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.
On the southern slope of the Magura Codlea sits a small Transylvanian village called Holbav. Although Holbav is only about 25km away from Brasov City, it feels like you have stepped back in time.
Holbav is a world away in relation to Brasov which is what makes it so appealing to me. Not much seems to have changed in Holbav over the last 100 years, there is still no electricity, no running water and none of the other comforts taken for granted in the modern Europe most of us live in.
I think Holbav represents what Romania must have been like a long time ago, and this was what I wanted to photograph.
I had read about a photographer named Vlad who lives in Brasov and discovered that I could hire him as a guide, to be honest I was not sure what to expect, but after looking at his photographs I was hooked.
As Fran & I did not have a car in Brasov getting to Holbav would have been difficult and as I cannot speak Romanian, it would have been impossible. I did not understand where to go, so we took a punt and hired Vlad as a guide.
Vlad met us in Brasov’s main square and as we walked to his car, we talked about rural Romania and photography, it became clear that Vlad was passionate about the places and people he photographs and this only made the journey more enjoyable and valuable as he told me about his Romania.
We passed what was Holbav and then continued onto a dirt track road where we passed local people with horses and carts until we came to a small tree lined valley where Vlad parked the car.
We walked up a steep dirt path in to the woods and walked for about 40 minutes until I could see a clearing ahead, Vlad then said “see that shack on the ridge, that’s where we are meeting Anna and her husband”.
As we approached the ridge, a dog barked and I could see a figure waving in the distance. The scenery was amazing even though it was overcast I kept thinking this is such an incredible place. When we arrived at what was a small holding Anna & Peter came to meet us, Anna then lead us along a steep ridge where there was a cow grazing and Vlad translated, “Anna his bringing in the cow for the night” As Anna walked with the cow, I took images as we followed her back to the small holding where there were goats, chickens, cats and the dog, together with a calf, it was a photographic paradise for me.
After taking more photographs they invited in us to Annas home, where she offered us fresh milk, cheese and other food. Vlad translated my questions and thoughts and although I could not speak a word of Romanian and Anna not a word of English, I felt like I knew Anna and had a connection. I heard some hilarious stories and some sad facts about how their way of life is dying out as young people leave rural Romania for life’s modern trappings.
The one thing that struck me, was how happy they both seemed, undoubtedly their life is hard and their material possessions limited, but they had something that was special and to me priceless.
I don’t remember how long we stayed, but after sampling home made Cherry brandy (Holbav Moonshine) it was time to head back to the car. As we left and walked back along the ridge admiring the vistas, I realised how lucky I was to have had such a great experience and to have met two very remarkable people and invited in to their lives and home. I also realised how lucky I was to have Fran and share such a magical experience.
We live in fast changing times and as Anna stated their way of life is dying, so it will disappear one day and I am pleased I have witnessed it before it vanishes.
What made Holbav and the people so special? Find out for yourself, it is the only way.