Mu Cang Chai: rice terraces & tribal culture

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

North Vietnam is absolutely packed with great views and tribal cultures - karst mountains, caves and waterfalls, lakes and forests, dozens of distinct ethnic minorities, just to mention some of them. Lifestyles in the region have not changed much in the last few centuries, too - bamboo water wheels still irrigate the farms, wooden houses on stilts dominate strategic hilltops, and rice fields are carved out of mountain slopes in steps, forming the famous terraced landscapes. One of the best among those is in the valley of Mu Cang Chai, highly popular with Vietnamese photographers, and for a good reason. The valley is vast and exceptionally beautiful, with plenty of hilltops providing panoramic views, Khau Pha pass being the best. The main population is the Hmong tribe, still wearing their traditional costumes on a daily basis. A fair amount of hotels and homestays are available, mainly catering to domestic tourists. Foreign travelers are rare here but not unheard of.

The valley

© Mark Levitin

Mu Cang Chai valley stretches for tens of km in both directions from the central town, following the twisting, serpentine river. Little tributaries here and there add intricacy to this natural maze. And all along the valley, rice terraces are carved into the slopes, from the riverbanks to the summits of the hills. The entire landscape consists of gigantic stairs, green, golden, or mirror-like, depending on the season. Hmong villages dot the linear textures like decorative pins on a Persian carpet and brightly dressed tribal women till the fields or weave on their verandas. Every couple of steps brings up a new angle, a new photographic opportunity. It would take something like a week to see the main body of Mu Cang Chai on foot. Motorbikes can be rented, and they are something of a necessity here. Hilltop villages on both sides of the valley are usually the best spots for sunset and sunrise. The most popular of those is La Pan Tan, where a number of homestays offer accommodation.

Black Hmong

© Mark Levitin

In addition to gorgeous views, Mu Cang Chai offers a chance to interact with an authentic tribal culture: 95% of the valley’s population are Black Hmong. “Black” is the term used to distinguish them from other Hmong sub-groups – they dye their garments dark blue or black, using natural indigo pigment. Their lifestyle is very much intact up until now. Women can be seen wearing traditional costumes with elaborate skirts and dark jackets on any day, even when working in the field. Men only dress up on market days and for local festivals. Of the latter, Hmong New Year is the easiest to coincide with – it usually falls in late December, just before the Gregorian one. One interesting Hmong custom is New Year’s ball game: boys and girls form two lines, facing each other, and throw a tennis ball there and back. The idea is to pass the ball to the person one is fond of – it is a playful, ritualized form of matchmaking. Hmong houses in Mu Cang Chai are different from most tribal buildings of North Vietnam. They are not raised above the ground on stilts but have a clay foundation supporting mostly wooden walls. Weaving is common and can be seen in most villages. Indigo dyeing, obviously, is too. Some villages in the most picturesque spots may offer homestays – so, ask around.

Khau Pha Pass

© Mark Levitin

About an hour’s drive south of Mu Cang Chai is a spot offering the most dramatic views in the area: Khau Pha Pass. Instead of stepped terraces adorning the slopes of the valley, here a vast vista opens up from the crest of a mountain ridge – rice fields, villages, hills, and more mountains on the horizon. A café marks the position, although the views are just as good on both sides of it. Below the café, locals grow flowers. This small garden has become something of a must-do selfie spot among local tourists. There is more to do here, however, than merely watch the panorama. Descend to the plains below, wander amidst lush fields and tribal villages, stay with the resident Hmong and soak up the vibe. The tribal culture is as unspoiled as in Mu Cang Chai, but there is the added advantage of exclusivity. Even domestic tourists seldom stop here longer than it takes to finish a cup of coffee in the panorama café above.

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