Destinations / Vietnam

Mu Cang Chai Rice Fields: Go Dig for Gold

Mu Cang Chai in Northern Vietnam had been in the top destinations for Vietnamese tourists for a while when foreigners discovered the magnificence of the place – mainly driven by the breath-taking pictures of golden terraced rice fields posted on Instagram

When I first did my research about the region, I realized that its magnificent landscapes weren’t on the traditional touristic routes yet – unlike Ninh Binh and Sapa. Once I figured that out, it was only a matter of days before I planned to take a trip there! In autumn, locals organize harvest festivals, which tourists believe to be the only time when they can go enjoy the rice fields, but that’s not the only moment as May can be good too!

Mu Cang Chai is a destination you must deserve

So in the early days of May, I booked a night bus from Hanoi to Mu Cang Chai, a really small town in the mountains. However, Vietnamese night buses have the very bad habit of dropping you at your destination right in the middle of the night, so I first had to make sure I wouldn’t find myself alone on the streets at 4 am. Coincidentally, the bus from Hanoi drops you in front of a couple of hotels, used to night-time traffic of travelers. I guess my advice here is to ensure you book your hotel in advance – the New Moon hotel was my option.

Golden rice fields in Mu Cang Chai, Northern Vietnam
Golden rice fields in Mu Cang Chai, Northern Vietnam.

Vietnamese buses have another bad habit: they regularly break down. About 40 km from Hanoi, as I was already more or less asleep with my headphones on, I woke up to a silent, motionless bus. I first thought we were just taking a pee/snack break, but that felt awfully long. After a while (maybe an hour or so), my seat neighbor came back with some traditional snacks that he handed to me. He must have noticed I was a foreigner, traveling on my own, not speaking a word of Vietnamese, and decided to look after me for the whole time we were stuck on the side of the road. Eventually, a replacement bus had to come to pick us and this time, off we went!

I must make a special mention here for the snacks. These are not very well-known but you MUST try them when you’re headed north of Vietnam: banh gai are sweet glutinous rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. But the most peculiar thing about them is their black color. It comes from the leaves of a plant named “gai” (a sort of aromatic herb), ground into a powder, and then mixed with the rice flour. The cakes are then stuffed with coconut and mung bean paste. Real yummy!

An incredible road trip in the golden fields of La Pan Tan

After all my bus adventures and half a night in a comfortable enough yet overpriced hotel, I headed for the center in search of a motorbike to rent. While renting a motorbike can be relatively easy for foreigners in touristic cities, it turned out to be much more difficult in Mu Cang Chai, probably because travelers in the region are mainly Vietnamese and come with their own vehicles. I finally found a bike shop with 2 motorbikes available and rented one for 300,000 VND a day, which is also above the usual prices. 

I was finally set to start my 4-day road trip in Mu Cang Chai. Golden rice fields, here I come! My first stop would be in La Pan Tan, a village surrounded by very picturesque rice field terraces, and I seem to recall the whole zone is a natural reserve. Towards the middle of the afternoon, I reached DoGu Homestay, a dormitory arranged on the second floor of a family house, as is usual in areas where tourism is still developing. It had an incredible terrace overlooking a star-shaped rice field: definitely one of the best views around!

Star-shaped rice field in La Pan Tan, Mu Cang Chai.
Star-shaped rice field in La Pan Tan, Mu Cang Chai.

The next morning, I set out early for another part of La Pan Tan. I had seen recommendations online for a homestay with even more spectacular views, perched on top of a hill. It was not long before I reached it, but I hadn’t anticipated how steep it would be to reach the top by motorbike. More than once, I thought the engine was not going to make it. More than once, I also chose very narrow ways between the fields and I almost fell into one. The locals who saw me there even got scared by my driving there. But I was like: “You guys do it, I can do it too!” – Looking back on it, I know I did it because I didn’t realize how dangerous it could be. Luckily, no accident happened and I safely made it to Hello Mu Cang Chai Homestay.

