The Valley Verdure of Mù Cang Chải
October 13, 2018
by Samuel McAuliffe
Travelers tales come thick and fast out of northern Vietnam and they describe a mountainous landscape so beautiful, they seem almost fanciful works of fiction spun up by the over-imaginative. It is, however, hard to ignore the repeated narratives as they are recounted to you over cold beers, iced coffees and steaming bowls of Pho. Stories of towering mountains and humbling valleys carved almost beyond recognition by the tribespeople who farm the land.
Located a relatively short distance southwards from the famous backpacking hotspot of Sa Pa, the rural district of Mu Cang Chai is one such example of the outstanding natural beauty which comprises the northern reaches of Vietnam. It is likely, also one of the more stunning showcases of the aforementioned farmland and it is somewhat sad in this respect, that it has become the often ignored quiet sibling of its bustling neighbour.
Arriving in the District
Due to the distances involved in travelling between towns and cities in the north, it’s certainly advisable that a visit to Mu Cang Chai be incorporated into a larger tour of the many other incredible tourist destinations this par of the country has to offer. It is possible to arrive at this destination by bus direct from Hanoi, or even whilst hopping from town to town in buses, vans and cars. The most efficient and overwhelmingly preferred method of transport in these parts, however, is motorcycling, and it’s not hard to see why once you’ve been cruising alongside meandering rivers and conquering the picturesque mountain passes that implore you to photograph them at every turn.
The road which runs into the main town itself hugs the walls of an imposing valley, which falls once again at your side before meeting the river that long since carved out the gorge you now follow. The feeling of traversing this primeval landscape would be almost overwhelming, if it was not for the obvious human domination, the fashion of which makes this region so extraordinarily wonderful to witness with your own eyes.
The land here is home to the Hmong tribe and the remarkable rice terraces of their creation cascade down over 2000 hectares of incredibly stunning mountain terrain. The best time to visit the region for this main attraction is in September through November, when the crops are ripe for harvest and the magnificent bright green leaves of the rice plant can be seen shimmering in the sunlight during an occasional breeze. The fields will also be more animated during these months, s the tribespeople take to the fields in their vibrantly coloured cultural dress.
The capital of this region is extremely small and in terms of tourist facilitation, it is rather underdeveloped. There are a number of guesthouses situated in the main town however, and a few entrepreneurial tribesfolk have even opened their doors in a surprisingly hospitable manner considering the position of their homestays. A short distance outside the town, one such homestay named “Hello Mu Cang Chai Homestay”, is nestled high up in the heart of the areas scenic valley and offers picture-postcard views across the miles of brilliantly sculpted rice terraces.
Although the accommodation is humble, the astonishing views will have you pinching yourself in disbelief at the impressive location. Once you do manage to tear yourself away from the surrounding panorama, as hard as that might be, you’ll find an extremely welcoming husband and wife team who make themselves ever available too help, talk, or even advise on how you might spend your time exploring the local area.
The hosts can be found turning their attention towards the kitchen in the late afternoon and when they appear again during the evening, an absolute feast is laid out. The enormity of which could undoubtedly satisfy even the most insatiable of gluttons. It comes complete with a bottle of aptly named “happy water”, which is used to toast the evening before guests are left to almost certainly over-indulge to their heart’s content.
Sights to See
Waking up in this fantastic locale, you’ll find yourself eager to rise shortly after the sun in an attempt to explore more of the immediate surroundings. Despite the tourism industry being in its infancy, there is fortunately plenty to keep you occupied during a short stay and what time you don’t spend out on the hillsides, you’ll not be sorry to have spent gazing out across them. There are a couple of established tourist sight within hiking distance and the many dirt roads which link the Hmong villages provide the perfect routes by which to reach them.
One of these sights is the delightfully titled Raspberry Hill which with a likeness to a many-tiered cake, has been sculpted meticulously all the way around and down so that it may be as completely efficient a patch of farmland as possible. The comfortable walk to reach the attraction will have you climb twisting hillside road and trudging often muddy farm tracks, sometimes accompanied by the occasional dog whose curiosity has pulled it from the sleepy daze enjoyed by most during the warm Vietnam days. Local villagers will you by along the route, often with a friendly greeting as they herd their huge, lazy buffalo from pace to place. Local children will stop and stare at the spotting o a rare tourist, although given a quick wave, their face will often light up with a smile and they’ll return the gesture whilst practicing what little English they’ve learnt. These local encounters are a fun, interesting part of the travelling north Vietnam and although not unique to this place, the warmth with you are received in this less touristic location is appreciable.
La Pan Tan Village
A further local recommendation would have you visiting the local village of La Pan Tan, which has been recognised by Vietnam as a “national landscape” for its spectacular surroundings. Taking once more to the buffalo trodden trails of the terraced hills, you’ll eventually be delivered to what is considered the greatest viewpoint by which to enjoy the spectacular spectrum of greens blanketing the countryside. Workers can be seen walking amongst the crops during harvest time, sickle in hand and reaping the rewards from months of labour. Small wooden huts dot the landscape all around and provide them with much-needed shade from the midday sun. Shops can be found in some of these, offering some shade of your own along with what will likely be a welcome drink.
There are other more organised sightseeing opportunities as well. Mu Cang Chai is one little part of a relatively underdeveloped area of Vietnam, but the tourism industry although small, exists through the operations of its few modest homestays. Untouched by the larger tourist scene, those that make the journey will likely find the activities on offer all the better for it. Long distance treks replace the meagre strolls of Sa Pa and visitors will be largely undisturbed as they enjoy the peaceful valleys vast wealth of beauty. There are also motorbike rides available to those wanting to explore the wider region with a guide, and walks which promise to engage the travellers with the rich culture of the Hmong tribespeople. There are many possibilities on a trip to Mu Cang Chai but only one certainty. Whether visitors choose to while away their days taking in the views, or are enticed into wandering the alluring hills, there will be absolute satisfaction at having made the journey.