Theatre of Rice: Mù Cang Chải

Last updated July 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

Colour & pattern, Mu Cang Chai rice terracesEvery year, between September and October, the terraced rice fields of Mù Cang Chải, a rural district in northern Vietnam’s Yên Bái Province, put on a show of picturesque harvest colours. In the fresh, dew-brushed dawn, hundreds of stepped rice fields, carved into the contours of steep valleys, are illuminated by the autumn sun. The golden-green and toast-brown colours of the ripe rice are luminous. The curving terraces, although man-made, appear to be in complete harmony with the landscape, creating a hypnotic patterning across the hills and valleys. I call this spectacle the ‘Theatre of Rice’. Although well-known to most Vietnamese, Mù Cang Chải doesn’t get a mention in many popular English-language guidebooks. A good way to see the ‘show’ is to drive the scenic section of Road 32 from Tú Lệ town to just west of Mù Cang Chải town. I call this the ‘Harvest Route’. It takes in 50km of picture-book scenery, including the lofty Khau Phạ Pass. There are hotels in both Tú Lệ and Mù Cang Chải towns. Below are my photos of the ‘Theatre of Rice’ and my map of the ‘Harvest Route’.


THE THEATRE OF RICE IN PICTURES


MAP: Mù Cang Chải District, Yên Bái Province, Vietnam


View ‘Mu Cang Chai’ in a LARGER MAP


Time: 6:30am

The dawn sun creeps over the valley walls, shedding light on the rice terraces.

First light of dawn


Time: 6:45am

The early sun turns the rice a pale toast-brown.

Warm early light on the rice


Time: 7:00am

Minority women make their way into the fields to begin a morning of work that often begins with a long walk.

Work begins in the fields


Time: 7:15am

By now the morning sun fills the whole valley, revealing the extent of the rice terraces.

The sun-filled valley


Time: 7:30am

Small huts dot the landscape offering shelter and storage space to farmers during the harvest.

Shelter & storage huts


Time: 7:45am

Work begins in the fields. A minority woman stands atop a terrace, looking down to the river in the valley below.

A minority woman in the fields


Time: 8:00am

Seen from the Khau Pha Pass, the terraces look like a ‘rice glacier’ slowly sliding down the hillside.

View from the Khau Pha Pass


Time: 8:15am

As it gets later, you’ll find you’re not the only spectator enjoying the ‘rice show’.

Other 'spectators'


Time: 8:30am

While others watch, work in the fields goes on, with only rudimentary machinery and buffaloes to help.

Hard work & no machinery


Time: 8:45am

This is the real star of the show: rice. Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter.

Star of the show: rice


Time: 9.00am

The sun is higher now. The dew has gone but a morning chill lingers. The colours get warmer, even if the air doesn’t.

Higher sun, warmer colours


Time: 9:15

Mid-way through their morning’s work it’s good to see these women enjoying a break.

Taking a break


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29 Responses to Theatre of Rice: Mù Cang Chải

  1. Franc says:

    Hi Tom,
    I just came across your site and I found it very useful indeed. I will be travelling to Vietnam in July and I really have a dilemma: Mu Cang Chai or Sapa? Which is best in your opinion? I am particularly interested in seeing impressive rice terrace valleys and stunning landscapes to take photographs. Going to Sapa would be much easier for me because I am traveling solo and I don’t want to ride a motorbike, so I can easily go on an organized tour from Hanoi, but I have read it has become too crowded with tourists and that it is not as spectacular anymore. As for Mu Cang Chai, there isn’t as much information on line, but from your pictures and some other pictures I found on line, it really looks amazing.
    What is your opinion on how the two compare and which one would you choose?
    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Franc,

      I think it would be much easier for you to go to Sapa than Mu Cang Chai. Sapa is easy to get to and, despite being ruined by development and crowds, is still a beautifully situated town. Make sure you get a room with a balcony and a good view. The vistas from town are great but you can also take a trip to the Tram Ton Pass (just 30 minutes away) for more fabulous views.

      Mu Cang Chai is a very small place famous for one thing: rice terraces. You could even make a day/night trip there from Sapa if you wanted.

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  2. Eshita says:

    Hi,
    I wish to visit the northern highlands of Vietnam, mainly Sapa plus covering areas like Mù Cang Chải and some more from Hanoi. My plan is somewhere around first 2 weeks of August, but I am not sure if its a good idea at that time of the year. Can you recommend which places will be good to visit in around mid August.
    Cheers

  3. Kellie says:

    Hey~~Great article! I’m going here next week– I hope the place is still photo-worthy!

    I was hoping for your suggestion- I’ll have almost 2 full days there (getting in on a morning, and leaving the following late night)…I want to rent a bike and drive all around these places you mentioned…do you think I should sleep in Mu Cang Chai or the Tu Le town? I’d enjoy staying in a town if there is much to see at night/not-to-miss food or something– or I’d be happy in a very sleepy town too, if it’s special…can you help me choose which place so I can try to book a room!?
    Cheers!

    • Hi Kellie,

      Staying in either Mu Cang Chai or Tu Le is fine. Mu Cang Chai is a little bit more touristy than Tu Le. Both towns have nhà nghỉ (local guest houses), and decent street food. And both towns are in a pretty valley next to a river. The ride between the two towns is great and it should still look good near the end of April.

      I hope you enjoy it.