Staying in homestays, besides being often the only option when exploring more remote places, is an experience I highly recommend. Meals are the best occasion to share stories in warm company and learn more about your hosts. Most people in this area of Northern Vietnam come from the Hmong tribe, so you might be able to get more familiar with their culture too.

A couple during the rice harvest Mu Cang Chai
A couple putting the rice to dry in La Pan Tan, Mu Cang Chai.

Mu Cang Chai spectacular views: Tu Le and Mam Xoi

Beyond La Pan Tan, you’ll see the most beautiful landscapes from the Khau Pha mountain pass, between Mu Cang Chai and Tu Le. About 35 km separate the two, making the ride back and forth doable in half a day. As I stopped at several viewpoints, I couldn’t help but notice how the landscapes looked like delicate maps of the world. Down the pass, the village of Tu Le, is known for its tea fields.

Another famous site in Mu Cang Chai is called Mam Xoi – “Raspberry Hills”. It’s one of the most preferred places for Vietnamese travelers, because of the circular rice field terraces opening on a vertiginous valley. The place is a perfect photo spot. Note that if you’re coming from the main road, you’ll have to stop at the visitor’s parking and take a moto-taxi to get to the top. It’s inexpensive but the ride is absolutely horrendous, especially on the way down – take this from somebody who’s usually not afraid of heights or bumpy rides. The “tren trau” (“young buffaloes”, a phrase used for young men who like to boast on their motorbikes) who ride the moto-taxis simply motocross those paths with passengers on their backseat, so you might want to close your eyes downhill! 

All in all, a 4-day road trip allowed me to explore most of the area, and enjoy the scenic views. Riding my own bike there, I can only say Mu Cang Chai is a land of adventures! And it’s very rewarding. It’s really worth taking a few days to explore the different sites, even outside of festival seasons. Breathe in the local hospitality, breathe out beautiful memories from Northern Vietnam.

Mam Xoi site in Mu Cang Chai
Mam Xoi, Mu Cang Chai.

Visit Mu Cang Chai in Northern Vietnam: practical information

How to go?
Book a night bus from My Dinh station to Mu Cang Chai town. The drive is about 6 hours long. Make sure you book your accommodation in advance, even for a few hours only, because the bus WILL drop you off at 3 or 4 am in Mu Cang Chai.

When to go?
In the spring or in autumn, just before the harvest season (check the calendar with local agents or other travelers). That’s when the fields take their golden color. Once the paddy rice fields are harvested, the terraces will be empty and brown.

How to get around?
Should you rent your own bike? My answer is yes, having your own motorbike will allow you to move more freely. Don’t forget to ask for a helmet with a visor, or glasses, because you’re going to be driving on mountain roads, relatively fast. The places where you can rent a motorbike are scarce, so if you feel more comfortable riding your own, you might want to take the trip directly from Hanoi there (but it’s another type of road trip then).
A travel agent would typically offer a tour of the area by car (interesting if you’re in a group) or with a motorbike driver. The latter can be an acceptable option if you’re really not comfortable driving by yourself.

Where to stay?
I stayed in two really nice homestays, both run by lovely families, but it seems only one is still in activity:
Hello Mu Cang Chai: The location is absolutely spectacular. You get a 360 view of the mountains. I couldn’t imagine a better place to stay in Mu Cang Chai.

Points of interest
– La Pan Tan village: a protected area right in the middle of terraced rice fields, about 30 mins away from Mu Cang Chai town by motorbike.
– Mam Xoi: famous for its circular-shaped terraces, very Instagrammed and appreciated by groups of tourists.
– Khau Pha Pass: a 40 km mountain pass between Mu Cang Chai and Tu Le, with many vantage viewpoints along the way.
– Tu Le: a village down the pass where you can also enjoy a few tea fields – but I have unfortunately never seen the tea fields.

Rice fields in Mu Cang Chai


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