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All about Mu Cang Chai

Mu Cang Chai (Mù Cang Chải) is a mountainous district in Yen Bai Province, locating approximately 280 kilometers from Hanoi. This place is widely well-known for its breathtaking terrace fields. In every harvesting season, thousands of visitors across the country pour to Mu Cang Chai for this unique scenery. If you have never been to this place, we highly recommend you to immediately pack your bag and be right on the road, as you will never regret of your time spent there.

harvest time in Mu Cang Chai

harvest time in Mu Cang Chai

Best season to visit Mu Cang Chai?
Although the normal scenery of Mu Cang Chai is not very distinctive from other places, there are two particularly outstanding seasons which is really a must for your trip:
• Harvesting season falls from mid-September to mid-October.
During this time, Mu Cang Chai is exclusively covered with bright yellow paddy fields. As the weather is also favorable, your trip to visit this place is nothing but convenient.
• From May to June is the season of pouring water.
This is the rainy season when summer rains continuously pour down the nearby mountain. Water follows the channels from these mountains, spilling into the terrace fields and softening the dried land and making it cultivable. This is the time when the locals prepare for their new cultivation with eager. It also explains the reason why there is only one harvest in the terrace fields of the northern mountainous areas. Terraces of fields which are full of water “literally” glisten by reflecting the final sun lights of a day – this creates a breathless moment that makes even the toughest tourist amazed at.

Transportation to Mu Cang Chai

From Hanoi, you can directly head for Mu Cang Chai by motorbikes, or choose sleeping buses (buses with beds) as a means of transport. Most of buses in the route from Hanoi to Lai Chau do go through the territory of Mu Cang Chai so you have quite a good choice. In case you choose to travel by buses, you can also rent motorbikes to explore more about Mu Cang Chai and the surrounding areas. This vehicle is extremely convenient and flexible for sightseeing, posing photos and enjoying the paddy fields. Regarding renting motorbikes, you can either directly ask for help from your hotel/motel or contact the motorbikes stores called Huan Tuan Tuyen (mobile: 0166.568.4574).

Hotels and Motels in Mu Cang Chai

If you intend to visit this place at peak times (e.g. in the festival of terrace fields), it will be relatively difficult to reserve a room. In fact, there are not many hotels and guest houses in Mu Cang Chai. Thus, if you only spend only 1 day in Mu Cang Chai, or this is just stop in your journey, you had better rent a room in the surrounding areas, such as Tu Le or Nghia Lo, etc.

In order to capture the most magnificent photos of Tu Le field, it is advisable to get to Khau Pha mountain top pass at around 7-9 a.m. (after this period, it may be still sunny but rather dim and misty). Here is our tip for you: You can choose either to sleep the night right in Tu Le, or go 7 kilometers further up to Khau Pha mountain pass where there is system of restaurant-hotel with more than 20 rooms available. From this point, it takes you about 15 minutes to get to the mountain top pass.

about 15 minutes to get to the mountain top pass.

Specialties in Mu Cang Chai

  • Tu Le sticky rice

Sticky rice in Tu Le is a well-known long-standing specialty which is cultivated in the fields of Muong Lo (Yen Bai Province).

Legend: Once upon a time, the Jade Emperor asked the fairies to bring a valuable type of sticky rice to earth. The fairies went all over the Northwest ranges of mountains to find a suitable place for cultivation. Finally, they saw Mt. Khau Pa where they figured out a beautiful flat valley with lush greenery, they came down and chose what is now Pha Village to sow the seeds from heaven. A few months later, these plants blossomed, the seeds ripened and turned into an attractive yellow color with irresistible aroma. Since then, the fairies decided to hand over the precious type of sticky rice to Thai ethnics. These locals continue to cultivate the plant and spread it throughout Tu Le and Van Chan region. Thus, people nowasdays refer to this sticky rice as ‘Tu Le’.
  • Tu Le “Com”

Tu Le commune (Van Chan District, Yen Bai Province) has long been famous for special sticky rice with large, round and pure white grains. “Xoi” made from this rice has a particularly unique aroma; meanwhile, when cooking into “Com”, the rice also has a sweet and refreshing taste.

To retain its charming flavor, seductive aroma and the special feature of Yen Bai mountainous region, the treatment of Thai ethnics must be extremely sophisticated. When the top of rice plants starts to bend down and still remains its milk, the locals harvest them and start the process to make ‘Com’. Instead of threshing, rice is plucked and got rid of straw as well as immature grains, then dipped into water and finally roasted in the pan. Stoves used to roast “Com” must be built from coal shreds and burned by firewood.

The pan used in this process is usually made from cast iron so that the grains of ‘Com’ will not be burned but soft, glutinous, aromatic and tasty after roasting. Fire in the stoves must be small and ‘Com’ in the pan should be turned frequently to receive intensive heat. Once roasting is done, ‘Com’ is left until cool then put into a mortar for pounding until the rice husk comes out. After that, the husk is removed the rice is further pounded.

Depending on how mature the rice is, the locals will estimate the time for pounding but it falls around approximately 10 times of pounding. ‘Com’ is usually served with ripen bananas, persimmons, or used in a number of dishes such as duck porridge, sticky rice, sweet glutinous soup, or even used as a seasoning for fried spring rolls, fried shrimp, fried meat, etc.

  • Salmon and Sturgeon

From the foot of Khau Pha mountain pass on Tu Le’s side, if you go uphill approximately 7 kilometers, you will reach the area of Khau Pha restaurant which is also one of the largest salmon farms of the Northern region. The number of fish here can be as high as 10,000 fishes with fish breeds imported and raised following European technology. Various delicious dishes made from salmon (or sturgeon) are prepared right here to serve to tourists. If you travel in a group, it will be absolutely wonderful to choose Salmon hot pot for lunch.