      Tom

  4. Max says:

    We just finished this route going west, and it was amazing. Around this time the rice is starting to grow, so you’ll see more paddies of water with green sprinkles of sprouts than full rice paddies. You won’t see them turn yellow until late May is what I am constantly told. You can also visit in early October, when the rice will be grown and yellow again, plus there will be flower blossoms in villages like La Pán Tẩn – popular with native tourists. We found ourselves spending a night in the middle of the drive, so we stayed in La Pán Tẩn instead of making the push for Mù Cang Chải. If you’re an adventurous traveler you can wander off highway 32 a few kilometers north towards the village. Look for a hotel being built with a green roof – across the street is an honest mechanic, Nam. Ask him if you could stay the night, and he or his friend up the street will host you for a very reasonable price. There will be dinner, all the rice wine you can drink, and karaoke! A decidedly local experience that is very off the beaten track. Very limited English is spoken, so bring a Viet friend or a lot of determination. The village has some great views.

    • Hi Max,

      Thanks for sharing your experience of this route. Yes, late spring to early autumn (just before the harvest) is the best time to visit for colours. The photos in the above guide were all taken in mid September on a crisp, clear, cool morning.

      I’d like to get there in early spring someday to see the blossoms that you mention.

      Tom

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  6. Martin Byrne says:

    Hi
    I was wondering if you could please give me som e information.
    I will be arriving with my partner to Dien Bien Phu on the 19th May 2016.
    I wish to travel to Mu Cang Chai, Mai Chau and then to Hanoi.
    Is there a bus from Dien Bien Phu to Mu Cang Chai?
    Is there a bus from Mu Cang Chai to Mai Chau?
    If there are buses do you know the times of these buses?
    If there are no buses, is there any other way of travelling on these particular routes?
    Kind regards
    Martin

    • Hi Martin,

      There may be buses between those destinations, but if there are they will almost certainly be local buses, in which case you will probably have to find the times and details once you’re in Dien Bien Phu, or at least in Vietnam.

      You can hire a car and driver to take you between these destinations. It’s a beautiful drive so you will probably want to stop along the way to take in the views. Hiring a car a driver through a hotel in Dien Bien Phu shouldn’t be too difficult, and the cost would be around $50-100 a day.

      You can certainly find buses running between Dien Bien Phu and Mai Chau (even the big tour buses will drop you at the intersection with highway 6, from where it’s a 10 minute ride by motorbike taxi to Mai Chau).

      I hope this helps,

      Tom

  7. Jimmy says:

    You’ve got a beautiful website and very thorough information. This site really needs to be on page 1 of Google.

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  9. Jessica says:

    Hi Tom

    Beautiful photos! I was wondering if you have been to Mai Chau and how it compares? Also how easy is it to get to from Hanoi? Can you drive all the way from Hanoi?

    • Hi Jessica,

      Yes, Mai Chau is also very nice and easily accessible from Hanoi. It’s about 150km from Hanoi by motorbike and very much doable in one day. Mai Chau is in a beautiful valley. Most people stay in stilt house homestays. However, it has became very popular and sometimes crowds can be a problem. Read more about Mai Chau and the journey there in Section 1 of this motorbike guide.

      Also near Mai Chau is Pu Luong Nature Reserve, which is very beautiful and full of great homestays. Read more here.

      Tom

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  11. Tony says:

    Hi Tom,

    Can you give me an idea of the best route to follow from Yen Bai city to Mu Cang Chai by motorbike? And what are the roads like?

    Thanks,
    Tony

    • Hi Tony,

      If you’re coming from Yen Bai take Road QL37 to Ba Khe. Turn right onto Road QL32 towards Nghia Lo. Stay on Road QL32 which takes you all the way through the rice terraces to Mu Cang Chai. Have another look at the introduction and map in this article too. The roads are fine, there’s a little bit of construction on both roads but it shouldn’t be enough to spoil it – at least it wasn’t when I was last there in October 2014.

      Hope you enjoy it.

      Tom

  12. Rafa says:

    Hi Tom,

    I will be there Mid/End of March. Do you know what colour the rice terraces have in this season? Is there any green, or just mud and brown?

    Thanks
    Rafa

    • Hi Rafa,

      Technically that’s spring so there should be more than mud and brown, but it can still be pretty chilly and wet at that time of year, so it’s difficult to say what it will be like. I’d say it the weather looks good then it’s worth a trip.

      Tom

  13. Frank says:

    Hi Tom,
    Great Site!
    :-)
    I am a photographer and I intend to stay in Tú Lệ town and from there visit the right terraces. I will be there in December.
    I would like to shoot some photos very early in the morning.
    How long is the journey from Tú Lệ to the rice terraces and the Khau Pha Pass?
    I do not ride motorbikes, so I was thinking of hiring a local driver – is that possible?
    Thanks
    Frank

    • Hi Frank,
      Tu Le town is just a few kilometres from the Khau Pha Pass. You should be able to arrange a driver from one of the guesthouses (nha nghi) in Tu Le town.
      I hope the weather is suitable for photography!
      Tom

  14. dmiri says:

    Tom,
    What kind of weather should I expect if I am traveling Saigon to Dien Bien Phu in early February?

    Thanks
    Damiri (DMT XT)

  15. Tuc says:

    Tom,
    Thank you for showing this part of the country. I enjoy your pictures, blogs, guides and insights of Việt Nam.

    Very nice,

    Tuc

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