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 look like golden stairways.
Encircled by a series of lush mountains, Mu Cang Chai is a rural district in Northwest Vietnam. It’s located about 300 kilometers from Hanoi and is best known for its towering rice terraces. The area itself is in its fullest beauty during the autumn when all the mountain 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 rice terraces for a very basic reason: to grow rice. Normally, rice flourishes in waterlogged conditions. Flooded areas such as the Mekong Delta are, 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 indigenous people.
1. Tu Le Valley
The first stop on my North West journey is Tu Le – a captivating valley 50 kilometers from the town of Mu Cang Chai. It’s characterized 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 to 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’ sticky rice has become a nationwide brand name.
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 trees”, with nearly every household growing and consuming this toxic plant. Things only changed in the 90s when the banning of opium came into effect. Endless fields of the poppy trees were forcibly destroyed and replaced by high-yielding rice varieties.
The result is clearly visible in Tu Le today. 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 brand name. And its cốm (green rice flakes) is among the best in Vietnam, with a sweet aroma and beautiful color.
2. Khau Pha Moutain Pass
From Tu Le, followed National Route 32, and we reached Khau Pha on the next morning. With a length of over 30 kilometers, it’s one of the four most majestic (and challenging) mountain 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 meters above sea level, this mountain pass is often blanketed by clouds. That’s why the Thai name the pass Khau Pha, meaning “the horn that reaches heaven”.
3. 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. The 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 irresistible poetic landscape. In total, there are more than 2,200 hectares of rice terraces in Mu Cang Chai District. Of which 500 are designated as national heritage sites. They concentrate on 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.
Tips for visiting Mu Cang Chai
- Though the distance from Hanoi to Mu Cang Chai is only 300 kilometers, 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 accommodation 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.
16 thoughts on “Mu Cang Chai: A Journey to Vietnam Northwest”
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?
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 🙂
That makes it even more interesting! I shouldn’t miss it when I go back to Vietnam.
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.
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.
Interesting history of Tu Le and happy that the area has had a positive change. The rice terraces are beautiful.
Thank you 😀
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
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
So generous of you to bring back some Tu Le as souvenirs. Very thoughtful and a very unique kind of thing to bring back 🙂
For some strange reason, I got an email notification of your Vietnamese version and left a comment there. Incredible scenery!
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 🙂
What a beautiful place. We went to Sapa and Bac Ha. I wish we’d have gone to this place too! Gorgeous photos.
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 🙂
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:
Not sure if the link will work or not 🙁
The link works. Thanks for sharing, Alison 🙂