Rice harvest, Mu Cang Chai, Vietnam

Theatre of Rice: Mù Cang Chải

Last updated June 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

This post was last updated 5 years ago. Please check the comments section for possible updates, or read more on my Updates & Accuracy page.


Every year, between September and October, the terraced rice fields of Mù Cang Chải, a rural district in northern Vietnam’s Yên Bái Province, put on a show of picturesque harvest colours. In the fresh, dew-drenched dawn, hundreds of stepped rice paddies, carved into the contours of steep valleys, are illuminated by the autumn sun. The gold-green and toast-brown colours of the ripe rice are luminous. The curving terraces, although man-made, appear to be in complete harmony with the landscape, creating a hypnotic patterning across the hills and valleys. I call this spectacle the ‘Theatre of Rice’. Although extremely well-known among domestic travellers and Asian tourists, strangely Mù Cang Chải doesn’t get a mention in many popular English-language guidebooks. A good way to see the ‘show’ is to ride or drive along the scenic section of Highway QL32 between the small towns of Tú Lệ to Mù Cang Chải, via the lofty Khau Pha Pass. I call this the ‘Harvest Route’, covering 50km of picture-book scenery, which, in the right weather conditions, will fill your camera’s memory card within minutes.

The Rice Terraces of Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai, Vietnam

The rice terraces between Mu Cang Chai & Tu Le in Yen Bai Province, northern Vietnam

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On this page, I’ve made a photo-essay of an early morning ride through the Theatre of Rice, including my annotated map of the Harvest Route with accommodation, food, and places of interest marked on it. Be warned that the area is very popular these days: on the weekends between spring and autumn it can get very crowded indeed. There are now loads of guest houses and homestays lining the Harvest Route, particularly around Tú Lệ and Mù Cang Chải towns. However, there are quieter, more scenic homestays on the back-roads either side of the main road, which are well-worth taking the time to explore. Rice and noodle eateries can be found in all the villages, and homestays provide home-cooked meals for guests. There are several viewing platforms and photography points along the route; there’s even paragliding available off the top of the Khau Pha Pass. The Theatre of Rice is best seen on your own two wheels: if you don’t already have a motorbike or bicycle, they can usually be rented from your accommodation. Hiring a car and driver from Sapa and making an overnight trip to Mu Cang Chai is another good option. For travellers without wheels, there are local public buses that ply Highway QL32 between all the main towns.


Theatre of Rice: Mu Cang Chai District, Yen Bai Province

View in a LARGER MAP

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Time: 6:30am

The dawn sun creeps over the valley walls, shedding light on the rice terraces.

First light of dawn

Time: 6:45am

The early sun turns the rice a pale toast-brown.

Warm early light on the rice

Time: 7:00am

Women, most of whom are from one of Vietnam’s 50 ethnic minorities, make their way into the fields to begin a morning of work that often starts with a long walk.

Work begins in the fields

Time: 7:15am

By now the morning sun fills the whole valley, revealing the extent of the rice terraces.

The sun-filled valley

Time: 7:30am

Small huts dot the landscape offering shelter and storage space for farmers during the harvest.

Shelter & storage huts

Time: 7:45am

Work begins in the fields. A local woman stands atop a rice terrace, looking down to the river in the valley below.

A minority woman in the fields

Time: 8:00am

Seen from the Khau Pha Pass, the terraces look like a ‘rice glacier’, slowly sliding down the hillside.

View from the Khau Pha Pass

Time: 8:15am

As it gets later, you’ll find you’re not the only spectator enjoying the ‘rice show’.

Other 'spectators'

Time: 8:30am

While others watch, work in the fields goes on, with only rudimentary machinery and buffaloes to help.

Hard work & no machinery

Time: 8:45am

This is the real star of the show: rice. Vietnam is one of the world’s five largest exporters of the grain.

Star of the show: rice

Time: 9.00am

The sun is higher now. The dew has gone but a morning chill lingers. The colours get warmer; even if the air doesn’t.

Higher sun, warmer colours

Time: 9:15

Mid-way through their morning’s work, these women enjoy a break, before the harvest continues throughout the heat of the day.

Taking a break

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Leave a Comment

Questions, updates and trip reports are all welcome. However, please keep comments polite and on-topic. See commenting etiquette for details.

