Mu Cang Chai’s towering terraced rice fields may be less well known – and less touristy– than those of Sapa. But those who’ve seen them swear they’ve caught a glimpse of heaven on earth. That’s why travel site Big 7 Travel named Mu Cang Chai as one of the 50 Most Beautiful Global Destinations. It’s also why an annual paragliding festival is held there during the ‘golden’ harvest season, in late September, attracting those wanting to soar over spectacular scenery.
Situated in Yen Bai, the northeastern province about 300km from Hanoi, Mu Cang Chai lies at the foot of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. There, in deep valleys surrounding the mighty Red River, you’ll see layer upon layer of stunning vertical rice terraces on the steep sides of imposing mountains. These agricultural works of art, the result of centuries of hard work, were ingeniously designed by ancient tribes to control the downward flow of water. In Mu Cang Chai, there are about 2,200 hectares of these rice terraces, 500 of which were named as national heritage sites by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2007.
The soothing, curving shapes they create look like emerald-green steps connecting earth and sky. That’s why many of Mu Cang Chai’s rice-covered hills (especially Mong Ngua and Mam Xoi hills) are popular check-in spots for photographers and social-media influencers.
While these terraces look custom-made for tourism brochures, they’re essential to the survival of the local people. The hills are dotted with the rustic hamlets, houses and homestays of northern hill tribes who’ve thrived here for ages. The Black H’mong, in particular, populate the three main villages in Mu Cang Chai: La Pan Tan, Che Cu Nha and De Xu Phinh. But with a population density of only 53 people per square kilometre, nature abounds.
Of course, the best way to truly appreciate this scenic splendour is from above. That’s why those in the know choose to paraglide over Mu Cang Chai at the annual paragliding festival, which takes place in late September, when the rice glows golden as it’s ripe and ready.
Paragliding is a great option for those who want to feel what it’s like to soar like a bird, but without the adrenaline and risk that comes with skydiving. It’s a far gentler experience. Once you’re in the air, everything goes quiet. As you glide over everyday rural life below, you’re overcome by calm. Time slows, so you can really take in the panoramic views of the swirling slopes, the patchwork pattern of rice paddies, the fields of blooming flowers, the trails of mist floating between the peaks, and the tribal people going about their business in their colourful traditional attire.
The 6th Mu Cang Chai paragliding festival, which takes place from 25 September 2022, is themed ‘flying over golden fields’. That’s because in autumn, when the rice is ready to harvest, it takes on a warm yellow hue, which really stands out against the green mountain outcrops and forest foliage.
Given this epic, otherworldly landscape, Mu Cang Chai is one of Vietnam’s best paragliding spots. Most of the action takes place at the flight point at the top of Mu Cang Chai on Khau Pha mountain pass. At some 1,200-1,500 metres above sea level, this is one of the ‘four great peaks’ of the north west. As you descend the Tolkienesque hills, you’ll be greeted by joyful waves from children from the Lim Mong village below.
Is paragliding one of your bucket-list experiences? Take advantage of this annual event to make sure you tick it off in the most stunning way possible.
The festival is part of a broader events programme that runs right until the end of December, to familiarise tourists with what the Yen Bai region has to offer. There’ll be food and tourism exhibitions as well as a carnival.
Also in Yen Bai in September, there’ll be a televised ceremony at Nghia Lo town’s stadium to honour the Xoe dance, so central to the cultural life of the region’s Thai ethnic communities. In December 2021, the dance was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The ceremony to receive the UNESCO certificate (inscribed ‘Art of Xoe Thai’ as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) will include a massive Xoe dance performance, including more than 2,000 participants.
Sporting events to look forward to include marathon (Mu Cang Chai Ultra Trail). For the ethnic farming communities, there’ll be things like the fastest rice harvesting contest, ploughing and pounding competitions, and fabric decorating challenges. Nature-lovers should try the terrace-discovery and cloud-hunting excursions, or see the ‘to-day’ flower festival.