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 the Northwest of Vietnam. It’s located about 300 kilometers 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 conditions. 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 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 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’ 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, 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 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.