  1. PEDRO PADINHA says:
    April 10, 2023 at 5:10 PM

    Hey Tom! great work first of all. thanks a lot.

    a few questions, I’m coming from hanoi and just wanna motorbike between those two dots. i should take the train (hanoi – yen bai) + bus from (yen bai to tu le). since i want to ride a motorbike between Tu Le – MCC, I’m wondering to do a round trip (not that bad, because things look different riding both directions and I’m increasing probabilities of getting nice photos). renting a moto in tu le, going to mu cang chai and coming back? does it looks it makes sense? any other option let me know. then i should make the same public transport backwards? (been to sapa some years ago already)

    I think it’s also not worth it starting in MCC, because the bus should do the route (tu le – MCC). I have a motorbike license but not that much experience and coming with a backpack i think it’s wiser not to do hanoi – MCC. at this stage connecting the dots should be enough for me to make me happy 🙂 thanks a lot!

    1. Tom says:
      April 11, 2023 at 1:28 AM

      Hi Pedro,

      Yes, I think your plan is a good one. Take the train from Hanoi to Yen Bai, then a bus to Tu Le, then rent a motorbike in Tu Le and ride to Mu Cang Chai and back to Tu Le again (that route is worth seeing twice, so riding there and back is fine!) 🙂

      And, yes, I think you’re right that if you don’t have much riding experience, then riding all the way from Hanoi is not a good idea.



  2. Greg says:
    January 23, 2021 at 12:43 PM

    Hi Tom
    I enjoyed your post.
    Can you describe the precise starting point of the tour route shown on your map?
    Can this route be done by walking, biking, or by car
    What is the length of the full route?

    1. Tom says:
      January 25, 2021 at 3:49 AM

      Hi Greg,

      The route on my map in this guide is along a paved road so it’s best to either ride it by motorbike, bicycle or car (at 50km long it’s a bit too far to walk). The start and end points are small towns: Mu Cang Chai and Tu Le.



  3. Ian says:
    June 10, 2018 at 8:05 AM

    I used this article as a guide to inform my last trip to VN in Oct 2017. I spent a few days riding this route and then across to Dien Bien Phu. If it wasn’t for Tom and the Vietnam Coracle I wouldn’t have been aware of this and the timing, it was fantastic. Thanks Tom! Ian

    1. Tom says:
      June 10, 2018 at 8:24 AM

      Hi Ian,

      Thank you, it’s great to hear you got to see it and that you enjoyed the rest of the ride northwest all the way to Dien Bien Phu – it’s a really scenic area!


  4. Bart says:
    March 2, 2018 at 7:14 AM

    Hi Tom,

    Great website you have, I have used it extensively since I am living in Vietnam. Done the northern loop and will be doing the golden loop combined with the limestone routes at the beginning of April.

    I was hoping you could give some advice on the last weekend of April, the long holiday weekend up until Tuesday May 1st. Thinking of driving to Mu Cang Chai, but wondering if that time is a good time to go there, or if it will still be quite dry. Do you think the paddies will be filled with water yet? I know the rice will not have been planted by then, but just wondering if the fields are dry or filled up yet. If you know this, that would be very helpful.

    If Mu Cang Chai isn’t a good idea that weekend, do you have other suggestions for a nice motorbike loop starting from Hanoi? (been to Mai Chau as well:) )

    Thanks a lot.

    1. Tom says:
      March 3, 2018 at 2:41 PM

      Hi Bart,

      I think the scenery would look fine at that time of year, although I don’t know exactly what stage the rice will be at. But the problem with visiting on a public holiday is that Mu Cang Chai and the surrounding area will be packed with domestic tourists. The popular viewing points for the rice fields attract thousands of visitor these days, so if possible I would save your trip to Mu Cang Chai for another time; if not, just make sure you book your accommodation in advance.

      Pu Luong Nature Reserve is a wonderful place too, but I assume you’ve been since it’s close to Mai Chau. The homestays along the southeast shores of Thac Ba Lake, in Vu Linh, make a good break from Hanoi for a couple of days. Bac Son, too, is very nice. But, again, expect a fair amount of crowds in these places if visiting over the holiday period.

      I hope this helps,


  5. Franc says:
    April 27, 2017 at 5:56 PM

    Hi Tom,
    I just came across your site and I found it very useful indeed. I will be travelling to Vietnam in July and I really have a dilemma: Mu Cang Chai or Sapa? Which is best in your opinion? I am particularly interested in seeing impressive rice terrace valleys and stunning landscapes to take photographs. Going to Sapa would be much easier for me because I am traveling solo and I don’t want to ride a motorbike, so I can easily go on an organized tour from Hanoi, but I have read it has become too crowded with tourists and that it is not as spectacular anymore. As for Mu Cang Chai, there isn’t as much information on line, but from your pictures and some other pictures I found on line, it really looks amazing.
    What is your opinion on how the two compare and which one would you choose?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. Tom says:
      April 28, 2017 at 3:38 AM

      Hi Franc,

      I think it would be much easier for you to go to Sapa than Mu Cang Chai. Sapa is easy to get to and, despite being ruined by development and crowds, is still a beautifully situated town. Make sure you get a room with a balcony and a good view. The vistas from town are great but you can also take a trip to the Tram Ton Pass (just 30 minutes away) for more fabulous views.

