Mu Cang Chai Tour: Vietnam Adventure amid Rice Terraces

It had been autumn in North Vietnam for a while and I had been pinned down by piles of work. It was about the end of September that I could escape from the office for a few days. Northern Vietnam had enjoyed an autumn among the most beautiful in my life. A spell of winter monsoon earlier than usual had made the temperatures much more pleasant. Everyday it was breezy and pleasant sunshine. It was a perfect combination for an escape holiday from Hanoi.

 Leaving the city in a morning full of sunshine, the trip out in the country was so peaceful. Traffic was quiet. It was later in the morning but things were empty and so peaceful on the Trung Ha Bridge between Hanoi and Phu Tho Province. Trung Ha is right at the confluence of the Da River (Black River and the Red River).

 View of the Da River and Red River from the Trung Ha Bridge
View of the Da River and Red River from the Trung Ha Bridge

 Once in Phu Tho, the temperatures seemed to be much lower and the air fresher. Thanh Son was familiar with thin forests, tea plantations and hills and mountains along all the way. Sunshine was stronger a bit coming towards mid day, but it was still pleasant now. A quick lunch at a familiar restaurant helped me with some energy to pass the Deo Khe Pass between Phu Tho and Yen Bai Province. The mountains are more sublime in Yen Bai and they tend to get higher going further into the North West of Vietnam.

Road through a forest at Thanh Son, Phu Tho
Road through a forest at Thanh Son, Phu Tho

 

Mountains and rice fields at Van Chan, Yen Bai
Mountains and rice fields at Van Chan, Yen Bai

Then came the Muong Lo Valley at Nghia Lo. Local Thai people had harvest most of the rice in the valley. Still, there were patches of sticky rice which was about to ripen. The air was fresh and there was virtually no one on the road. I could have spent hours walking in this atmosphere… 

The scenic road descending into the Muong Lo Valley, Nghia Lo, Yen Bai
The scenic road descending into the Muong Lo Valley, Nghia Lo, Yen Bai

 

Rice fields at the Muong Lo Valley, Nghia Lo, Yen Bai
Rice fields at the Muong Lo Valley, Nghia Lo, Yen Bai

 

The Muong Lo Valley, Nghia Lo, Yen Bai
The Muong Lo Valley, Nghia Lo, Yen Bai

 Out of Nghia Lo, the road went up and the temperatures turned cooler. The air was pure and I could smell the fragrance of ripe rice from the rice terraces by the road sides. Son Luong, Nam Muoi, Gia Hoi, Nam Bung… all of which are too familiar to me whatever the season it is. People here were only starting to harvest their rice and the rice fields looked so visually appealing.

Villages amid mountains at  Son Luong, Yen Bai
Villages amid mountains at Son Luong, Yen Bai

 

Impressive rice terraces at Nam Muoi, Van Chan, Yen Bai
Impressive rice terraces at Nam Muoi, Van Chan, Yen Bai

 

Rice fields at Gia Hoi, Van Chan, Yen Bai
Rice fields at Gia Hoi, Van Chan, Yen Bai

 

Lovely rice fields at Nam Bung, Van Chan, Yen Bai
Lovely rice fields at Nam Bung, Van Chan, Yen Bai

 Then it was Tu Le again, well-known for sticky rice and Com. Local Thai were busy making Com which is softly chewy food made from unripe sticky rice. Com is available in northern Vietnam only in autumn and Com should be eaten only in autumn! I made a stop at a family and had a chat with them about the process of making Com. The smell was lovely and it certainly looked yummy. The making was hard though.

Scenic rice fields and mountains in the backdrop at Tu Le, Yen Bai
Scenic rice fields and mountains in the backdrop at Tu Le, Yen Bai

 The air turned cool quickly and I bade farewell to the family and proceeded uphill onto the Khau Pha Pass. Sunlight was bright but the temperatures were low. And in the valley of Tu Le – Cao Pha, fog was filling up making the landscape hazier. The higher I went the more blurred it turned. I couldn’t get a good photograph of the otherwise wonderful landscape. It was such a waste. It was a bit cold and very foggy on the top of the Khau Pha Pass and I made it quick through.

A bird's eye view of the Khau Pha Pass
A bird's eye view of the Khau Pha Pass

 

Sunshine through thick fog on the top of the Khau Pha Pass
Sunshine through thick fog on the top of the Khau Pha Pass

 The air was less cool when I reached base of the pass to the north. There was the pine forest of Mu Cang Chai again. They seemed to have cut down some pine trees which lay by the roadside. If this forest is gone, there would be no more forest in Mu Cang Chai and natural disasters would be unavoidable often.

