Our driver’s rusted Toyota snaked around curving roads, past cascading waterfalls, and children ushering cows along the cliff’s edge. The farther we got, the further back in time we seemed to step. Satellite dishes disappeared from tin roofs, and iPhones vanished from people’s hands, replaced with rice harvesting sickles.
After a stomach-turning seven-hour private car ride from Hà Nội (Hanoi), past small villages and the famously beautiful stretch of scenery known as the Khau Phạ Pass, we made it to Mù Cang Chải, home to some of the world’s most incredible rice terraces.
How to Get to Mù Cang Chải
Located in the Yên Bái Province of northwestern Vietnam, Mù Cang Chải is best reached via private car (costs vary per driver and car, but we paid $155) or motorcycle from the capital city of Hà Nội, 182 miles away. There are buses available, but the wild driving, connections, and crowded conditions aren’t ideal for such a lengthy trip.
Once you arrive, the best way to explore these mystifying rice terraces, covering around 8.5 square miles of hillside landscape, is by bicycle (if you can handle steep hills) or by hiring a motorbike with a guide. Note: Driving a motorcycle in Vietnam is illegal unless you have a Vietnamese motorbike license.
Where to Stay in Mù Cang Chải
As with any remote destination, there aren’t many accommodation options to choose from. We opted for the modest yet charming Mucangchai Ecolodge ($34 per night, breakfast included), with wooden cabins perched above a valley full of rice terraces. Our hosts were a kind, young family who spoke little English, so Google Translate quickly became our friend.
There are multiple homestays and guest houses available on booking sites like Agoda and Booking.com or through travel agents, but don’t expect to find any five-star hotels in the area just yet. Modern luxuries like fast Wi-Fi and sometimes electricity are unreliable here, but that’s all part of the charm.
The Best Time to Visit Mù Cang Chải
This region becomes incredibly popular for visitors and photographers from September to October when the terraced rice fields turn a magical golden hue before harvest. While most of the local people are farmers and rice growers, there is a small tourism sector based around these harvest months.
When we made the journey, it was early May, and we didn’t come across another tourist during our week-long stay. Our host told us that this time of year is known as "The Time of The Dancing Waters," because the rice fields turn to pools after being flooded with water.
On our first night, we sat on our balcony and watched in awe as groups of Hmong families methodically pulled long strands of rice from the muddy waters while the pools turned fiery red as they mirrored the sky above.
Who Lives There?
Northern Vietnam is made up of 54 recognized hill tribe ethnic groups, but the predominant group in Mù Cang Chải is Hmong. There are subgroups of Hmong, including White, Black and Flower, identifiable by the different colors and clothing they wear. Other ethnic groups in the region include Thai and Red Dzao.
When visiting the region and taking pictures, remember to ask the locals if you can take their photo before doing so. If they are selling goods like handmade scarves or items, it is polite to buy something in exchange.
Is Mù Cang Chải Really Worth The Hype?
Yes, yes, it is. The sheer size and natural beauty of the rice terraces evoke a “wow” at every corner.
The image most people see when they Google Mù Cang Chải is Mâm Xôi, which translates to Raspberry Hill. This rice terrace with a perfect circle on top is the most famous image of the region. Another popular place, Móng Ngựa, known as the horseshoe, is a must-visit for the terrace’s signature curved shape.
But if you only have time to visit one place, make it La PánTẩn. This rural village has hundreds of stacked rice terraces sloping so high they seem to touch the clouds. My partner and I nearly drove off the road while staring gobsmacked at stack after stack of terraces dotted with small homes, oxen, and children splashing in the muddy water.
Along with La PánTẩn, neighboring villages of Chế Cu Nha and Dế Xu Phình were named national heritage sites by the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism in 2007 for their astonishing landscapes.
Created by indigenous Hmong groups, these terraces are not only known for their spectacular beauty but their incredible feat of engineering. Using wooden plows pushed by oxen and sometimes people to make the ledges, they harvested bamboo to draw water from the mountains and created an effective and complex irrigation system to flood the rice paddies.
According to the Vietnam News Agency, around 90,000 people, both Vietnamese and international, ventured to Mù Cang Chải in 2019—less than a half percent of all the country’s visitors—but it’s still much less frequented than the touristy Sa Pa, another rice-growing valley a four-hour drive away near the border of China.
So if you’re looking to avoid mass tourism and immerse yourself into what feels like a different era, try Mù Cang Chải.