When fall begins towards the end of September and start of October, Nam Hong Village in Ha Giang Province radiates the amber hue of autumn.
Propped against the mountain at an altitude of 800 m, Nam Hong Village encompasses 38 red Dao ethnic households. The village in Thong Nguyen Commune, Hoang Su Phi District is located 33 km from National Route 2 and 77 km from Ha Giang Town, capital of Ha Giang Province.
A few years ago, Nam Hong villagers relied mainly on agriculture, tea cultivation, and fish farming to survive. Today, the Nam Hong community-based tourism village has become a leading draw in Hoang Su Phi District.
The first evening was a memorable one, after a hearty dinner of northern highlands specialties like boar, junglefowl, vegetables, and fragrant corn wine, I participated in the Nam Hong mid-autumn festival.
In the glow of campfire, I was unable to tear my eyes away from the supple and graceful moves of red Dao dancers. After a spiritual ceremony, barefooted red Dao men danced on burning coal.
This is a red Dao ritual that traditionally takes place in the Lunar New Year festival to thank the Fire Deity for warmth, safety, prosperity, and a good harvest, and for chasing away ghosts, devils, and diseases. Nowadays, the dance is performed regularly for tourists. That night, I fell into a deep, rejuvenating sleep.
A barefooted red Dao man danced on burning coal. Photo by Xu Kien.
Typically, rice harvesting is divided into four parts: bailing out water and catching fish, reaping, stacking, and threshing. That morning, I woke up very early to follow my tour guide Kinh to the fields.
From Hoang Su Phi Bungalow, I tightly held onto a bucket whilst chasing after Kinh up vast terraced fields. The paddies were yellow and ripe with droopy panicles ready to be harvested.
Kinh led me to the top of Doi Mong Ngua (Horseshoe Hill), the most scenic location for photos in Nam Hong. From the hilltop, fluffy clusters of white clouds floated around like frothy foam in a cappuccino, covering parts of glistening verdant terraces that rose one after another to the sky.
The arresting landscape brought about a light and tranquil feeling. I deeply inhaled the Highlands’ crisp pure air. Here’s to a new day.
Kinh’s rice field lay near the Horseshoe Hill. After a short trek, we arrived at the paddies. Kinh and his wife first released and directed the water in their rice field to others nearby. With a skilled hand, Kinh detected and caught large and robust fish swiftly swimming around rice plant roots and placed them in a bucket.
Sunrise in Nam Hong Village. Photo by Xu Kien.
To ensure the fish are in the healthiest state when caught, locals release them into paddy fields after sowing at the end of April and beginning of May. In September and October when rice fields ripen, the fish reach full maturity. Locals then catch and bring them home.
Since the fish develop in a natural state, bred without fertilizer and around rice plants, they are organic and fresh. A gastronomical must-try when visiting Nam Hong is fish freshly caught from paddy fields paired with entirely clean, safe rice.
Dehydrated fish tend to stick around the plant roots and when I dipped my hand underwater to catch them, their slippery and slimy scales completely threw me off at first but I quickly adapted and found it fun.
I caught a carp that lay snugly inside my palm, its mouth wide open until I gently dropped it into the bucket. That little fish was going to be a part of our dinner that night.
Catching fish that stick around the rice plant roots. Photo by Xu Kien.
Foreign tourists visiting Nam Hong also excitedly rolled up their sleeves and waded through the field to hunt carp. Excitement and laughter resonated across the fields.
A week passed by since our fishing mission, with the fields now teeming with toiling Nam Hong locals. That morning, I woke early and with my sickle joined villagers for the harvest.
The way Nam Hong locals reap rice is very unique, severing half the rice stalk instead of cutting from the root, then placing those halves back onto reaped plants. Every harvest, locals form a ‘V’ shape with the plants to prevent panicles from dropping. Three days later, they head back out to the fields to harvest and thresh rice crops that have dried.
We worked from one side of the hill to another. I labored alongside villagers for a week. They exchanged many stories and bantered while reaping, filling the air with hearty laughter. Needless to say, it was a memorable week.
Among the villagers, an older lady energetically reaped whilst softly lulling a baby strapped onto her back to sleep. Seeing my fierce and rapid movements, a red Dao fellow turned to me and jokingly said: "You’re very strong, would you want to marry a red Dao lad and stay here?"
Right then and there, elation rushed through me as I felt like I belonged to this captivating ethnic community, participating in ordinary daily activities that perhaps I would never get a chance to enjoy again.
Locals here don’t thresh rice crops at paddies. After the crop has dried, they use a red fabric string to gather it into bouquets and piles for transport to a communal shanty. The climb from the fields down to the shanty is arduous since the ground is uneven and the bearer has to bow, maintain their balance, straighten their legs and manage a heavy pile of rice crops on their back. Beads of sweat quickly gathered on the farmers’ head as they firmly moved forward, the familiar look of perseverance flashing on their faces.
