The Theatre of Rice: Mù Cang Chải

Last updated June 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


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, VietnamThe 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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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Taking a break

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