Rice terraces at Khau Pha - Tu Le Yen Bai

North West of Vietnam by Motorcycle: Yen Bai

Leaving Muong Than Valley, the road goes up suddenly. The terrain also changes quickly as I make my way into Yen Bai Province. It is over 02:00 P.M now and it has been a wonderful day with breezy and dry air, bright sunshine. I keep riding on through mountain gorges, patches of dense forest... By the road side, a river plays joyful music all the way.

 

Road to Mu Cang Chai
Road to Mu Cang Chai

Near Mu Cang Chai, there are a parts of the road being overhauled that make my journey longer than planned. The town is famed for the mesmerizing rice terraces and ethnic communities with well preserved traditional lifestyle. The local government is beefing up the tourist infrastructure to better meet the increasing number of visitors. New hotels and restaurants are changing the face of the mountain town. Still, there is a serious lack of tourist service during the annual rice festival. 

 

River at Mu Cang Chai TownRiver at Mu Cang Chai Town

 It is half past three now and I wander mindlessly by the riverside to a nearby Thai Village. It is all empty, people must be at work somewhere. It is too early to stay here tonight. It is still the dry season and there are not many rice terraces here just yet. It is better to keep moving on then. I get my motorbike and continue the adventure to Tu Le, another rice heaven 50km away.

 

The Thai Village at Mu Cang Chai
Thai Village at Mu Cang Chai

 It is sunny and dry but the air is cooler here given that the terrain is over 1,000m above sea level. It is a bit off the town center and there are a lot of kids rushing out of schools. It must have been a long day for them, they all look happy going back home. They seem very hungry too, as all seem to be chewing something! They look so cute with food container box slung on their hand. I hope that tourism will bring a better life to the people here and these kids will have a much better future than their parents...

 

Mu Cang Chai TownMu Cang Chai Town

 

Kids at Mu Cang Chai
-Hello, kids! You are all eating something!
-The day has been long and we are very hungry now!

 

Cute boys at Mu Cang Chai

- Hi Dudes! It is good going back home, isn't it?
- It is good that there is no more school for today!

 

Giggling girls at Mu Cang Chai

- Hi Sweeties! Going home now, aren't you! Where is your village?
- Why pointing the camera to us, Old Boy!

 It is fun to have a few minutes playing with them then I bid farewell and head off on my motorbike. These kids make my day in the mountains more of a special one.

The road is good from Mu Cang Chai to Tu Le. There are a lot of high mountains on the way, but the terrain is getting lower. There were forests on these mountains on my last trip here a few years ago. They are all gone now and only barren hills left. Landslides are more often in these areas during the rainy season nowadays.

Mountains at Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai
Mountains at Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai

Sunlight is getting weaker now and I am climbing onto the Khau Pha Pass. It is cold, misty and damp on the top of the pass. Descending the mountain for a while, the mesmerizing rice terraces of Tu Le is gradually coming into view through the haze.

Rice terraces at Tu Le
Rice terraces at Tu Le

In the front, someone has built an observation tower for visitors to have better photos of the terraces. I stop for some relaxing time looking down the valley. The rice has been planted just recently. It is lower altitude here than Mu Cang Chai and the rains come earlier, hence earlier rice crops. The sticky rice at Tu Le is known as having beautiful fragrance and flavor. It is so quiet all around and the fog is getting thicker. I have to make it to the town before dark now.

Stunning rice terraces at a closer viewStunning rice terraces at a closer view

The town is a short ride away and there are a few guest houses only. Not many visitors stop here normally. To my surprise, it is full of people today. Approaching a lady on the road and asking about the event that is taking place, I realize that it is the First Full Moon Celebration. What a nice coincidence then. I didn't expect this really. The wonderful adventure has made me forget all about time.

For most ethnic groups in Vietnam inhabiting in the northern mountains, there are two most important ceremonies in a year: The First Full Moon and the Seventh Full Moon. These are the occasions that everyone comes back to their family for reunion, for new rice ceremonies, for village festivals and for worshiping. They say that every five years, there is an even more important celebration organized by the local government and this is the one. This means that the ethnic groups in the whole region are flocking to this town today and tomorrow then. Wow!