Farmers bring rice crops to the communal shanty. Photo by Xu Kien.
After successfully transporting the thresher to the communal house, they began the threshing process and collected the final product into sacks. That harvest Kinh’s family collected in total 20 hefty sacks of rice, bringing a huge delighted grin to everyone’s face.
The red Dao community has a tradition that whichever household harvests that day has to host the village for lunch and dinner. Thus, that evening all the villagers convened at the harvester’s place to feast and celebrate.
In the afternoon sunshine of the following days, I strolled around emptied paddy fields in my trusty honeycomb rubber sandals and watched red Dao locals revel in buffalo wrestling matches.
If possible, I fell even more deeply in love with the land and its people. When harvest season came to an end, it was also my time to conclude my northern highlands adventure and return to Ho Chi Minh City.
If one gets infatuated with a region, it must be due to the intense love and appreciation one harbors for its people, animals, and scenery.
Motorbike: Explore the magnificent landscapes of Nam Hong Village on the back of a motorbike for a hands-on, unrefined experience. To save time, you can buy a limousine bus ticket from Hanoi to the Tan Quang intersection in Ha Giang Province then rent a bike to complete the trip. It is important to note the route has many dangerous bends. In return, the glistening rice terraces lining the road compose a breathtaking view.
Limousine bus: Nam Hong is located in the west of Ha Giang. Since the route is less frequented, there are not many shuttle buses that run through the region. If departing from Hanoi, you can consult Ngoc Cuong, Cau Me, Quang Nghi, Quang Giang, or Dang Quang bus services for a ride to the Tan Quang intersection. From here, you can hop on a second ride to reach Nam Hong. This ride is offered by Thong Nguyen bus service that can be reached by this number: 0966 212 213.
Accomodation: Nam Hong has a variety of accommodation options. Hoang Su Phi Bungalo boasts seven high-end, cozy, and air-conditioned cabins. The nightly rates for a two-bedroom and a single room is VND1.15 million ($50) and VND980,000 ($42), respectively. In addition, you can also opt to stay at a traditional red Dao house, which can accommodate up to 50 people. Some recommended homestays: Kinh Homestay (0988 070 619), Dao Homestay (0948 052 889), Trieu Ta Quyen Homestay (038 286 6054), Son Pu Homestay, and Hao Thu Homestay. A night in a communal room costs VND100,000.
Motorbike renting: Motorbike renting is available at every homestay. A motorbike costs VND250,000 for a day. If you want someone to drive you, a full day costs VND500,000.
Food: In Nam Hong, you will have the chance to relish in red Dao specialties like wild boar, prairie chicken, unique vegetables, forest bamboo sprouts, paddy field carp, meat jerky, corn wine, and goat liquor.
Other attractions: In addition to the terraced fields, you can also visit other tourist attractions like Thong Nguyen marketplace, Giang Ha Waterfall, Thong Nguyen tea plantation, the 600-year-old tea tree in Nam Ty Village, other staircase rice fields in Nam Ty, Nam Dich, and Nam Khoa villages, or climb Chieu Lau Thi, part of the Tay Con Linh mountain range.
Ideal time to visit: The most ideal time to visit Nam Hong is during harvest season, which takes place towards the end of September, beginning of October when the rice terraced fields are golden and glimmering. From April to May is irrigation and sowing season, in preparation for the annual harvest, with a lot of interactive activities offered to tourists. Winter lasts from the end of December until January, which is not as recommended as the former since the weather gets brutal and foggy. However, it is also during this time that the majority of local red Dao festivals occur, if you want to get a taste of ethnic culture and colors.
Herbal bath service: The red Dao’s medicinal herbs consisting of over 40 herbal leaves including calamus, lemongrass, cinnamon, and anise harvested from tall mountains could be very effective in curing grave wounds, sprains, broken bones, and respiratory problems. Herbal concoctions are used in a popular bath that even post-partum mothers can enjoy. A herbal bath costs VND100,000.
Local festivals: The red Dao have many festivals like the coming-of-age celebration, traditional red Dao wedding, annual Pan Wang Festival, and light night abstinence ritual.
Souvenir gifts: Shan Tuyet Tea is the prime specialty of Nam Hong and makes for a thoughtful gift. Other souvenirs include but are not limited to tribal-print bags and clothing handmade by local red Dao.
Other notes: If you visit Nam Hong in winter, remember to bring adequate clothing for the cold weather since the temperature can drop pretty low in the mountains, hitting sub-zero at times.
All homestays offer food, local guides, and motorbike taxis and are more than willing to help you throughout your stay. For more information, please contact the local Nam Hong cooperative via its hotline 0373 541 936.
*Xu Kien, 28, is from the central province of Quang Ngai and lives in Ho Chi Minh City. She travels around Vietnam and writes books and a travel blog.