Vietnam is a famous rice exporter in the world, therefore the pictures of immense rice fields become so familiar to any Vietnamese, including me. However, terraced fields are the specialty only in the mountains of northern Vietnam, especially in northwest. I myself have not yet seen the beauty of terraced fields, hence this is an indispensable part of our road trip.
Rice terraces in the north of Vietnam have the two most beautiful seasons of the year. Water season is in May-June when the fields are filled with water so that the soil becomes softer, easier to be transplanted. At this time the brown full-of-water terraces are glittering reflected in the sunlight. Meanwhile, September to October is the peak of rice ripeness. The vast mountainous area would turn into splendid golden color.
Coming to the Northwest in early October, although it passed the peak of ripeness, we were still stunned by the magnificent beauty of the terraced fields. There was no longer a brilliant yellow color as the rice fields have been somewhat harvested. It was replaced by the harmonious mixture of the green of young rice, the golden yellow of ripening rice and dark brown of harvested fields, creating a vivid natural painting.
- Day 8: Hoang Su Phi (82km)
- Day 9-11: Sapa (220km)
- Day 12: Mu Cang Chai (160km)
- Day 13: Khau Phau pass and return to Hanoi (320km)
(*Distance is measured by Google map)
Goodbye karst plateaus and romantic pine forests, we started our expedition of hunting amazing terraced rice fields which are another specialty of northern mountain. Despite being born in the city, I’m familiar with endless rice paddies in Mekong Delta. However, I haven’t seen rice terraces. Decided to make this trip at the end of Sep/ early Oct, we hope to observe golden terraced rice fields in their ripening season.
Hoang Su Phi District is a highland remote commune in the northwest Vietnam, bordering with China. It is a pleasant contrast to treeless rocky plateaus in Dong Van and Meo Vac. Similar mighty mountainous landscape is covered in thick forests, dotted by many small tea farms and stunning staircase-like rice terraces which are recognized as Vietnamese National relic in 2012. During ripen season, rice terraces in Hoang Su Phi were showing their soft and winding curves, and their glorious yellow shade covered the whole mountainous region.
Tottering on the mountains, the fields testify to the ingenuity of many local generations. It is truly an hand-made masterpiece.
The terraces in Hoang Su Phi seem steeper and higher than those at the other locations in Vietnam. We were excited climbing inside a terrace field near the road. We slowly scrambling over the high terraces, while an old farmer with heavy load of rice stalks on her back was walking very fast.
Touching rice ears and smelling young rice, we felt the difficulty and toughness of countryside life attaching with the rice field.
There are also harvested rice terraces in Hoang Su Phi, still look amazing in the afternoon dim mist.
Continued our journey of rice terrace hunting, we headed to Sapa with a long drive of 200km. The road DT 177 and DT 153 from Hoang Su Phi to Sapa were extremely bad due to rugged surface and uncountable potholes, either big or small. There also were dangerous landslides in some parts of the roads.
The road was up and up, sometimes we reached 1400m above sea level. The scenery along the way looked familiar with deep lush valleys and layers of mountains, however, the more we went up, the more magnificent the landscape was.
We took a short break and had a picnic lunch on the road, admiring stunning mountainous landscape.
I visited Sapa for the first time in 2008, while Sapa was quiet and pristine. Coming back after 10 years, I’m shocked of the modernization speed of this beautiful city. There are too many new hotels, home-stays, restaurants and coffee shops built on all over the places in Sapa center.
Each place has its own unique style, which looks impressive individually. However, since they are next to each other, it looks a bit messy as a whole.
The stone catholic church still stands majestically at the city center, while the main square in front of the church has dramatically changed its look with grand and glorious hotels. It is no longer the rustic Sapa that I always wish to come back.
The weather of those days was gloomy and rainy all day long, impacted our exploration in Sapa. The roads were also muddy, slippery and rugged with lots of potholes.
When the rain was less heavy, we visited Cat Cat village which is not very far from the center. Parked our car outside and walked on a muddy road, we went deep inside the village. Not many H’Mong people are living there anymore. Instead there are plenty of gift shops, restaurants and cafe. Here and there are the houses to demonstrate the life of H’Mong minority. I felt disappointed as I had expected to observe their real daily activities, rather than seeing the demonstration.
Our hotel is right at Muong Hoa valley of Sapa. It is a massive valley with rice terraces, small villages from far away surrounded by layers of mountains. When the sun went down, white clouds hovered gently on mountainside, making the scenery more lively.
We decided not going anywhere, but chilled out at the hotel, enjoyed our hot coffee and tasty wines, while admiring the natural landscape and cold weather suddenly caused by the northeast wind.
After 3 lazy days in gloomy weather of Sapa, we headed to the last destination of our road trip – Mu Cang Chai, which is 160km away from Sapa. Not far from Sapa center and on Highway 4D, we had a “drive on clouds” at O Quy Ho pass – one of the top 4 King mountain passes in Northern Vietnam.
O Quy Ho is the longest mountain pass in Northwest Vietnam (more than 50km), crossing the majestic Hoang Lien Son range with its peak at 2000 m above sea level. Driving through the vast sea of clouds spreading from mountainsides to the highway and sometimes blocking our eyesight was one of a kind experience in our road trip. That’s why the pass has another lovely name as “Cloudy Pass”.