  • Roasted grasshoppers

Grasshoppers live throughout the year, however, they appear with substantial number in harvesting season from May to September. During this time, dishes of grasshoppers, which is considered as an tourist attraction to Mu Cang Chai, are always impressively stunning.

In addition, in Mu Cang Chai, you can also enjoy stream crab roasted with salt. However, this dish is not always available; thus, you should reserve in advance with the restaurant. In fact, tourists usually wander around the area sightseeing and posing photos before going back to Mu Cang Chai, at this time, restaurants are usually in short of food.

  • Stream crabs roasted with salt

Unlike sea crabs or field crabs, stream crabs reside in small rock niches around the stream on highlands. Crabmeat is uniquely aromatic and firm so that it can be cooked into various good dishes including roasting with salt. When crabs are caught, their shells are removed and the remaining is washed with water then left until dry. Pour oil into the pan and wait until it boils, then add a little of garlic, put the crabs in and turn frequently, and finally season the dish with an appropriate amount of salt. When crabs are done with an attractive yellow, it is ready to be served.

  • Tao Meo (cardamom) in Mu Cang Chai

In Yen Bai, Son Tra trees usually live in the mountainous areas to the west of the province, especially in three districts: Mu Cang Chai, Tram Tau, Van Chan where the temperature base is quite extraordinary: it is sunny and hot in summer when affected by the southwest wind, while it is extremely cold in the winter at highlands. This tree (Tao Meo) possesses various marvelous features not only in daily life of the locals but also in medicine.

Tao Meo trees naturally flourished in forests and reach an average height between 7-10 meters with woody trunks and broad foliage. These trees can widely expand their habitat thanks to human and animal activities. Due to this reason, their habitats lack concentration but spread to many places. Tao Meo trees blossom in spring and fruit in autumn. Around September or October, Tao Meo fruits start to ripen in mass number. During this time, every market in the district, especially in Yen Bai station market, is flooded with Tao Meo fruits. The gourmets will not choose those with big or beautiful appearance, they tend to prefer small and wormy fruits as these are much sweeter.

There are two types of Tao Meo fruits: one is usually sold at markets (more popular), and the other is wild fruits in the forests. The latter type is small, when ripening it turns into light pink or translucent yellow, sweet, crispy and extremely charmingly aromatic. Wild fruits of Tao Meo are always pure sweet with no bitter or sour like the first type o fruits. According to senior sellers of Tao Meo in Yen Bai station market, the most delicious fruits of Tao Meo are those from Tram Tau or Mu Cang Chai where Tao Meo trees live in pine hills or wild forests. Though this type is not beautiful enough to be bought as gifts, it is attractively delicious and is usually reserved by many buyers. At the end of the season, the price of Tao Meo in Yen Bai can be up to 40,000 VND/kilogram. This finding even further proves the meaning and vitality of Tao Meo in the life of local people as well as in the socio-economic development of the western district of Yen Bai Province.

In traditional eastern medicine, Tao Meo is referred to as Son Tra. This is a valuable medicine which is used to cure dyspepsia, heartburn, diarrhea, low blood pressure or to improve cardiac operation. What is special about Tao Meo is that every part of it is totally usable. Its nuts and inner part prove to be helpful in reducing fat, treating hypotension, tranquilizing or physiologically balancing as well as preventing the complications caused by hypertension, etc. Due to this, Tao Meo is used as herb to nourish mental nutrition or treated into wine as appetizers – a favorite drink of many people. Tao Meo is also used to make cooling and refreshing drinks in summer. Furthermore, a handy person can use Tao Meo to make valuable and delicious gifts such as syrup, jam or fermenting with salt, etc. This is the reason why people from many places really appreciate this marvelous gift.

Harvested Tao Meo can be preserved in natural conditions very many days. As syrup, Tao Meo fruits need to be peeled, removed of seeds and got rid of the inner part and cleaned. Then they are cut vertically into 4 or 6 pieces, put in brine for several hours to remove the sap. Next, take them out and drain, then mix them with white sugar and leave them untouched for 1 week. After that, Tao Meo combined with sugar turn into a gold glutinous soup like honey. Its taste is cooling sour, purely sweet with gentle aroma. If intended for use in a short time, this drink is delicious, refreshing and suitable to all ages. In case you want to set aside syrup for later seasons, you need to boil the syrup then pour the sauce into bottles. This sauce can be preserved in the long term with no fear of fermentation or deformation.

To make ‘o mai’ from Tao Meo, after collecting the fruits, the shell needs to be remained to retain the flavor. Then get rid of the inner part, cut horizontally, dry and cook them with white sugar. Then dry them again. If you like spicy taste, you can add ground ginger and cook just the same as instructed above. Tao Meo ‘o mai’ is a special and attractive dish in winter months, especially during the Lunar New Year.

Otherwise, Tao Meo fruits can be fermented with sugar, salt and chili. As a result, you have a special dish with spicy, salty, sweet and crispy taste with distinguished aroma that can never be mistaken.

Recommended restaurants in Mu Cang Chai:

  • Thắng Nguyệt Restaurant. Tel: 0914.998.825. Note: delicious mountain frogs.
  • Tuấn Bò food store. Tel: 0948.929.223.
  • The food store at the junction (next to the petrol station) near the sigh ‘Di xa Che Tao’ (To Che Tao).
  • Houses on stilts in Thai ethnics’ villages.

Recommended restaurants in Tu Le:

  • Chuyền Dung Tú Lệ Restaurant. Tel: 029.38.78.914. Note: famous for sticky rice and chicken.
  • Phố Núi Tú Lệ Restaurant. Tel: 029.38.97.115.

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