A mountain district off the beaten path is home to the same stunning scenery as Sa Pa, but without the kitsch.
A trip to Mu Cang Chai District reminds one of the Robert Frost poem:
"Two roads diverged in a wood/And I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference."
Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai Province, about 350 kilometers from Hanoi and 1,000 meters above sea level, is unique and not well-known to foreign travelers the perfect place to see Vietnam's famous rice terraces drying from green to gold just before the harvest.
While the scenery here is not quite as dramatic as it is in Ha Giang Province's Hoang Su Phi District, it's much closer. Ha Giang involves days of driving treacherous, and sometimes impassible roads, and a guide to help you around areas bordering China. Mu Cang Chai is not too far from Hanoi and getting there is not difficult at all. It can make for a pleasant weekend jaunt.
And where Sa Pa is northern Vietnam's most famous mountain spot, the popularity of the area and the fact that some trails are crowded with tourists has taken away from its charm. But going to Mu Cang Chai is an alternative to both these options: a road less traveled and less strenuous.
Off the beaten path
The two best routes to Mu Cang Chai avoid the less-pleasant major roads and instead traverse quiet countryside.
Route 1: Hanoi Son Tay Town Trung Ha Bridge (crossing over the Da River) Co Tiet crossroads in Phu Tho Province's Tam Nong District Yen Bai Town Mu Cang Chai.
This route offers a wonderful glimpse into the villages along the northern region's largest river, the mighty Da.
Route 2: Hanoi Son Tay Town Trung Ha Bridge Thanh Son District (Phu Tho Province) Van Chan District (Yen Bai Province) Mu Cang Chai.
Along this route are terraced fields and plenty of places to stop and enjoy sticky rice made traditionally by the local Tay Khao in Tu Le Town, Van Chan District. The town also offers unique hot springs where tourists and locals stop for relaxing bathing.
Step by step
Between Tu Le Town and Mu Cang Chai is Cao Pha Commune, home to several ethnic Mong and Thai communities.
The views from the hills above the commune's 200 hectares of terraced rice fields are always striking and draw considerable attention from photographers during the harvest, when the gold of the ready crop plays off the green of the new crop, both of which contrast with the rich reddish brown soil left behind by the harvest.
All this surrounded by rugged green mountains and, if you're lucky, a clear blue sky, or a mysterious and crisp fog.
To reach Mu Cang Chai from Tu Le, the road climbs Cao Pha Mountain to Cap Pha Pass, where cool breezes blow throughout the year. The drive to the top of Cao Pha takes you through a thick mountainside pine forest, a rarity in Vietnam.
There are plenty of spots to rest near the peak to get the best photos of the area.
This route also passes by the communes of Ze Xu Phinh, Che Cu Nha, and La Pan Tan, each of which is home to some of Vietnam's most stunning terraced fields. The steep terraces in the high mountains and valleys are different than the flatter fields of Cao Pha.
This month is the best time to visit Mu Cang Chai, as it's the harvest season and the landscape is at its most lush.
The second best time is in the end of May or early June.
RECOMMENDED THREE-DAY TRIP
FROM HANOI TO MU CANG CHAI
Day 1 from Hanoi to Tu Le: bathe in the hot springs and enjoying sticky rice with local residents. Stay the night in Tu Le.
Day 2 from Tu Le to Mu Cang Chai: sightseeing at Cao Pha, La Pan Tan, Che Cu Nha. Stay the night in Mu Cang Chai.
Day 3 from Mu Cang Chai to Hanoi: more sightseeing on the way back.
Rooms for rent in Mu Cang Chai are priced between VND100,000-180,000 (US$5.6-10) per night.
Contact: Pho Nui Hotel (098 630 8761) or Xom Vang Hotel (091 817 7325).
Prices at Mu Cang Chai are around 20 percent cheaper than those of Hanoi with the same quality services.