Story: Le Anh
Photos: Hong Ha, Ba Ngoc, Viet Khanh
Throughout the highland provinces of the North, from east to west, clouds gather around high mountains
It is hard, if not impossible, to resist the charm of Vietnam’s majestic natural landscapes. The union of sky and mountains gives us miraculous moments. Travelers are mesmerized by mountains hidden among clouds, clouds hovering over mountains, and those moments when their sight is clouded.
Is there a season called the “cloud season”? Indeed, for then the clouds are simply breathtaking. Late autumn, early winter and early spring are the best times of year to watch clouds over Vietnam’s northern mountains. After the harvest season, characterized by golden rice paddies ripening on the hillsides, we enter the cloud season. The northern mountains beckon. Over forested mountains, rivers, streams and valleys, the sun bursts through the clouds, and fog forms when the temperature rises after a chilly night.
Clouds cast themselves nonchalantly over distant mountain ranges or form vast seas over heavenly valleys. Throughout the mountainous provinces of the North, from east to west, the clouds hang off high mountains. If you don’t have much time, Tam Dao (Vinh Phuc) and Lung Van (Hoa Binh), the rooftop of the lands of the Muong ethnic group, are great places to hunt for clouds. While these destinations lie less than 100km from Hanoi, cloud hunters will feel satisfied when they eventually find white clouds.
The longer the distance you’re willing to travel, the more options you have. Each destination arouses unique emotions, inspiring travelers to continue their journey and seek more of nature’s beauty. Sa Pa and Y Ty (Lao Cai), Ta Xua (Son La), Sin Ho (Lai Chau) and the four great passes – Khau Pha (Yen Bai), Ma Pi Leng (Ha Giang), O Quy Ho (Lao Cai) and Pha Din (Son La-Dien Bien) are top destinations for cloud-hunting. Hailed as a ‘City in the Mist’, Sa Pa has a landscape like a painting with forested mountains where ethnic minority people live among the clouds.
Clouds hover over the distant Hoang Lien Son range and flood through the windows overlooking the Muong Hoa Valley. Clouds sweep away your daily concerns, rendering you breathless. How can you not be drawn to Y Ty Commune (Bat Xat District, Lao Cai Province) when you hear it introduced as “where the Red River flows into the territory of Vietnam”, conveying the sacredness of the local mountains and rivers?
Your first experience of letting your mind wander in a garden of clouds will leave you wanting more. Y Ty is dubbed ‘Cloud Paradise’ for a reason, although it is a roller coaster journey to get there. Located approximately 450km from Hanoi, the difficult final miles feature countless heart-pounding sharp bends. The reward is the overwhelming grandeur of mountains blanketed in white clouds stretching as far as the eye can see. Clouds drift around clay mushroom-shaped houses in a village of ethnic Ha Nhi people. A billowing sea of clouds floods the mountain slopes in front of your eyes. Against the tranquility of this cloud paradise, colorful brocade dresses dance with the steps of H’Mong women, making your heart flutter. If the long distance to Y Ty seems disheartening, Ta Xua Commune (Bac Yen District, Son La Province) is manageable as it lies just over 200km from Hanoi. Known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’ among locals, Ta Xua is hidden by mist and clouds year round. On nice cloudy days, a spectacular sea of cottony clouds can be viewed from high above. Though they only exist for a few minutes, these cloud seas form magical milestones on one’s cloud-hunting journey.
Many cloud-hunting destinations cannot be reached by road. Backpackers blaze the trail to uncharted and untouched cloud-hunting wonders, where there is nothing but adventurous souls and white clouds floating freely.