Huong Quynh

In the autumn, the terraced rice fields in Vietnam’s rugged northern mountains turn golden

H’mong children on the terraced fields of Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai

As cradles of wet rice civilization, many countries in Asia have terraced rice fields. This style of rice cultivation is typical of highland people. On several occasions, international media have ranked regions in Asia with the most beautiful terraced rice fields. Places in Vietnam, including Mu Cang Chai (Yen Bai), Hoang Su Phi (Ha Giang), and Sapa (Lao Cai) often make those lists, and are sources of pride for Vietnamese people. Here, mother nature is in perfect harmony with the working spirit and skillful hands of people living in some of the most remote regions of the country.

The H’Mong people in Sapa (Lao Cai)

Researchers believe that the history of terraced fields in Vietnam’s northern highlands is tied to the settlement history of ethnic minority groups. About 500 years ago, most of these people followed a nomadic lifestyle in the highlands. They chose places with favorable natural conditions for farming. As time passed, they began to settle in villages, leading to important changes in rice farming. Since they depended heavily upon nature, fields near water sources produced better yields and the soil was less subject to erosion. Thus, highland people grew rice near valleys, low hills, and near streams or underground springs. At first, their rice plots were small. As their needs grew, they expanded these plots by building bigger and longer banks. These early terraced fields gradually led to larger crops. After perfecting this farming method over time, the area devoted to rice was expanded to steeper slopes and higher mountains. To create new land on which to cultivate rice on the sides of hills and mountains, farmers built embankments, creating “walls to hold water”.

Terraced paddies in Sapa, Lao Cai

Farmers use hoes to rake the soil into a bank. With their feet or the backs of their hoes they compress the soil to make the embankment stable. Each field is generally 1 to 1.5m apart.  In the midst of great forests, highland communities cleared the land and built fields high up the sides of seemingly unreachable mountains, creating terraced fields that look like steps on a stairway to heaven.

Year by year, generation by generation, over 300 to 400 years, ethnic groups like the H’mong, Dao, Nung, Ha Nhi etc. formed and developed the heritage left to them by their ancestors, namely a system of terraced fields like excellent artworks among the mountains. As the seasons come and go, during the flooding season, the season of young rice, the season of golden rice, and the harvest, these masterpieces change color.

A farmer tends to her fields in Hoang Su Phi, Ha Giang

In September, as fall comes, another season of golden rice attracts people from far and wide to the highlands. They travel along winding roads with sharp turns that are no longer an obstacle but a challenge to admire the masterpieces of the terraced fields. The Khau Pha Pass (Yen Bai) once again welcomes thousands of visitors who pass by to reach communes high in Mu Cang Chai district, which has long been famous for terraced fields such as La Pan Tan, De Su Phinh, and Che Cu Nha. Right at the foot of the pass, hundreds of paragliders from Vietnam and abroad join the “Flying over the Golden Fields” paragliding festival.

The terraced fields in Sapa also turn golden as fall comes, welcoming tourists and thousands of athletes who participate in a marathon, running through terraced fields and peaceful villages of H’mong people. The soft smooth curves of the terraced fields in Hoang Su Phi also deserve mention when discussing the golden season in Vietnam’s northern mountains. The mountains are majestic yet dreamy, with golden steps extending to the high heavens. These golden fields hold the essence of nature and the pure souls of local people. Visitors who explore the harvest season in these upland regions will leave with unforgettable memories.