Mesmerizing rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai
Mesmerizing rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai

 Sunlight was somehow good that I decided to trek around the guesthouse after arrival. People were starting to harvest their rice lest a new spell of winter monsoon was coming in a couple of days. They burned off the straws afterwards which made the landscape less photogenic. After a while it was too dark and I made it back to the house. A beautiful moonlit night in Mu Cang Chai…

Moonlit night at Mu Cang Chai
Moonlit night at Mu Cang Chai

 I woke up early in the morning feeling good. My sleep was not too bad; I had gone to bed early last night. The sun was glaring behind the mountain peaks in front of the house. The hostess was cooking in the kitchen. I asked her for hot water to make tea and for breakfast. It was relaxing in early morning sipping hot tea gazing at the mountains in early morning.

Rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai in the early morning
Rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai in the early morning

 

Kids going to school at La Pan Tan in the morning
Kids going to school at La Pan Tan in the morning

 After some nice moments, it was good to start my trekking tour in Mu Cang Chai early. I had been to Mu Cang Chai several times and the experiences had been all different. Today, I’d have the whole day getting lost in the pristine landscape of Mu Cang Chai, amid the mountains and rice terraces. I happened to share the walk with three little school girls who got no classes in the morning. They were going home briefly and return to their school later in the day. The trip takes them 1 hour each way! We had a nice chat all the way till they came to their village and I continued on my adventure.

Hmong school girls at La Pan Tan
Hmong school girls at La Pan Tan

 

Fresh mountains at Mu Cang Chai
Fresh mountains at Mu Cang Chai

The scenery was so captivating that I decided to go as far as possible. A small trail seemed to lead to a stunning patch of rice terraces that I decided to follow. A family was going to work quite late. They looked so happy: mother in law, daughter in law and her little baby. The little boy looked gorgeous and I wasted no chance to take great photographs of them.

A hiking trail towards rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai
A hiking trail towards rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai

 

Breathtaking rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai
Breathtaking rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai

It was sunny mostly and breezy and it was a bit warm at mid day. There were clouds sometimes whose shade made me feel much more comfortable. There was more rice now than on my last trip here; people were only starting to harvest. The rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai were so overwhelming to every visitor!

A trail through bamboo groves at Mu Cang Chai
A trail through bamboo groves at Mu Cang Chai

It was about mid day and I had been trekking for 5 hours. I turned into a small trail through a thick bamboo grove and hiked down the mountain. A couple of hours later I made it to Mam Xoi, a popular photogenic spot at Mu Cang Chai. A big noodle soup brought wonders and I felt full of energy to hit the trail again. 

A trail throug a thin forest at Mu Cang Chai
A trail throug a thin forest at Mu Cang Chai

 The trail was small and quite well hidden. There were quite a few rice terraces and patches of woods on the way. It was not as sunny and warm as earlier. The trail was not as steep as the one I took in the morning. And I was by myself surrounded by peaceful and beautiful nature. It was relaxing and refreshing now that the winds were blowing harder. I was in no hurry and had a rest every now and then trying to soak in the fresh air and lovely environment.

A scenic trekking trail at Mu Cang Chai
A scenic trekking trail at Mu Cang Chai

 I made it back to the guesthouse earlier than expected and sunlight was so good that I had a stroll around taking more photographs of the rice terraces nearby. Later it turned gloomy and came down a few drops of rain. It was good to go back and had some hot tea then. Another lovely night at Mu Cang Chai.

View of higher rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai
View of higher rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai

Awoken early in the morning, it was chilly and dank outside. I proceeded to the terrace in front of the house and enjoyed the fresh morning. Morning dew was dropping from the roof. The mountain peaks around the house were imposingly dark. I had thought I was the only one that woke up early but in the kitchen the hostess had been working already; she was very quiet. I asked for an early breakfast and was determined to set out early. It was windy and it was going to be a wonderful day. The monsoon would come some time later in the day and along came the rain. I was pretty sure to have good time till arriving back in the city.

The trip back was smooth and the weather couldn’t be better. I spent a long time taking photographs at the Khau Pha Pass. It was not in perfect lighting conditions but was good enough. At least it was sunny and the haze was not as bad as earlier.

When I reached Hanoi the sky was gloomy. It looked like it had been a winter day here without sunshine for the whole day. The air was cool and the winds were blowing hard. Then amid the busy traffic in the city center, it rained. I wouldn’t bother anymore as there was no more photography here. My adventure tour to Mu Cang Chai this year had been little short of perfect anyway! And my usual hot coffee was waiting for me at home!

Paradissa, a Vietnam-based tour company, arranges 3-day photography tours, trekking tours to Mu Cang Chai from Hanoi. Mu Cang Chai can be combined with Sapa on a 5-day tour from Hanoi.