On my first day working at Exotic Voyages, my boss asked: “How many northern mountains in Vietnam did you visit?” I said: “I have never been to any.” Right at a moment, I felt like I could have knocked him over with a feather by my answer. “What did you mean? How could you miss Mai Chau, Sapa, Ha Giang? These beauties are out of this world,” he tried to find a destination for me. “Well, my reason is simple. I’m car-sick,” I smiled. He fetched a sigh and mumbled, “Poor you, girl”. The ‘simple reason’ kept me away from mountainous voyages for ages also the company’s email about the North West Vietnam trip in early September. Y Ty , Mu Cang Chai, Ta Xua... are beautiful and stunning - a must-do trip to any traveler but 230-mile mountain road with a lot of twists and turns isn’t a nice route at all to me. In many dreams, I saw huge white clouds covering mountain peaks at the height of 1,240 miles from the sea level. I saw myself wandering between thousands of yellow terraced rice fields and immersing in the indigenous culture of this land. But I have never made it come true. I’m nervous. Yes, the thoughts of dizzying and vomiting by carsick scared me off.
I've dreamed of these beautiful terraced rice fields many times, but I've never made it come true.
However, Diep didn’t think so. She is my colleague and a 16-year-old-experience travel expert. She couldn’t understand how car sickness could prevent a woman from her dreamy lands and decided not to accept that. She encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone. She tried hard to make me feel more comfortable and self-confident. She didn’t give up until I sent an email to confirm my participation. On that day, I told myself: “You’re stupid. This will be the craziest decision you have ever made in your whole life.”
We departed on Thursday evening. Two 17-passenger buses, one pick-up car, and 17 motorbikes were transferred to Lao Cai province the day before. We gathered at 9 pm at the Hanoi Station to go to Lao Cai by an overnight train. From there, our trip would run through Muong Hum, Ta Giang Phinh Village, Mu Cang Chai terraced rice fields, O Quy Ho and Khau Pha mountain pass as well as other attractions of the far far away northern mountains. On the train, we started to make friend with new colleagues that we never had a talk before. Diep and I share our room with two French colleagues who flew from Laos office. We soon got on well with each other, had some drinks and talks before fell asleep. Lao Cai welcomed us by heavy rain when the train stopped at 5 am the next morning. After breakfast at Le Bordeaux, buses and motorbikes rode off at 9 am. We expected to reach Y Ty by lunch.
17 motorbikes were loading to transfer to Lao Cai province the day before we departed
I slept like a log on the bus in the first two hours due to the effect of over-the-counter carsick pills. When I woke up, I saw the mountain on my left and the Red River on the right. Rain started from last night in Lao Cai but it was so heavy that it caused mudslides at some parts of the road onto the river, turning it into a chocolate brown stream. Finally, we reached Y Ty but one and a half hour behind the schedule.
The rain made the road wet. It had mudslides at some parts of our route so we arrived later than we expected.
We trekked to a minority ethnic village of Ha Nhi tribe after lunch. Ha Nhi people live in square Tuong Trinh houses which were made by mountain clay soil. Ha Nhi people pour the soil into a mold then use heavy pastels to pound the clay for hours until it sticks together to form the walls. Each house has 2 doors and two small louvers high above. The 4 walls are 16 inches thick, keeping the inside cool in summer and warm in winter. They are too strong and steady to be punctured even by a bullet. Tuong Trinh house is a distinctive feature of the Ha Nhi ethnic group in the northern mountains.
A Ha Nhi woman was sitting next to her house
A Tuong Trinh house's wall (left) and the local kids were at the doorstep (right)
Local kids were watching a cockfighting
It was drizzling and our path was covered with mist. The rice fields on both sides were turning yellow. They could be ready to harvest in a month. We stopped at a small shack with two trees looking down the valley in the front. This is the popular check-in place of many travelers. From November to April, it is the cloud hunting season when the whole valley looks like an ocean of white clouds. You might think “Heaven is right here and right now,” when you first see it. From December to February, when all the leaves fall off in the winter, the two trees are thin and tall with spindly branches against the desolate sky. They create an image of extreme loneliness that every solo traveler wishes nothing but having a partner: Not only for a trip but for their life journey.
It was drizzling and everything was covered by mist
The Lonely Trees when they are in winter with spindly branches against the sky.
In front of the shack, there was a big pile on the ground. Our two guides disappeared for a while. They came back with a 13-feet length log. They installed two small pieces of wood on both sides of the log, then put the tip of the pile on a hole at the midpoint of the log. That was the huge see-saw of H’Mong people. Two people of us sat on both ends, holding on the pieces of wood and took turns by pushing their feet against the ground to lift their side up to 2 meters into the air while the log was turning around the pile. It felt like you were flying over the valley below. There were no differences in gender and age at that moment. We were all like cheerful and inspired kids burst out of clapping, whistling and laughing. We forgot everything, the stresses of work and the tiredness after a long day.
