Discovering the beauty of northern provinces

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There's a reason why the mountainous provinces of northern Viet Nam top the to-do lists of countless backpackers and visitors. I've been fortunate enough to trek through the westernmost forests of Dien Bien Province, drive a motorbike across Ha Giang Province's Ma Pi Leng (one of the most beautiful passes in the north), and wander around the Khau Vai love market until midnight. However, despite these adventures, I had never seen terraced mountian fields of ripened rice before.

To remedy this exception, I joined a four-day motorbike tour with 11 other people to the northern provinces of Son La and Yen Bai during the Independence Day long weekend earlier this month.

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From Ha Noi, we drove 200km to Son La Province's Moc Chau District and spent one night there. Our group missed out on tasting stone crabs at a market on Thung Khe Pass but experienced unforgettable moments at Moc Chau love market.

The love market is held annually from August 31 to September 2 for Mong ethnic people. Unlike Khau Vai market in Ha Giang and Sa Pa market in Lao Cai, few tourists visit it. Upon our visit, groups of girls and boys dressed in traditional attire walked the streets, enjoying a live music show, complete with song and dance routines. We also caught boys attempting to make friends with girls and young men flirting with beautiful young women.

The darker it got, the more fun it was. However, we had a long journey the following day and reluctantly retreated to our hostel for an early night.

We drove nearly 180km in the next day to reach our destination – Ngoc Chien Commune in Muong La District. We had no difficulty driving along the concrete roads from Moc Chau to Muong La, but the route from It Ong Town to Ngoc Chien was more challenging due to loose rocks and small stones that had fallen onto the path, preventing us from picking up speed.

To overcome the steep slopes of the natural terrain, our drivers were forced into first and second gear while the passengers held them tightly. Only our leader, with his mighty Minsk motorcycle, was able to coast smoothly up the gradients.

Despite concentrating heavily on driving, we still managed to observe some beautiful sights along the way, stopping several times to take photographs of breathtaking green terraced fields stretching down from the mountains and Thai people bathing in the springs along the sidewalks.

Ngoc Chien Commune is located about 1,800m above sea level with a cool climate all year round. Home to Mong, Thai and La Ha ethnic people, there are no hostels or guesthouses here, with homestays the only accomodation option for visitors. As such, we opted to stay in a stilt house of a Thai family.

There is a saying that "Ngoc Chien Commune's women are most beautiful in Muong La District". The local people claim their beauty comes from bathing in hot springs. Although we reached Ngoc Chien late in the day, we still tried to enjoy the famed hot springs ourselves, driving 5km to the neighbouring Muong Chien Commune. For only VND5,000 (US$0.25) per person, we bathed for as long as our hearts desired. The natural hot water helped to reduce our tiredness and regain full possession of our senses.

Following our soak, we had a quick dinner consisting of simple local dishes before cutting loose at a nearby karaoke house. Unfortunately, we didn't have much time to talk with our hosts as we had to go to bed early in order to save our strength for the most difficult stage of our trip the next day.

No one can explain why, but it rains on Independence Day in Ha Noi every year. However, when celebrating this important event outside of the capital for the first time, I realised that it rains in other areas, too. The road from Ngoc Chien to Nam Khat Commune in Yen Bai Province's Mu Cang Chai District opened in 2005 without any concrete laid. As a result, the paths are full of gravel and stones, meaning driving motorbikes under added rain was always going to be taxing.

With our wheels covered in mud and our tyres unable to grip the road, we dismounted our motorbikes and helped our drivers to push them along.

After nearly two hours of pushing and driving, our efforts were paid in kind with a stunning view of the hallowed ripened rice fields. Ypoundsellow flecks of colour spreading across the terraced horizon appeared in front of us, resembling a beautiful painting by a masterful artist.

We eventually arrived in Van Chan District's Tu Le Commune in the afternoon and had lunch there before heading to Nghia Lo Town. After one night there, we spent a whole day travelling back to Ha Noi.

As well as laying eyes on the one sight I had so longed to see, the trip provided me with so much more: bathing in hot springs, experiencing offroad terrain and so on. Now, I'm left with the idea by Father Alfred D Souza: "Happiness is a journey, not a destination". He couldn't be more right.

VNS

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