The golden stairway, Mu Cang Chai

Mu Cang Chai: A Journey to Vietnam Northwest

Tiếng Việt

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.

Rice terrace – An agricultural feat of precision
A closer view of the rice terrace
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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.

Tu Le Valley

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.

Green rice flakes, a speciality of Tu Le
Pounding the green rice flakes
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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 rolling 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.

Towering rice terraces in La Pan Tan
The golden stairway, Mu Cang Chai

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.

Berry Hill – the most photographed spot in Mu Cang Chai
Harvest season on the Berry Hill
A Hmong woman in traditional outfit

Practical Information about 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.
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18 thoughts on “Mu Cang Chai: A Journey to Vietnam Northwest”

  1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    I always love rice terraces, even if it’s small. Not only are they visually pleasing, but they also give me a sense of peacefulness as they’re often set against a backdrop of beautiful lush valley. My favorite time is when the ride paddies turn yellow — they’re the most magical during this period. I have never heard of green rice. Does it taste more like normal rice or sticky rice?

    1. Neither. Green rice is in fact immature rice kernels. It has a sweet and nutty flavour. It can be eaten plain or you can use them to make dessert such as sweet soup or cake. Its fragrance is also very special. An autumnal delicatessen 🙂

      1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
        Bama says:

        That makes it even more interesting! I shouldn’t miss it when I go back to Vietnam.

  2. XingfuMama – Seattle – Amateur photographer seeking beauty in both the memorable and the mundane. Sharing pictures, stories and meditations from here and there.
    XingfuMama says:

    Fascinating. I am in awe of how much work went into creating the terraces, in many ways they are as impressive as the pyramids of ancient Egypt. We had a brief visit to the Longji rice terraces in Guilin China. They were amazing, but it was very rainy the day we were there.

    1. I’ve heard that the rice terraces are also beautiful during the rainy season. They look like countless mirrors. But sightseeing in the rain is definitively not fun 🙁 The road to the fields is also slippery. During my visit, several people kept falling because of the mud. Luckily no injury.

  3. Mabel Kwong – Melbourne, Australia – Writer and multicultural blogger based in Melbourne. Writing to help you navigate cultural identities and confidently pursue creative passions.
    Mabel Kwong says:

    Mu Cang Chai looks like such a majestic place and the rice terraces look absolutely ample. Think of all the rice that is cultivated here. Bama described it very well – visually pleasing but also giving off a sense of peacefulness. Beautiful scenes of nature going on and on in the distance, and all this is due to people taking the time to maintain these terraces and paddies. Hard work never looked so good – and by Indigenous communities nonetheless. The sticky rice and com just sound delicious hearing about them and I hope you got to enjoy some at some point.

    Amazing photography, Len. Colourful, sharp with plenty of attention to detail. Hope you are doing well

    1. I’m glad that you like the post, Mabel. The rice terraces are indeed impressive. Even now, I still don’t know how the farmers could create them in the first place. It’s mysterious like the pyramid 🙂

      Regarding Tu Le sticky rice, I can say its fame is not baseless. It’s soft and aromatic. I brought some back as souvenirs and everybody loves it.

      I hope all is well with you too

      1. Mabel Kwong – Melbourne, Australia – Writer and multicultural blogger based in Melbourne. Writing to help you navigate cultural identities and confidently pursue creative passions.
        Mabel Kwong says:

        So generous of you to bring back some Tu Le as souvenirs. Very thoughtful and a very unique kind of thing to bring back 🙂

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Caroline. I think WordPress see them as two separate posts. That’s why they sent two emails. Will have to find a way to fix that. Sorry for the confusion 🙂

  4. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    What a beautiful place. We went to Sapa and Bac Ha. I wish we’d have gone to this place too! Gorgeous photos.
    Alison

    1. Thank you, Alison! I guess Sapa dissapointed you, right? All those buildings destroyed the atmosphere of the former resort town. How about Bac Ha Market? I’ve not been there yet so an honest review would be helpful 🙂

      1. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
        Alison and Don says:

        Oh, we loved Sapa! I don’t know how recent the buildings are, but we were there in 2010 and it still felt quite authentic then. Also the Bac Ha market was fabulous. Of course I don’t know what it’s like now 10 years later, but it’s one of my best travel memories. It’s all in this post:
        https://alisonanddon.com/2010/05/11/west-australia-vietnam
        Not sure if the link will work or not 🙁
        Alison

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