The see-saw is made by strong, large logs
Players pushed their feet against the ground to lift their side up while the log was turning around the pile
This huge see-saw is taken down and rebuilt 4 times a year on the big festivals and events of ethnic people.
We stayed our first night at an H’mong family. Diep and I found a local house which offered Dzao bathing service. Secret herbs of the Dzao tribe were boiled with water and poured into a round wooden bathtub. They mixed it with cold water until it was warm enough. We sat on different tubs, let the fragrant warm water caressing our tired bodies. This special bathing is believed to improve your health and blood circulation. My body was more relaxing and enjoyable after soaking in the tub for 30 minutes. In the late evening, while we were gathering to play guitar and sing, an autistic young lad in H’mong traditional dress appeared with a qeej - an H’mong traditional bamboo instrument. He motioned us to step back, giving a space in the middle of the room for him to play his trumpet and dance. He sat down after his performance, gazed at our colleague who was playing guitar for a while then asked him to borrow it. He is a gifted amateur musician I must say. Just by watching and listening, he could create his own smooth sounds. One colleague said to me “Do you know that, when an H’mong man starts to play his qeej and dance, he wants to find a lover”.
Qeei were selling on a side of the road to the market. Two men were testing the sound before buying.
The third day was the best day of our trip. I changed from the bus seat to the motor backseat. My rider was a 15-year experience guide. He told me stories about the culture, history, and people of every place we were riding through. Exotic Voyages guides are all friendly, knowledgeable, and they know destinations like the back of their hands. That made my trip more interesting as I learned a lot about the beauty of the new land.
Thick clouds were covering the mountain in the early morning
A truck with clouds behind it
A farmer was looking at us when our motorbike was passing by
The weather was so beautiful that everyone forgot the uncomfortable climate we had two days before. Under the bright and warm sunlight, every hue was kissed into brilliant. It painted the nature to art for the seeing, for the willingness to pause and be with it at the moment. It brought a new look to the trees, the mountains, the rice fields, and even the road under our wheels. Clouds surrounded the towering mountain peaks as if they were wrapped by a huge white scarf. It was right in front of your eyes. It made you feel like there were only a few more steps, you could touch and hold that soft scarf in your hand. It was just amazing and stunning. That wasn’t a view you could see anywhere at any time.
Mu Cang Chai terraced rice fields: Under the bright and warm sunlight, every hue was kissed into brilliant.
It painted Mu Cang Chai nature to art for the seeing, for the willingness to pause and be with it at the moment
One of the most interesting experiences when traveling to a new land is staying with the locals. This gives you the best chance to learn a new culture. But in some places, you should think twice if you really want to have dinner with your host. We spent our third night at a homestay in Nghia Lo. A lovely stilt house surrounding by the rice fields brings a peaceful feeling for any traveler. Dinner was served with local dishes and traditional wine. During our meal, a guide went to our table, his face was flushed, his voice was excited “Do you know how ethnic people here welcome their guest? According to their custom, they will invite their relatives to have dinner with you. Each member of the family, both man and woman, will drink with you one by one as a way of expressing their respect so you couldn’t refuse.” I had a glance at a group of locals and made a quick calculation. There were up to 25 people. That meant you would have to drink up to 25 cups of wine. Not a simple task for anyone. 25 cups of wine! How many of them do you think you can drink?
Beautiful view from our homestay.
We spent our last night at Nghia Lo city. After 3-night homestay with 2 bathrooms for 60 people, a nice hotel room with a double comfortable bed and a private bathroom was a luxury. My sleep came very quickly. We would drive straightly to Hanoi the next day. Our last route was Nghia Lo - Thu Cuc - Thanh Son - Hanoi. We just stopped for lunch in about one and a half hour and another 30-minute break in Thanh Son. The endless green tea plantations at Thanh Son were charming under the sunshine of a summer afternoon. I was laying on a hammock, eyes were closing but the magical green of tea leaves still sneaked into my mind. I knew it would be there forever, as well as other landscapes I had been through in 4 days. The mountains of northern Vietnam are just breathtaking. You can experience countless emotions with only some days: A feeling of fear when you are sliding down the muddy road, your astonishment when you are standing in front of a huge sea of cloud in an early morning, your regret because the rain prevents you from enjoying the real beauty of Mu Cang Chai terraced rice fields, your love for this small but beautiful country. For every mile we leave the land behind, my regretful feeling became stronger and more genuine. Now and forever, Y Ty is no longer the craziest decision of my life. It was a lifetime trip: the trip that you will remember for the rest of your life.
A tea plantation in Thanh Son
Farmers were harvesting on the field
Get out of your comfort zone and follow your dream. You will never regret it!