Story: Ngo Quang Minh
Photos: Nguyen Quang Ngoc

As we travel downhill to explore Yen Bai and Ha Giang on the silken days of autumn, the song “The mountain’s love poem” by the late composer An Thuyen fills our car. The harvest reaches full swing here in late September, after other provinces have already finished reaping.

Terraced rice fields in Yen Bai

There is a saying, “Sticky rice of Tu Le, ordinary rice of Muong Lo,” to honor the Northwest’s four great rice-growing valleys: Muong Thanh (Dien Bien), Muong Lo (Yen Bai), Muong Than (Lai Chau), and Muong Tac (Son La). Only a few hours by car from Hanoi, the golden granary of Yen Bai offers many gorgeous destinations that sightseers need at least two days to explore.

National Highway 32 bore us away from the town, past Nghia Lo and Tu Le, before we took a break at the top of Khau Pha Pass and marveled at the endless breathtaking sea of rice below. This very place was chosen as the starting point for “Fly Over the Golden Season” – an annual skydiving festival held when the rice ripens. While the summers are often misty, the autumn skies are clear. From the top of Khau Pha Pass, dubbed the “Horn of the Sky”, you have a bird’s-eye-view of the valleys of Cao Pha and Lim Mong, where towering hills and mountains enfold soft terraced waves of green and gold rice. This unique vista resembles a massive multicolored piece of brocade. Driving on, past the hairpin bends of Khau Pha, we left Van Chan for Mu Cang Chai and experienced a completely different and bustling atmosphere.

Admire Yen Bai's "golden season" from on high

In recent years, the autumn tourist season has attracted droves of visitors to Mu Cang Chai. They come to enjoy the legendary beauty of over 2,000 ha of terraced rice fields in Che Cu Nha, De Xu Phinh, La Pan Tan, and Kim Noi communes. Visitors admire the gentle contours of the terraced rice fields that can only be observed when traveling to the paddies by motorcycle at dawn. In the smoky blue haze of late afternoon, they marvel at the distant hills, which resemble “mam xoi” – large and small mounds of sticky rice. Everywhere, you can see golden grains of rice and witness the vitality of a bumper crop in the highlands.

Wherever we went, the golden sun illuminated each lively scene, from Mong people eagerly carrying rice from the fields to Thai people with deft fingers and shining eyes hard at work harvesting rice. The beauty touched the very depths of my soul. Between the rolling fields, a few simple and solitary thatched houses created charming highlights in a rare scene that can only be witnessed once a year.

Terraced rice fields In Ha Giang

In the autumn, the Northwest is chilly in the mornings, warmer by noon, and cooled by fresh breezes after sunset, reinvigorating visitors who have spent their days exploring the area in search of beautiful moments. Lucky travelers might be able to experience a helicopter flight over Mu Cang Chai, a new and unforgettable way to admire the stunning scenery from on high. From above, the Northwest appears like an original painting where nature and humans coexist in perfect peace and harmony.

We said goodbye to the Northwest and recrossed the pass, now heading for the Northeast, arriving at Hoang Su Phi in Ha Giang, home to the oldest and tallest terraced rice fields in Vietnam. This is the endpoint of the “rice-viewing route” through Vietnam’s northern mountains.

Drivers love to discuss the area’s challenging roads, swapping stories like: “The worst is Su Phi, next is Bac Me…” In contrast, driving in Hoang Su Phi feels peaceful and gentle. Lacking the excitement of Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai or the bustling vibrancy of Sa Pa in Lao Cai, Hoang Su Phi impresses visitors with clouds that float languidly past and embrace the Tay Con Linh Mountains and the endless peaceful terraced fields at its feet.

Whether in faraway places like Ban Phung village near the northern border, or closer spots like Ban Luoc, Ho Thau, and Nam Ty, houses surrounded by fields are lined up one after the other, while the aroma of ripe rice and breezes that whisper of the wilderness entice passersby. Among the 23 communes that comprise Hoang Su Phi, Thong Nguyen is the most famous. Here, the mountains meet the waters of three major streams (the Phin Ho, Nam Ong, and Nam Khoa), which nourish the plains with alluvial deposits that climb halfway up the mountainsides. Thanks to this rich soil, despite the rough terrain, crops grow abundantly, with golden grains weighing down the rice stalks. Thus, Thong Nguyen rice and trays of five-colored sticky rice are famous local specialties, along with the flavorful and long-renowned Shan Tuyet tea.

Terraced paddy fields and mountains in Yen Bai

The history of Hoang Su Phi is closely tied to that of the Dao, Tay, and La Chi people, who have settled on craggy mountainsides and grown crops on near-vertical slopes for countless generations. The local Red Dao community has an interesting custom: a ceremony to summon the spirits of the rice. According to their animistic beliefs, rice plants have a body and a soul. When rice is harvested, threshed, and dried, it is impossible to avoid dropping some grains. Therefore, a ceremony is held to summon the spirits of these rice grains, wish for another bountiful harvest, and express gratitude to the deities of thunder, water, and the fields, who have blessed the villagers by keeping their rice baskets full.

Even though the river of life continues to flow and water keeps rushing downstream, the shape of the river doesn’t change. The mid-lands and the northern mountains swap their coats every autumn, but our emotions, stirred by picturesque nature, remain the same. Every time we were “halfway up a mountain, halfway up a pass”, we felt “so much longing in our souls…” The song is over, but our minds still wander through overlapping clouds on mountains brightened by the smiles of people working in the fields. Flitting past our car’s windows, autumn bid us farewell and reminded us to come back next year.