How to get to Mu Cang Chai
This small town in the Northwest of Vietnam has become increasingly popular over the last five or so years. This is because of the beautiful rice terraces, great views and, with the improved road, ease of access. The route is, like most out of Hanoi, not very interesting to begin with. However, once you get past Nghia Lo you start to experience the quieter roads and great views. You may stay in Mu Cang Chai itself, as there are several good places for either budget travellers or even those wanting a more upscale experience. Another popular choice is to stay a bit further out of town, or even Ngoc Chien, as there are a whole range of great places to stay nearby and on route. On the way to Mu Cang Chai District there are a few sites to stop off, but it is mainly about the road.
Direct Route to Mu Cang Chai
The basic idea here is to get on to the QL32B and then the QL32. This will take you along some quite pleasant winding roads past Thanh Son, Xuan Son and Nghia Lo, that gradually become quieter and quieter and more and more beautiful. However, you do have a few options of how to get onto these roads in the first place. From This direction, you may also approach Mu Cang Chai from Ta Xua as this makes a very interesting place to stop overnight.
Getting out of Hanoi
There are two choices of route to get out of town, which are the QL32 and the CT08. Your location may dictate which of these you choose because the first consideration is how to get out of town (the traffic) in the quickest and easiest way. Obviously, the quicker you get on to the open road the better.
Taking the QL32
The QL32 is generally a busy route and very boring until at least Son Tay area. If you choose to go through Ba Vi, crossing the Dong Quang Bridge it will be a little quieter and take a little longer. If you choose to head further on the QL32 and take the Trung Ha bridge it will be more congested but a tad faster.
Taking the CT08
The CT08 is also quite busy at first but you do have to take a side road, not the main highway, which is a little quieter. Then after Hoa Lac it is a bit quieter and more scenic. This route might take a little longer but it is a lot less stressful.
From then on, you follow the Da River until you hit the QL32b. You can pretty much follow this road all the way to Mu Cang Chai.
Places to Stop
Depending on which route you are taking, you could stop in Son Tay, Hoa Lac, Ba Vi or Thanh Thuy to get a drink, relax and generally re-group and make sure no one is lost. However, these are pretty standard places and there is nothing much to see or do.
The first interesting place to stop would probably be the tea tree fields just after Thanh Son. There is a short stretch of road with refreshment stalls, complete with hammocks, running through some large open tea tree fields. It is a good place to stop for water, a soft drink or even a coconut.
The next real place of significance will be Nghia Lo. This is a good place to stop for lunch as there are a whole host of small places to eat in this sizeable town. You have the choice of driving through town (remember the speed limit is 40kmh!!) or taking the bypass. This is much faster and you will find the best homestays on this bypass with Homestay VEV Phuot being highly recommended.
From here on the road starts to become a LOT more interesting and there are more things to see and do such as the paragliding site and Strawberry hill. The traffic quietens and the route is easy to follow and great fun to drive.
From the North - Dien Bien / Sa Pa
If you are already on a trip around the North you may be approaching Mu Cang Chai from Dien Bien Phu or Sa Pa. In fact, many routes to Sa Pa will include this as a stop over. If you have time, it is much better to take this route than to drive Hanoi/Sapa directly.
From Sa Pa
You will take the QL4b and the QL32. Both of which are great roads to take and very enjoyable to drive along. Coming down the O Quy Ho Pass from Sapa is great and there are places to stop such as: Heaven’s Gate and Silver Waterfall. However, these are a bit crowded and it isn’t until you get on to the QL32 that things start to quieten down. You will have the Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range on your left and thoroughly enjoy this part of the trip.
From Dien Bien Phu
Equally, once you have turned off the AH13 on your way from Dien Bien Phu, you will be on much quieter road and have much better scenery to look at. It isn’t until you get past Pa Uon Bridge that you start to get into real H’Mong territory and see what the countryside is really like. This drive along the QL279 is easy, fast and scenic much like the QL32 that you will end up on.
Places to Stop
On these two route options, you kind of stop wherever you feel like it. There are not any large attractions unless you count the dam at Ban Chat. It is all about the driving. There are plenty of small hamlets and roadside stalls where you can get basic drinks and food. If you find yourself moving a little too slowly to make it all the way to Mu Cang Chai you can easily find places to stay in Than Uyen such as Nha Nghi Ben Ho.
From Ta Xua
Ta Xua is a great place in itself to visit. It can also very easily be added in to a loop that includes Mu Cang Chai. The issue here is how confident a driver you are and what bike you are driving. This is because there are two routes to take.
The Difficult Route
The first will take you to Tram Tau and then on to Nghia Lo. This is a very difficult route that is prone to landslides and is very hard to pass in wet weather. You will need to have a bike with good clearance and some good driving skills yourself (big balls will help, too). Something like an XR150 or more powerful is the kind of thing. The road is currently under construction in parts, which make it very slippery in the wet (this is more on the Tram Tau side of the hill) but it is likely to be finished soon [this comment is June 22] and you’ll see a lot more traffic on this route due to it.
One great thing is that you will go past the Tram Tau Hot Springs where you can bathe and stay overnight if you wish. The road from here to Nghia Lo is a very easy and scenic drive.
Via Son La
The second will take you towards Son La and then up to the hot springs in Ngoc Chien. There is a great homestay here called Ngoc Chien Pearl, which has great bungalows, good food and a great view over the valley. The road then takes you back on to the QL32 just after Tu Le and the paragliding site. Note that the map marks the quieter route and not that along the AH13 as it is much nicer, but more difficult, to follow. Any bike can make this trip; it is just a little difficult to follow due to it being smaller.
Places to stop
When taking these routes it is more important to think about getting on with the driving as they are either difficult to ride or quite long. Therefore, we don’t list places to stop. There are lots of small spots to stop along the way and you can see some on Google but it is better to stop for drinks and food and the occasional view rather than make a point of visiting somewhere. It’s all about the ride on this one.
In A Nutshell
Mu Cang Chai is definitely a place to visit, if not for itself, then for the places you will pass on the way to get there. It is an easy location to get to if you are willing to put in just a little effort driving and it will pay you back in Spades. There is a lot of local traffic, by which I mean young vietnamese on motorbikes, taking this route so it has a lot of budget options where you can meet friendly youngsters and also some higher level resort type accommodations (don’t expect too much) where you can have a quieter time if you wish. The driving is great, once you are out of town a short ways and the scenery is some of the best in Vietnam.