Worshiping at Tu Le
Worshiping at Tu Le

My excitement doesn't last long, however. I receive a phone call that there is some work in Hanoi that I have to go back tomorrow. And worse, the hotels and guest houses in town are fully booked now. Suddenly a lady comes up and asks if I have been looking for accommodation. She has a guest house and someone has canceled their reservation. It is not too bad a day after all. The owner is Kinh but her guest house if of Thai style. She shows me a room to the back on the ground floor. It doesn't smell that nice really, but it is far better than nothing then.

A Thai Village at Tu Le
A Thai Village at Tu Le

I won't have the time to get around here tomorrow and it is getting dark. Still, it is better to have a quick ride around first and get back to town for dinner then. The village is quieter than I thought. Maybe it is too cold and windy that everyone just stays indoors preparing the family night party. The village roads are really bad and it is too dangerous for strangers to ride in the dark; time to get back to town.

Steamed sticky rice at Tu Le
Steamed sticky rice at Tu Le

The little town has more festive an atmosphere with lots of young ethnic folks strolling around. The street shops and restaurants are full of people already. Each restaurant seems to offer a couple of dishes only. I pull in one with sticky rice and chicken. The food is specialty of the area and I love it. There are more guests coming in and the owners are busy cleaning up the tables for the new comers. I have to finish my dinner quickly and get back to the guest house for refreshment and some rest. They say that there is a performance at the festival site tonight and I don't want to miss it.

Thai girls at the festival at Tu Le
Thai girls at the festival at Tu Le

It seems less cold in the evening than earlier in the day. The street is crowded now and the traffic comes to a halt sometimes. Tonight, there is a competition among dancers of different villages in the commune. There are so many people around the stage that I can't get a proper view of what is going on there. Never mind, taking photos of the young girls preparing for their turn is good enough for me. They look like school girls, but a local lady tells me most are married. It is amazing about the people here, isn't it.

Girls preparing for a performance at Tu Le Festival
Girls preparing for a performance at Tu Le Festival

It is almost 9 P.M and some people start going home. My eyes feel heavier and I think I have got enough. It has been a great experience and good time to go to bed now. The guest house is a few hundred meters from the festival site but it is a dark street and very quiet here. I'll have very sound sleep tonight then.

a Thai village at Tu Le after the rain
a Thai village at Tu Le after the rain

Awaken by the sound of heavy rain striking on the roof of the guest house, I feel colder now than last night. It'll be a long day today given that I'll have to travel nearly 250km to Hanoi. If the rain keeps pouring down like this, I'll have a big problem then. Whatever may come, I'll just have to get up and have breakfast first. The rain suddenly stops and the view of the terraces is clear again. There are some Hmong ladies quickly gathering in the front of the guest house. It is nearly half past seven. The festival should have been very crowded by now on a nice day. It is good to start my long journey back to Hanoi now.

Hmong at Tu Le
Hmong at Tu Le

The air is fresh and moist after the rain. The sky is cloudy but it is a clear view of the rice terraces all around. Some villagers are starting to decorate the altars at the festival site for the worshiping ceremony. It is still quiet and the temperature is dropping quickly. There are quite a few young ethnic folks going against me on the road. They must be going to the festival. I'm sure they'll have a great time today.

Road from Tu Le to Nghia LoScenic Road from Tu Le to Nghia Lo

The landscape is more familiar to me as I have had several trips through this region all ready. It is only that it is too cold today that I have to ride very slowly. It is over 10 A.M already that means it took me over one hour and a half to travel the 50km from Tu Le to Muong Lo. Things get cleared up and warmer a bit. Here, farmers have rice crops earlier thanks to lower altitude. There is a hot-spring outside the town, but I have no time today, it is better to move on.

Muong Lo Valley - Nghia LoMuong Lo Valley - Nghia Lo

The road out of Muong Lo goes up. The gradients are steeper with more mountains and ravines by the road side as it goes into Phu Tho Province. The weather seems to get worse and worse with stronger wind and lower temperatures. The road through Phu Tho is mostly in deterioration. I feel for a stretch and stop amid a nice valley in the middle of nowhere. It must have rained quite a lot here recently that  the land is wet and it is so green all around.

Scenic landscape at Phu ThoScenic landscape at Phu Tho

It is in late afternoon now and I'm on Trung Ha Bridge across the Red River between Phu Tho and Hanoi. It starts raining, the typical rain in the Red River Delta in spring. The traffic gets busier as I make my way closer to the city center. Feeling a bit tired and upset a bit by the weather, but I'm so glad that the motorbike trip to the north-western mountains was a wonderful experience. I'm sure the hot food waiting for me at home will make me feel much better very soon...