Mu Cang Chai – 4 reasons to love
Mù Cang Chải is a district of Yen Bai province, located at the foot of Hoang Lien Son mountain range, at an altitude of 1,000 metres above sea level. To get to Mù Cang Chải district, travellers must pass through Khau Phạ Pass, which is one of four imposing passes in the northwest of Vietnam.
Joshua Zukas is a British travel writer and marketer, who first came to Vietnam in 2008. He’s worked on travel-related projects with the BBC, CNN, VTV, and The Diplomat. Joshua co-founded Hanoi Hideaway, a site that explores the capital through its vibrant cafe culture, and is editor-in-chief of Dulichable, an online tourism and hospitality marketing magazine.
Mu Cang Chai is home to some of Asia’s most magnificent cultivated topography. Rice terraces coil in ribbons around the hills to spectacular effect, luring photographers, hikers, and avid motorbikers. Ready for an adventure? Whatever you’re looking for, here are four things you’ll simply love about Mu Cang Chai.
Mu Cang Chai’s sheer rice terraces were sculpted over centuries of small-scale cultivation. Each season brings its own charm.
During the summer, the terraces bulge with ripening rice stems that blanket the hills in a vibrant green. By early autumn, the rice plants have turned a bewitching golden yellow, ready for the harvest. In wintertime, the lonely terraces fill with water, creating cascading rows of reflective infinity pools. Once spring comes, the terraces transform into anthills of activity, as the farmers plant a new crop.
TIP: The unmissable terraces around Mam Xoi have become synonymous with Mu Cang Chai, although virtually every bend of the road offers picture-perfect scenery. Make sure you have your camera ready, as each vista will seem better than the last.
Mu Cang Chai is mainly populated by the Black H’mong, a subgroup of one of Vietnam’s largest ethnicities. Pretty H’mong villages are dotted around the district. Each one offers a glimpse into a rich culture.
Unlike many other minority groups in Vietnam, the H’mong don’t live in raised houses on wooden stilts. Instead, they build their homes on flattened earth. H’mong textile culture is highly developed, and you’ll find that many villagers – both men and women – still wear the traditional dress. Black H’mong men typically wear dark tunics and hats, while women wear longer tunics with arms and waistbands in bright colours.
TIP: For culture lovers, some Black H’mong villages worth seeking out are Mo De, Le Pan Tan, Sang Nhu, and Mang Mu.
Mu Cang Chai is one of the best places in Vietnam to take on the roads. You’ll find quality strips of tarmac that weave around oval hills and sky-high dirt tracks that cling to near-vertical cliff faces. Whether you want a gentle ride following trickling rivers or an adrenaline-filled dirt bike experience, Mu Cang Chai provides the stage.
Notable main roads include the magnificent stretch between Mu Cang Chai town and Tu Le via the Khau Pha mountain pass. For a gentle ride through ethnic Thai villages, continue to Nghia Lo before circling back. Off the main road, a ride up to Mo De village offers more great views on a mostly paved road.
TIP: In this remote part of Vietnam, the main roads are quiet, and the smaller roads are empty. It’s easy to plan your own routes with Google Maps. You can arrange basic motorcycles from your hotel in Mu Cang Chai, or rent dirt bikes from tour operators in Hanoi.
Undiscovered hiking trails
Hiking is a great way to absorb Mu Cang Chai’s scenery at a slower pace. You’ll pass layers of rice terraces, tea and corn plantations, and higher up, primary tropical rainforest.
Hiking may be a new tourist activity in Mu Cang Chai, but the Hmong have been roaming these hills for centuries. Until recently, villagers travelled almost everywhere by foot, creating a network of trails that zigzag up the valleys and into the mountains. These trails connect every hamlet and provide excellent hiking routes for long and short forays.