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Summer 2019

Vietnam Highlands - The Highs and Lows of Northwest Vietnam

Vietnam is famous not only for its healthy cuisines, but also for its natural wonders and landscapes. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam has become one of the top traveling destinations because of its beauty, cuisines, and the locals’ hospitality. Furthermore, besides housing Vietnamese (or Kinh) people, Vietnam is also the homeland of many other ethnic minority groups, such as the Hmong, Tay, Thai, and Dao people, enriching the country with diversity of culture, tradition, and history. Most of these ethnic minority groups live in the highlands of Vietnam where you can experience many fun, unique and meaningful outdoor cultural experiences.

There are many people who come to Vietnam to visit tourist spots such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, or Hoi An; however, going to the northern highlands is a totally different experience—because you can get away from big cities and enjoy the beauty of nature as well as be exposed to different cultures and ethnic groups.


Sapa is one of the most famous tourist locations in northwest Vietnam. The town is located in Lao Cai province, which is about 217 miles northwest of the capital (Hanoi). Tourists go to trek and hike the beautiful landscape. The tallest mountain of Vietnam—Fansipan—is located about 12 miles away from the town. The town is famous for its various natural attractions, such as the night markets, mountain tribes, water falls, mountain routes, and many cool hiking trails.

Mai Chau

Photograph by: Tran Thi HoaMai Chau is located in Hoa Binh province, which is well known for its stilt houses. The type of stilt houses, or pile dwellings, the residents construct are called Thai stilt houses and are made of bamboo and timber. The people build these houses 10–12 feet off the ground, avoiding water damage and raising animals under the home. In Mai Chau, you will have opportunities to interact with the ethnic people, experience their culture, try interesting cuisines, and see their daily work in planting, and harvesting crops, and making clothes.

Mu Cang Chai

Mu Cang Chai is in the mountainous district of Yen Bai province, about 174 miles from Hanoi, and it is most well-known for its terraced rice fields, especially during the harvest seasons.

Semantically, in Hmong language, Mu Cang Chai means the region of forest of dry wood (“Mu” means “Forest of Wood”, “Cang” means “dry”, and “Chai” means “Earth”). People of different ethnic groups inhabit this area.Mu Cang Chai is also famous for its terraced rice fields, which extending across the flanks of the mountain. Among about 2,200 hectares of terraces, there are 500 hectares in three communes: La Pan Tan, Che Cu Nha, and Xu Phinh have been recognized in the National Heritage of Vietnam in 2007 as areas of unique scenery.

Because of its topography of steep slopes, terraced fields have narrow widths—the difference between plots is 3.3 to 4.9 feet. The rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai demonstrate the ingenuity of the human hand in the mastery of nature, and its landscape offers unique beauty that captivates the heart of all travelers.

Photo by Tran Kien Trung

Moc Chau

Moc Chau is a large, mountainous district of Son La Province, about 125 miles west of Hanoi. It makes for a great intermediate stop between Hanoi and Mai Chau and is a popular tourist destination similar to Sapa.

Moc Chau is one of the biggest plateaus in the country, stretching some 50 miles long and 16 miles wide. It also has an altitude of 3,460 feet above sea level and a moderate climate that averages temperatures between a cool 60–79°F, Because of the cool climate, Moc Chau also has about 3,000 hectares of tea gardens and has become one of the main sources for tea production in Vietnam. Moc Chau is most popular during Spring and Fall because of its tea tree celebration, a popular event for people to learn more about tea and the process of making tea, and of the peach and plum trees blooming with flowers.

Love Market

One of the most famous traditions in the northwest provinces of Vietnam are the gatherings of different ethnic groups called the “love market.” “Love markets” are the big get-together opportunities of different ethnic groups to socialize, party, and trade goods with each other. But it gains its name because it is also a unique festival for young people to meet and fall in love. These markets are different and unique for various ethnic groups. northern Vietnam, there are three well-known love markets, which are in Khau Vai (Ha Giang), Moc Chau (Son La), and Sapa (Lao Cai). Among these three, Sapa’s love market is the most popular one because it happens every Saturday night; meanwhile, the other two love markets occur only once a year.

Photo by Veronique Mergaux

Problems and Challenges

Even though the northern highlands of Vietnam are famous for their beauty, the ethnic minority people still struggle with many problems that prevent them from having the same quality of life that those in America might expect. For example, deforestation has led to more severe natural disasters, such as floods that have destroyed people’s houses and stocks. Because of these natural disasters, people here are still struggling to improve their lives every day.

Because they live in mountainous and remote areas, these people have difficulties in traveling. This challenge impacts children and their educational path. The ethnic children often travel for miles to go to the closest school. The routes to school are long and dangerous because the children have to cross springs and mountains by foot. Because of this problem, many of the children stop going to schools. Even though the Vietnamese government has recently implemented many programs and projects to help build schools and classes for children closer to their homes, the ethnic minority people are still struggling to gain an education. This problem also results many ethnic women and children become victims of human trafficking because of their lack of the knowledge in how to protect themselves.

Finally, if you are interested in traveling to northwest Vietnam, you may want to consider doing even more as you get out of the big touristy destinations and explore the northern highlands. It would also be a great opportunity to get engaged in volunteer and charity work, helping the community of ethnic minority people and their children.

—Thu Hoang