Deep in the valleys forged by the waters of Vietnam’s Red River, a series of colorful mountain villages are encircled by fields of towering rice terraces. The fields are agricultural feats of precision — rugged mountains blanketed with emerald stairways that, seemingly, ascend to the heavens above.
Centuries ago, the ancestors of Northern Vietnam’s local hill tribes created this place of practicality and profound beauty for the most basic of reasons — to survive.
Rice thrives in water-logged conditions, making it ideal for the flooded Mekong Delta at the country’s southern tip. To grow rice in vertical conditions, hill tribes created a terraced system to control the downward flow of water. Using ingenuity, resourcefulness and sheer grunt work, fertile fields of sustenance and breathtaking beauty were born — and still flourish today.
In total, rice terraces cover more than 2,200 hectares of land in Mu Cang Chai, of which 500 were designated as national heritage sites by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2007.
That land is shared by the three villages — La Pan Tan, Che Cu Nha and De Xu Phinh — and are must-see spots for any traveler in the region.
Where to stay
Home to some 42,000 people, Mu Cang Chai is largely rural. The countryside is dotted with rustically authentic guesthouses and homestays.
What to do
Trekking is popular, as is cycling and photography. Hiking through amazing rice terraces to see ethnic minorities such as Thai, H’mong and Read Dzao hill tribes while enjoying the fresh & peaceful atmosphere of the mountainous region.
Motorcycling is also a favorite activity among adventure addicts and young travelers, due to the quality of the roads and dirt tracks.
Festivals attract record numbers of tourists every year, including an autumn paragliding festival that’s helping to establish Mu Cang Chai as a new destination for adventure travel.
Other popular activities include traversing the breathtaking Khau Pha Pass and exploring the Mo Waterfall and Pu Nhu Waterfall.
Getting to Yen Bai province
If Vietnam resembles an upright cobra — or a capital “S” — then the Yen Bai province is near the eye of the snake. The district of Mu Cang Chai, located 215 miles northwest of Hanoi, is located in the province’s eastern corner. From Hanoi, the capital, the trip can take around 7 hours to reach.
Travelers can go by train, car, private transport or even motorbikes.
When to go
It is said there is never a bad season to see Mu Cang Chai, as the rice terraces are beautiful year-round.
In the spring, near-neon shades of green arise as the seedlings sprout from the water. In the hot summer, brilliant green terraces fill the region with bursts of color.
The slopes transform into seas of gold during the autumn harvest period. And in late winter, shimmering ponds are suspended along the mountain slopes, awaiting the next year’s crop.
As such, local authorities are looking into ways to protect the local ethnic groups, while raising environmental and ecotourism awareness.