|Scenic: The view from a coach travelling along passes on the slopes of hills in Nghia Lo town. — VNS Photos Tien Thanh
If you want to see the culture and daily life in Viet Nam's mountainous but spectacular northwestern region, Nghia Lo town in Yen Bai Province is a must-visit destination.
Nghia Lo, with a population of 30,000, is tucked away in a big, flat valley called Muong Lo and offers a lot of experiences to tourists. It is second only to the Muong Thanh valley of Dien Bien Province in terms of size and is surrounded by unlimited chains of mountains.
Reaching the town is itself an exciting experience for anyone who has never set foot in mountainous regions. Whether you take the five-hour coach from Ha Noi or catch a train from Ha Noi to Yen Bai City, the province's capital, and then take a three-hour coach ride, you will experience one of the most unforgettable journeys of your life.
In my opinion, backpackers going to Nghia Lo by coach will have the best opportunity to see the spectacular views of the region. There are ticket booths, but you can also reach the My Dinh Coach Station, and board the coach which displays Nghia Lo as its destination.
|Rustic charm: A booth at the Muong Lo Market sells bamboo wares.
Nghia Lo is just over 200km from Ha Noi but after half-way, the coach winds through passes which zigzag through endless ranges of mountains. With comfortable seats, most coaches look rather new and give you sense of safety. So, the journey begins.
After passing through populous and urbanised towns in the lowland areas, the coach goes through the mountain passes that are up to 1000m above the sea level. Breathtaking views can be seen here.
Sometimes you see the mountain slopes, sometimes the valleys far below, with scattered houses-on-stilts of ethnic minorities. At another section, tea gardens and small streams come into view, an infinite green of trees, bushes and fresh air.
After nearly three hours of feasting your eyes on gorgeous views of a spellbinding nature, you arrive in a huge valley. Nghia Lo Town soon draws your attention, with views of farmers working in paddy fields and vendors on the sidewalk of the road leading to the town.
Being the second largest town in Yen Bai, Nghia Lo's centre quarter is as bustling and vibrant as any other town in the Red River Delta, northern Viet Nam's economic hub, if not more colourful. It is home to various ethnic minorities and was once the biggest trading centre of the northwestern region.
The first place to visit is the Muong Lo Market in the centre of the town. It was once the biggest market in the whole northwestern region and is now the commercial hub of Yen Bai's western region.
A person can buy almost everything he or she needs, such as household goods, ready-made clothes and luxury kitchenware. The most interesting item of the market, which either doesn't exist or is rarely seen in markets in the lowland region, are booths where husbandry tools are piled up.
Strolling along the paths that cross each other like on a chessboard, and much like a miniature version of the famous Dong Xuan Market in Ha Noi, a person can buy hoes, hatchets and machetes, different kinds of baskets and barbed wires for making fences.
"There are decent numbers of foreign tourists visiting the market, most of them Germans and French," said the owner of a booth.
"Most of the tools and equipment used for farming that can be found in the local market are produced by residents from around the region," she said, refusing to give me her name.
"The market becomes even more colourful and vivid in the days approaching Tet when people from all the ethnic groups flock to the town to exchange and trade goods for the year's most important festival," said Nguyen Van Luyen, a local resident.
While the Muong Lo Market sells goods for households and farming, a few hundred metres away down the street is another vibrant market of the same size, selling food, specialties and flowers.
After enjoying a leisurely stroll around the two markets and picking up some local products such as tho cam, a kind of brocade cloth which you can give as a souvenir or gift to your loved ones, it's time to fill your empty stomach with a meal of extremely delicious and cheap organic pig meat, or com lam which is rice cooked in tubes of bamboo or five-colour sticky rice.
In the afternoon, you can rent a motorbike to visit hamlets on the fringes of the town, where a majority of the ethnic minority lives in houses on stilts and grows rice. You can learn about the daily farming activities in paddy fields and the small businesses of local people.
If you visit the Deu hamlet on the first few days of the Lunar New Year, you will have a great opportunity to witness or participate in the Mua Xoe, a unique dance of the Thai ethnic minority. It is performed on a large concrete ground by hundreds of dancers. It's also the right time to enjoy the beauty of Ban, a type of flower in the northwestern region.
Situated a few kilometres from the centre of the town is a hot spring, the water of which is believed to cure arthritis. The spring's warm water allows people to apply it directly. However, the water is still being used by the local people only and has not been tapped for its health benefits yet.
"Many old people in the valley come here to bathe every few days. The water is very good for the health and skin. A person feels as fresh as a daisy and has healthy white skin after they've bathed in the spring water," Pham Tan Hoa said.
"Bathing regularly in the stream for a period of time can cure arthritis for the whole year," Hoa claimed.
From Nghia Lo, you can also visit Suoi Giang, about 12km away, and see the old tea trees which are hundreds of years old.
After taking in everything in Nghia Lo, you can return to Ha Noi or continue your adventure with a long trip through the extraordinary Khau Pha pass further north to visit Mu Cang Chai, 100km away. It has a nationally-recognised vast area of terraced paddy fields. Or you can go to the famous tourist destination Sa Pa, which is around 200km further north. — VNS