|Graceful curve: Looking up, looking down, Mu Cang Chai is picture perfect from all angles. — VNS Photo Bui Dieu Minh
As autumn unfolds and rice plants reach their peak ripeness, fields across northern Viet Nam are slowly turning their signature golden yellow. Now's the perfect time to tour across the region and see them. Nguyen My Ha reports.
The autumn months of September and October are notable in the north of Viet Nam because this is when the paddy fields of the north are at their ripest. This is when the clusters or panicles of ripe rice grain are so heavy that they hang over the top of the plant and farmers ready themselves to harvest the main rice crop of the year. Everywhere from Mu Cang Chai district in Yen Bai Province to the terraced paddies in Ha Giang Province on the China border, the landscape is carpeted in golden yellow.
This is the time of year when harvest-festival fever grips the country and tourists flock to the rich agricultural hinterland of the north.
|Happy days: An older woman sews clothing at the helm of the house. She smiles when asked if she could be photographed. — VNS Photo Bui Dieu Minh
During the Muong Lo Festival, 4,000 people attended the opening day alone to witness the "Flying over the Golden Harvest" by the Parachute Club.
"This is a joyous occasion," said Trieu Viet Phuong, a tourism expert in Yen Bai. "The road to Mu Cang Chai was blocked for a few hours."
During the last two weeks of September, thousands of Vietnamese visited the terraced paddies of La Pan Tan, Che Cu Nha and De Xu Phinh communes, which have been officially recognised as national heritage for their scenic beauty.
According to provincial government's website, from January to September 2014, 300,500 people visited Yen Bai, of whom 14,500 were foreign, spending around VND126 billion (US$5.6 million).
"Mu Cang Chai is full of happy people," said Bui Dieu Minh, who toured the region last weekend. "They are all full of joy and were happy for me to take their photos."
Located about 300km from Ha Noi, remote Mu Cang Chai was once associated with poverty and backwardness. I remember visiting a childhood friend whose aunt had been assigned to teach in Mu Cang Chai. Anyone witnessing her tearful send-off might have thought she'd been given a one-way ticket to the moon.
During the harvest festival, Mu Cang Chai's dozen or so hostels and community stilt houses host up to a thousand visitors at a time.
"[Other] visitors have to go to Nghia Lo, a town 40km away to stay," said Phuong from the tourism office.
I asked Phuong: "Is this a lot of people to handle? Would you prefer that there were fewer visitors so things were more manageable?"
"No," he said aghast. "We want more people to know about our beautiful countryside and to spread the word about how hospitable we are."
|Year of the Goat: Remember the story about two goats trying to pass a bridge and both fell off it? See the lantern version of the story here. — VNS Photo My Ha
People across Viet Nam are aware of Mu Cang Chai's scenic beauty, but Yen Bai Province is still one of the poorest in Viet Nam. A Vietnamese visitor to the province told me she had visited a school in Mu Cang Chai.
"The teachers there said they'd welcome any help in the form of clothing for the school children, textbooks and notebooks, colouring books and pens.
"I was moved when she said the children's lunches would be more nutritious if there were sesame seeds and peanuts!"
The province's poverty goes largely unnoticed by tourists who come for the harvest festivals and the golden views.
Phuong said it would be nice if tourists delved a little deeper into the lives of the locals. If they did so, they'd see so much more.
Ten years ago, people of Tuyen Quang Province decided to celebrate the Harvest festival - which this year coincided with the Mid-Autumn festival, the second most important holiday after Lunar New Year festival - with floats and lanterns. Since then, each ward of Tuyen Quang City is responsible for making its own giant lantern, which is then wheeled through the city on a float. It is a uniquely local tradition, which has since been officially recognised.
The highlight of the festival falls on the 13th and 14th day of the eighth lunar month. This is when the crowds are at their thickest. In a bid to avoid the crush, we visited the city a week earlier, while the rehearsals were in full swing in the town centre.
"The lanterns are so beautiful!" exclaimed a visitor from Ha Noi. "What an amazing community spirit."
Along the street, giant lanterns were being built. On a narrow bridge we saw two goat lanterns struggling to pass one another. At one point it looked as if they were actually butting one another - what better way is there to mark the Year of the Goat!
Another giant goat lantern stood before a Dong Son brass drum lantern. The Hang Nga Moon Fairy was holding moon cakes in her arms while standing on a float in the shape of Viet Nam map.
|On the road: A family of four travel on one motorbike, just like their fellow countrymen in big cities down in the lowland. — VNS Photo Bui Dieu Minh
There was also a carnival float celebrating the battle of Dien Bien Phu, while another bore a representation of President Ho Chi Minh
The trip to Tuyen Quang City was long and arduous, particularly for our children, whose ages ranged from 20-months to 11 years. But we found a nice hotel near a hot spring and a great paddling pool about a 15-minute ride from the city. After a hot and cold dip, we all felt refreshed, and were unfazed by the poor state of the changing rooms and the showers - to say nothing of the service. The one downside was that one of our kids, who was not wearing swimming goggles, later developed an eye infection.
Across the north, there are various hot springs with accompanying swimming facilities. Unlike the world famous spas in Turkey and Hungary, or Japan and South Korea in Asia, the hot spring baths here have not been developed into resorts and are left wanting when it comes to comfort. The most popular by far is in Kim Boi District in Hoa Binh, but smaller less-visited springs are dotted around the north of Viet Nam, and often fail to get a mention on TripAdvisor.
|Chasing beauty: Those who want to capture the golden beauty of the terraced fields in Hoang Su Phi of Ha Giang Province should now move up to the northernmost mountains. — VNA/VNS Photo Do Binh
The travel website recommends the My Lam Hot Spring Health Centre, which is just 13km from Tuyen Quang City centre.
We, however, opted for the privately run Ngoc Ha Spa, which has two pools and is more suitable for children. Another privately run spa that is also popular with visitors can be found at the A Chau Hotel.
According to the website, Ngoc Ha Spa has mud baths, but when we turned up we were told they'd run out of mud! To our relief, the hot spring paddling pools had water. There were also private hot tubs for VND80,000 (US$4) each. We saw one woman sporting Salonpas pain-relief patches on her neck. We met her later, when she told us the pain had gone.
But a visit to the mountainous north of Viet Nam need not just be for health purposes. Even if you are as fit as a fiddle or in the pink of health, a visit to the mountainous north of the country, whether to the terraced paddies of Ha Giang (and the most northerly point of the country in Dong Van) or the golden glory of Yen Bai Province will leave feeling on top of the world. — VNS