I felt extremely lucky to be returning to Vietnam again, eager to see what had changed in the 9 years since my last visit, and what memories I would rediscover.
The first few days were spent reacquainting myself with Hanoi's lively Old Quarter, including sampling some of the best phở cuốn in town. My top tip is to try these delicious stuffed noodle rolls in the Ho Truc Bach Island area of the city, where this dish (in all its varieties) is a speciality.
Dragging myself away from the city’s packed and vibrant streets, I headed out towards Mu Cang Chai in the Yen Bai province, around 275 km north west of Hanoi. Whilst the journey takes most of the day, the constantly changing landscape is more than enough to keep you enthralled as you pass tea plantations, swathes of gum trees and small rural hamlets. Along the route, the flat agricultural lands of the Red River Delta gives way to an enticing mountainous horizon visible in the distance.
At the midway stop to stretch our legs, we took a wander down to a nearby stream where members of a small community were bathing buffalo (who seemed to be enjoying the cooling respite from the midday heat!). We were lucky enough to be welcomed into a family home for some refreshment and, with the help of my guide, we exchanged a few tales about our lives and beliefs. As in many farming communities, animism plays an important role, particularly in relation to harvests. Large altars, normally found outside the home, provide offerings to spirits that control the natural forces in the hope that the community will be granted protection from floods and droughts, and that their crops will grow in abundance.
We stopped for the night at Tu Le Valley (about 1 hour from Mu Cang Chai), an area well known for its hot springs, dramatic mountain scenery and terraced rice paddies. In the morning, the sun rose up behind the hills and bathed the valley in soft golden light as I was enjoying my morning coffee - not a bad way to start the day!
The journey continued on via the Khau Pha mountain pass, a long and winding stretch of road about 1500m above sea level, flanked by rice terraces and with majestic green peaks rising above - plenty of picture-perfect photo opportunities.
After only an hour, we arrived in Mu Cang Chai and saw the iconic World Heritage-listed ancient rice terraces, cut high into the mountainside slopes, stretching out as far as the eye could see. They are honestly breathtaking, even more so when you learn that they have been carved by hand and passed down through the generations as heirlooms. The terraces are an integral part of local culture, especially for the majority Hmong communities in this remote region. Dao, Thai and Kinh communities also reside in the valley, exemplifying the diversity of Mu Cang Chai's rich culture.
There was time for a quick freshen up before heading out on a day hike with my local guide, exploring on foot through the countryside and terraced valleys dotted with Hmong and Thai villages. There were plenty of opportunities to meet local villagers and, with the help of my guide as an interpreter, learn more about their traditions and daily lives. The Hmong people live higher in the mountains and one of the villagers we met described how, after constructing a house, they hold a ceremony of ‘worshiping the door god’ in order to protect their family members and belongings.
The Thai communities occupy the lower valleys, and their stilted houses are both strikingly unique and remarkably sturdy. They have to be built to endure all seasons and, due to their lower elevation, certain aspects of modernization, such as irrigation methods, electricity and asphalt roads, were more evident here. Towards the end of our hike we encountered a small group of children gathered round a broken bicycle. Between us all I am pleased to say we managed to get it working again!
That evening was spent enveloped in the rustic charms of Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge. Set on the top of a hill, it’s the perfect place to have a post-hike sundowner and marvel at your surroundings (as well as play with the resort owner’s very friendly dog!).
I was there in June which, together with May, is a great time to visit, owing to it being the watering season so the fields are lush and green. The region can be enjoyed at most times of the year, whether to wander between the terraces, immerse yourself in pristine nature, visit diverse communities and simply revel in the valley’s remoteness. For me, Mu Cang Chai has a place at the top of any Vietnam wish list.
If you feel inspired after reading about Kate’s experience, get in touch or call us on +44 (0) 1273 670 001