The soothing colors of nature

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A garden of plum trees in Moc Chau Plateau, the northern province of Son La
PHOTO COURTESY OF TBKTSG

It was late in April, the end of the plum blossom season, in Moc Chau, when my friends and I visited the verdant district in the northwestern province of Son La for the first time.

We set off from the My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi at around 7:30 p.m. and reached Moc Chau, which is about 190 kilometers away, at 2 a.m. or thereabouts. The quiet, peaceful streets and the cool weather (although it was April, it was cold enough to remind us we were at 1,050 meters above the sea level) was a good welcome.

After checking into a "resort" of stilt houses, we indulged ourselves with bowls of hot, instant noodle   soup and vegetables, and tucked ourselves in under warm blankets.

Later that morning, feeling rested, the nine of us rented five motorbikes, each for VND150,000 (US$7.1) per day, and headed to Pa Phach 1, 2, and 3 villages in Dong Sang Commune in search of plum gardens, hoping to see the famous white blossoms in late bloom. 

Adventurous and exciting it was, without doubt, but I have to say it was also a bit scary to ride a bike through narrow paths that zigzagged along mountains with cliffs on one side and deep valleys on the other.

As we covered quite a long distance without spotting any flower, the excitement gradually faded and some disappointment set in. However, a few slopes later, we reached the first village, and were rewarded with the sight of some white flowers among green leaves and thatched roofs of local houses down in the valley.

We continued going up and down slopes, one by one, stopping to take photographs of plum-tree canopies, plum blossoms, white mustard flower fields and peach blossoms. 

Women walked lightly and briskly with bamboo baskets that looked dauntingly heavy on their backs. Children with pink cheeks and dirty hands washed clothes next to a well. Pigs wandered around the village, foraging for food without any sense of urgency.

Choosing a plum canopy for shelter, we had our lunch, and chatted and rested for about two and half hours before resuming the trip.

But, instead of going further to visit the third village of Pa Phach as planned, we decided to return and head to the tea estates in Moc Chau Town, founded in 1958.

 GETTING THERE     

From Hanoi, you can get to Moc Chau by motorbike. Go along Nguyen Trai Street in Thanh Xuan District, and then take National Road 6. The route is straight and is quite easy but pay attention to the weather. It is best to go on sunny days. Foggy and drizzly days demand a lot of caution while driving.

It takes five-six hours to reach Moc Chau driving at a stretch, not an advisable thing to do.

Or, take a bus from the My Dinh Bus Station or the Son La guest house on Nguyen Trai Street, Thanh Xuan District. Ticket prices range between VND130,000-190,000 ($6.14-8.98).

For accommodation: Huong Sen Hotel and Cong Doan Hotel, both located in the center of Moc Chau Town, are popular among tourists. The stilt house resort we stayed in costs VND1 million ($47.72) per night, but a house can accommodate around ten people. Contact Ms. Huong at 0912 351 186.

For eating: Restaurant 64 and Restaurant 70, which are five seven kilometers from Moc Chau Town's T-intersection, are famous and recommended. Or, choose small restaurants around the town. A meal costs VND70,000-100,000 ($4.25-4.72) a person.

The hills were vast and carpeted in green, as were large prairie-looking land for cows and goats to graze on. Amidst that immense green, a field of white mustard flowers that we came up on evoked some happy screams from some of us, for some strange reason.

It got dark quite quickly in Moc Chau, followed by a rapid change in weather as the mists rolled in. We hurried back to our resort, regretting that we had not spent enough time on the farm.

That night, instead of having instant noodles as we'd done the previous night, we had bê chao (deep-fried veal) a must-try food for people who visit the plateau.

The dish is cooked simply: veal is cut into pieces and seasoned for some five-ten minutes before being put into a hot pan full of oil.

But, whether it is delicious or not depends much on the cook's skill in frying it. The frying must not happen for too long or too short a time so that the meat keeps its taste and does not get tough. The cook's signature lies in the dip which is soya sauce mixed with other ingredients.

For the dinner, we also had fresh rau cải mèo a leafy vegetable usually grown and eaten by the Mong ethnic people. Also, măng Ä‘ắng (bitter bamboo sprouts) another specialty of ethnic communities in northern mountainous areas. It is not easy to eat for those who are having it for the first time, but once you get familiar with it, you will find the sweet-bitter taste that slightly numbs your tongue tip addictive.

And, lastly, gà đồi chickens that are let to wander the hills in the northern provinces and known for their great tasting meat.

One of the things I noticed during the meals in Moc Chau was that there was always the dish of tofu served with tomato sauce. I planned to ask a restaurant owner about it, but forgot to do so.

The last morning, we visited the Dai Yem Waterfalls in Muong Sang Commune before taking a bus at noon to return to Hanoi.

Dai Yem has two cascades each 100 meters high. One has nine levels and the other has five. They are around 200 meters apart and divided by a piece of land, so it is easy to get from one waterfall to the other.

We also visited the Thong Hills with its pine tree forests, reminding strongly of Da Lat, the famed central Vietnam hill resort.

After lunch, we packed up and left. While waiting for the bus at a street café, one of us bought yogurt made from goat milk another must-try in Moc Chau. It tasted moderately sweet and fatty, and smelled good.

As the bus went its way, we caught the last glimpses of Moc Chau the winding road between the district and Hoa Binh Province, green mountains and reeds swaying in the wind, everything brightened by the afternoon sun.

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