Travel two hundred and nineteen miles north west of Hanoi and you will encounter stunning rice terraces that have been sculpted over centuries. Mu Cang Chai is a rural district of Yen Bai Province and a photographer’s paradise.
During the summer, the terraces bulge with ripening rice stems that blanket the hills in a vibrant green and by early autumn, the rice plants have turned a bewitching golden yellow, ready for the harvest. In wintertime, the lonely terraces fill with water, creating cascading rows of reflective infinity pools and then once spring arrives, the terraces are transformed into anthills of activity, as the farmers plant a new crop.
Mu Cang Chai is a six to eight-hour road journey from Hanoi with stretches of hazardous roads through infinite and primeval landscapes, grandiose ranges of mountains and in my opinion the most amazing landscapes of rice-terraced fields to be found in Vietnam. Unlike Sapa, the area of Mu Cang Chai and it’s mountain culture remains raw and untouched, although as the area becomes more popular, tourism will no doubt have an impact, I just hope a balance is found for everyone.
Hiking is by far the best way to see the beauty of the rice terraces and encounter local people, such as the Black H’mong, so unless you speak Vietnamese, hiring a guide will enable you to interact and learn about the culture and you will see some great locations that you may otherwise miss out on.
With the heat and humidity we encountered in September, keeping the photography gear light was a priority, lens wise I took a 24mm – 70mm f/2.8 and a 85mm f/1.4. I found the 85mm the best option as I could use it for portraits (especially in low light inside people’s houses) and the 85mm worked for a lot of the landscapes too. Despite having a good travel tripod, I decided to ditch the tripod to help save weight which enabled me to carry more liquid and some food which I shared with the locals.
On reflection did I get all of the images I envisaged? No, but I enjoyed the experiences which is what I think travel is all about. The weather and time were also out of my control, but I grabbed every opportunity I could photographically. If I were to return to Mu Cang Chai would I do anything differently? I think I would spend more time in the area, but I would still have little control of the weather.