total, there are more than 2,200 hectares of rice terrace in Mu Cang Chai District. Of which 500 are designated as national heritage sites. They concentrate around three villages: La Pan Tan, Che Cu Nha and De Xu Phing. The path to get there is tough, but the view is definitely worth the ride.
Practical Information in Mu Cang Chai
- Though the distance from Hanoi to Mu Cang Chai is only 300 kilometres, the road is quite narrow and full of twists and turns. That’s why you should expect a lengthy trip (approximately 6.5 hours).
- There is not much to do in the town of Mu Cang Chai. But it’s the easiest place in the area to find accomodation and public transportation.
- Having a private vehicle is the best way to explore this area. But I would advise against self-driving, if you are not familiar with the traffic and road condition in Vietnam.
- The only way to reach the three villages is by motorbike. Don’t worry if you cannot ride one because there is always a group of hired motorbike drivers. It costs around 100.000 VND for a round trip.