We focused on managing our car on ascending slopes with continuous sharp turns, felt tensed with multiple warning boards on the way, while excitedly enjoying the cold weather and admiring stunning fairy-tail landscape. The massive Hoang Lien Son range fully covered by lush jungle was seen on and off in the thick mist. It was awesome!
From Highway 4D we turned to Highway 32 heading to Mu Cang Chai. “Man proposes but God disposes” was well described our journey to Mu Cang Chai. We had intended to enjoy for a few days the breathtaking beauty of the best terraced rice fields in their peak of ripen season. However, when we arrived (12th Oct, 2018), the rice had ripened and most of the fields had been harvested. Hence, we decided to shorten our trip to only 1 day. Even that, we were amazed by the magnificent natural scenery of this highland region.
Known as so-called number 1 rice terrace in Vietnam, Mu Cang Chai appeared to us as endless rice terraced spreading the whole mountainous area, up to the sky. Its indescribable beauty is the quintessence of natural majestic landscape and the admirable efforts from local generations.
The color blended by the green of young rice, the golden yellow of ripening rice and dark brown of harvested fields has created a vivid natural painting. Buck wheat and dried corns become the highlight in this peaceful tranquility.
The raspberry hill in La Pan Tan commune is one of the popular attractions in Mu Cang Chai. The motobikes from local people took us through craggy and rocky soil passage up to the view point. From above, covering the hillsides, every step of the terraced rice field appeared as winding colorful waves.
It was fortunate that the rice on the raspberry hill was still ripening. It seemed to be more outstanding in the backdrop of dark brown harvested fields
One day was too short to explore and enjoy the beauty of Mu Cang Chai. I felt regretted that I hadn’t done a proper search on the peak time of ripe season, so that we was 2 weeks late. Perhaps, it gives me a reason to come back.
The last day of our journey was a long day driving more than 320km back to Hanoi. On the way, we visited Paragliding spot in Mu Cang Chai. I heard that two weeks before, it had been super crowded thanks to paragliders who had come to watch the glorious beauty of Mu Cang Chai in the peak of ripe season. On the day we arrived, it was quiet as paragliding service had stopped operating. We were happy since we could admire Mu Cang Chai in such a peaceful atmosphere.
From the view point, we could see another famous mountain pass – Khau Pha, in Yen Bai province. Renowned by the mighty and majestic scenery of mountains, white clouds and stunning terraced rice fields, Khau Pha pass spreads over 30km at the altitude from 1200m to 1500m, crossing by the summit of Khau Pha mountain – the highest mountain in Mu Cang Chai.
Khau Pha is also one of the most steep and zigzagging mountain pass in Vietnam. Throughout the length of the pass, there are several dozen of sharp turns. On foggy days, the pass is extremely dangerous because there is no barricade or any warning sign.
Not far from Khau Phau pass, here is Tu Le commune. No more splendid rice terrace as Mu Cang Chai, Tu Le with its peaceful and rustic beauty nestles in the valley which is surrounded by 3 mountainous ranges – Khau Phau, Khau Chan, Khau Song.
Famous for sticky rice and young green rice, at the harvest season, Tu Le was bustling with the sound of pestles and mortars from both sides of the road. We stopped at a stall and excitedly watched a Thai minority couple who were pestling young rice. It was great to enjoy the smooth, soft, thin green grains which had just been done.
Read other related articles about my road trip to Northern Vietnam
Delicious local food you don’t want to miss
Grilled rice in the bamboo tube served with barbecue is an indispensable dish in Sapa. Besides, the self-fermented wines such as plum wine, apple wine, opium wine are also the specialty of this region.
Where to stay?
Hoang Su Phi
- Hoang Su Phi is a very remote commune in the North West mountains. There are not many hotels or guesthouses there.
- We selected Panhou Village because of its isolated beauty. It is located in Thong Nguyen commune, 13km from the main road of DT 177. The way to the hotel is quite narrow and winding. However, when getting inside, we felt comfortable with its lush spacious garden. The restaurant is designed in French style with a large fireplace in the middle, while the rooms are decorated in H’mong style.
- The price for double room is 1.2 million VND / night.
- Dinner is good at 250,000 VND / person
Eco Palm Resort in Sapa is the most expensive hotel in our entire 13-day journey, but it’s worth every single VND. Facing Muong Hoa Valley of Sapa, the hotel was built in eco- concept, hence using environmental friendly materials, such as wood, rattan, bamboo and leaves.
All the corners in the hotel are well decorated and highly aesthetic.
Mu Cang Chai
Mu Cang Chai is a paradise of terraced rice fields. This place attracts a large number of tourists, especially in the two most beautiful seasons of rice fields: water season and ripen season. As a result, hotels and motels are also growing everywhere with many different types.
We stayed at Do Gu Guesthouse in La Pan Tan commune, about 5km from the famous raspberry hill. The guest house was built by the H’Mong ethnic couple in the previous year. We are really touched by the story of establishing their business.
Traveled on 8-13/10, 2018