      Mu Cang Chai is a very small place famous for one thing: rice terraces. You could even make a day/night trip there from Sapa if you wanted.

      I hope this helps,


  6. Eshita says:
    July 18, 2016 at 4:08 PM

    I wish to visit the northern highlands of Vietnam, mainly Sapa plus covering areas like Mù Cang Chải and some more from Hanoi. My plan is somewhere around first 2 weeks of August, but I am not sure if its a good idea at that time of the year. Can you recommend which places will be good to visit in around mid August.

    1. Eshita says:
      July 18, 2016 at 4:18 PM

      I missed Ninh Binh, plan to stay there as well

      1. Tom says:
        July 18, 2016 at 4:36 PM

        Hi Eshita,

        You might want to take a look at my Vietnam Weather guide to get an idea of what the weather will be like in the north in August. It’s the rainy season, but that certainly doesn’t mean it rains all the time: mornings are usually sunny, and August is great for colours in the rice fields.


  7. Kellie says:
    April 18, 2016 at 12:19 PM

    Hey~~Great article! I’m going here next week– I hope the place is still photo-worthy!

    I was hoping for your suggestion- I’ll have almost 2 full days there (getting in on a morning, and leaving the following late night)…I want to rent a bike and drive all around these places you mentioned…do you think I should sleep in Mu Cang Chai or the Tu Le town? I’d enjoy staying in a town if there is much to see at night/not-to-miss food or something– or I’d be happy in a very sleepy town too, if it’s special…can you help me choose which place so I can try to book a room!?

    1. Tom says:
      April 18, 2016 at 2:16 PM

      Hi Kellie,

      Staying in either Mu Cang Chai or Tu Le is fine. Mu Cang Chai is a little bit more touristy than Tu Le. Both towns have nhà nghỉ (local guest houses), and decent street food. And both towns are in a pretty valley next to a river. The ride between the two towns is great and it should still look good near the end of April.

      I hope you enjoy it.


  8. Max says:
    March 26, 2016 at 3:16 PM

    We just finished this route going west, and it was amazing. Around this time the rice is starting to grow, so you’ll see more paddies of water with green sprinkles of sprouts than full rice paddies. You won’t see them turn yellow until late May is what I am constantly told. You can also visit in early October, when the rice will be grown and yellow again, plus there will be flower blossoms in villages like La Pán Tẩn – popular with native tourists. We found ourselves spending a night in the middle of the drive, so we stayed in La Pán Tẩn instead of making the push for Mù Cang Chải. If you’re an adventurous traveler you can wander off highway 32 a few kilometers north towards the village. Look for a hotel being built with a green roof – across the street is an honest mechanic, Nam. Ask him if you could stay the night, and he or his friend up the street will host you for a very reasonable price. There will be dinner, all the rice wine you can drink, and karaoke! A decidedly local experience that is very off the beaten track. Very limited English is spoken, so bring a Viet friend or a lot of determination. The village has some great views.

    1. Tom says:
      March 27, 2016 at 6:35 AM

      Hi Max,

      Thanks for sharing your experience of this route. Yes, late spring to early autumn (just before the harvest) is the best time to visit for colours. The photos in the above guide were all taken in mid September on a crisp, clear, cool morning.

      I’d like to get there in early spring someday to see the blossoms that you mention.


  9. Martin Byrne says:
    October 24, 2015 at 12:40 AM

    I was wondering if you could please give me som e information.
    I will be arriving with my partner to Dien Bien Phu on the 19th May 2016.
    I wish to travel to Mu Cang Chai, Mai Chau and then to Hanoi.
    Is there a bus from Dien Bien Phu to Mu Cang Chai?
    Is there a bus from Mu Cang Chai to Mai Chau?
    If there are buses do you know the times of these buses?
    If there are no buses, is there any other way of travelling on these particular routes?
    Kind regards

    1. Tom says:
      October 25, 2015 at 8:13 AM

      Hi Martin,

      There may be buses between those destinations, but if there are they will almost certainly be local buses, in which case you will probably have to find the times and details once you’re in Dien Bien Phu, or at least in Vietnam.

      You can hire a car and driver to take you between these destinations. It’s a beautiful drive so you will probably want to stop along the way to take in the views. Hiring a car a driver through a hotel in Dien Bien Phu shouldn’t be too difficult, and the cost would be around $50-100 a day.

      You can certainly find buses running between Dien Bien Phu and Mai Chau (even the big tour buses will drop you at the intersection with highway 6, from where it’s a 10 minute ride by motorbike taxi to Mai Chau).

      I hope this helps,


  10. Jimmy says:
    July 26, 2015 at 8:26 AM

    You’ve got a beautiful website and very thorough information. This site really needs to be on page 1 of Google.

    1. Tom says:
      July 27, 2015 at 12:35 AM

      Thanks, Jimmy.
      Well, my site is slowly making its way up the Google rankings, so we’ll see 🙂

  11. Jessica says:
    May 21, 2015 at 2:23 AM

    Hi Tom

    Beautiful photos! I was wondering if you have been to Mai Chau and how it compares? Also how easy is it to get to from Hanoi? Can you drive all the way from Hanoi?

    1. Tom says:
      May 22, 2015 at 1:59 AM

      Hi Jessica,

      Yes, Mai Chau is also very nice and easily accessible from Hanoi. It’s about 150km from Hanoi by motorbike and very much doable in one day. Mai Chau is in a beautiful valley. Most people stay in stilt house homestays. However, it has became very popular and sometimes crowds can be a problem. Read more about Mai Chau and the journey there in Section 1 of this motorbike guide.

      Also near Mai Chau is Pu Luong Nature Reserve, which is very beautiful and full of great homestays. Read more here.


  12. Tony says:
    March 3, 2015 at 4:52 AM

    Hi Tom,

    Can you give me an idea of the best route to follow from Yen Bai city to Mu Cang Chai by motorbike? And what are the roads like?


    1. Tom says:
      March 3, 2015 at 11:06 AM

      Hi Tony,

      If you’re coming from Yen Bai take Road QL37 to Ba Khe. Turn right onto Road QL32 towards Nghia Lo. Stay on Road QL32 which takes you all the way through the rice terraces to Mu Cang Chai. Have another look at the introduction and map in this article too. The roads are fine, there’s a little bit of construction on both roads but it shouldn’t be enough to spoil it – at least it wasn’t when I was last there in October 2014.

      Hope you enjoy it.


      1. Tony says:
        March 4, 2015 at 5:01 AM

        Thanks a lot, Tom.

  13. Rafa says:
    January 31, 2015 at 10:10 PM

    Hi Tom,

    I will be there Mid/End of March. Do you know what colour the rice terraces have in this season? Is there any green, or just mud and brown?


    1. Tom says:
      February 1, 2015 at 12:05 AM

      Hi Rafa,

      Technically that’s spring so there should be more than mud and brown, but it can still be pretty chilly and wet at that time of year, so it’s difficult to say what it will be like. I’d say it the weather looks good then it’s worth a trip.


  14. Frank says:
    November 30, 2014 at 8:47 AM

    Hi Tom,
    Great Site!
    I am a photographer and I intend to stay in Tú Lệ town and from there visit the right terraces. I will be there in December.
    I would like to shoot some photos very early in the morning.
    How long is the journey from Tú Lệ to the rice terraces and the Khau Pha Pass?
    I do not ride motorbikes, so I was thinking of hiring a local driver – is that possible?

    1. Tom says:
      December 1, 2014 at 3:34 AM

      Hi Frank,
      Tu Le town is just a few kilometres from the Khau Pha Pass. You should be able to arrange a driver from one of the guesthouses (nha nghi) in Tu Le town.
      I hope the weather is suitable for photography!

  15. dmiri says:
    October 9, 2014 at 6:40 AM

    What kind of weather should I expect if I am traveling Saigon to Dien Bien Phu in early February?

    Damiri (DMT XT)

    1. Tom says:
      October 9, 2014 at 3:10 PM

      Cold! Drizzling rain too, expect. I’m sure there are plenty of brisk clear days too 🙂

  16. Tuc says:
    October 2, 2014 at 4:41 PM

    Thank you for showing this part of the country. I enjoy your pictures, blogs, guides and insights of Việt Nam.

    Very nice,


    1. Tom says:
      October 3, 2014 at 1:45 AM

      Thanks, Tuc.