Yen Bai travel guide - Rusty Compass

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Yen Bai travel guide

Yen Bai Introduction

| 22 Jan 2020
Last updated 22 Jan 2020

Many photographers view the rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai, in Yen Bai province, to be the most spectacular in Vietnam. This vast region, that runs north of Hanoi to provinces that border China, is a little-visited gem of mountains, villages and ethnic minority cultures. Many pass through Yen Bai enroute to places further north. Few take time to explore.

Do a search for rice terraces in Vietnam and an inordinate number of the images that pop up will be from Vietnam's northern Yen Bai province - especially Mu Cang Chai. Google Images kindly obliges scammers wanting to claim these terraces for other regions in the rice terraced north. But Mu Cang Chai images are very well represented - no matter how the images are labelled.

Route 32, Yen Bai Province, VIetnam
Photo: Mark Bowyer Route 32, Yen Bai Province, VIetnam


Over the past couple of years, I've been getting to know Yen Bai better - through a number of short visits. I recommend it as a place for those looking for something different to the better known regions of Vietnam's north. It's closer to Hanoi than many other popular spots in the north.

Don't get carried away with the couple of tourist stops around Mu Cang Chai. They're beautiful - especially when not overcrowded with photographers during the September / October rice harvest. But there's loads more to Yen Bai and along route QL32. This is a big province. Explore widely and head down random trails.

Yen Bai holds a special place in Vietnam's anti-colonial struggle against the French. In February 1930, a group of Vietnamese soldiers stationed in a French garrison, rose up against their colonial masters hoping to trigger a widespread uprising across the north. The uprising, known in history books as the Yen Bai Mutiny, was quickly put down. At least 39 mutineers were executed and many more given long sentences in the remote, harsh, prison at Poulo Condore (now Con Dao Islands).

Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, VIetnam
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, Vietnam

How to get to Yen Bai

The provincial capital of Yen Bai is called Yen Bai City. It's on the main rail route between Hanoi and Lao Cai on the Chinese border. It's also just off the expressway between Hanoi and Lao Cai. It's very accessible but sees few visitors.

Perhaps a third of the main highway route between Hanoi and Sapa - the original tourist town in Vietnam's north that has seen rampant tourism development - runs through Yen Bai province. This road, known as the Hanoi Lao Cai highway, misses many of Yen Bai's highlights. It does get you close by Thach Ba, one of the places we recommend.

QL32 (Highway 32) is the best route for the most amazing mountain and rice terrace country. It's a much slower, more scenic ride to Sapa that includes Mu Cang Chai and other spectacular mountain and village scenes. You'll need a car or a bike to get around - or you'll be a very energetic cyclist. Don't think about learning to ride a motorbike in these parts. These roads are only for experienced licensed riders.

An interesting option might be to take the train from Hanoi to Yen Bai and then rent a car or motorcyle taxi from there. It's worth noting that the highlights of the province are a long way from Yen Bai city (3 - 5 hours by car). The roads are not direct and there don't appear to be many alternatives.

Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, VIetnam
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, Vietnam

What to see - Yen Bai

You could easily spend three or four nights (or longer), travelling slowly through Yen Bai and spending a few hours each day walking the hills and villages or chilling at one of our recommended ecolodges.

You could start at Thac Ba Lake and then head north slowly Mu Cang Chai.


Thac Ba Lake

Vietnam's largest man-made lake is located in the south west of the province. Thac Ba is a stunning expanse of water surrounded by ethnic minority villages. It's easily accessed from Yen Bai railway station so it's a good option for rail buffs or road travellers who don't want to stray too far from the main Hanoi - Lao Cai highway. Yen Bai's a big province with limited direct road links so this area is still a long 4 to 5 hours by road from other highlights like Mu Cang Chai.

Thac Ba Lake was created by a huge hydro-electricity project in the 1960s that submerged vast areas of land. La Vie Vu Linh is our preferred place to stay here (see below).

Vu Linh, Yen Bai, Vietnam
  Thach Ba, Yen Bai, Vietnam


Mu Cang Chai and Highway 32

The rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai are a favourite with photographers from Vietnam and around the world. If you see a shot of a rice terrace in Vietnam, it may well be from Mu Cang Chai. Overzealous photographers descend on the area for the September / October rice harvest. Avoid that.

Mu Cang Chai may be the best known spot for photographers, but Highway 32 (QL32) has plenty of other highlights. Don't get too carried away with this area. Head down paths and across narrow suspension bridges for some wonderful walks.

You can stay in our favourite little spot, Mu Cang Chai Ecolodge, or basic digs in the towns of Nghia Lo or Mu Cang Chai.

Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, VIetnam
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, Vietnam
Route 32, Yen Bai Province, VIetnam
Photo: Mark Bowyer Route 32, Yen Bai Province, Vietnam

Where to stay in Yen Bai Province

We've only stayed in two places in Yen Bai - La Vie Vu Linh which is on Thac Ba Lake in the south east of the province closer to Hanoi, and Mu Cang Chai Ecolodge which is in the more remote northwest near Mu Cang Chai. In addition to our recommendations, there are lots of basic places to stay in Yen Bai, Nghia Lo and Mu Cang Chai.


La Vie Vu Linh Ecolodge, Yen Bai

This place is right on Thac Ba Lake off the main road between Hanoi and Lao Cai / Sapa. It's around 4 hours drive from Hanoi and 30 minutes from Yen Bai railway station.

La Vie Vu Linh Ecolodge, Yen Bai, Vietnam
La Vie Vu Linh Ecolodge, Yen Bai, Vietnam
La Vie Vu Linh Ecolodge, Yen Bai, Vietnam
La Vie Vu Linh Ecolodge, Yen Bai, Vietnam


Mu Cang Chai Ecolodge - Yen Bai

On all our visits so far, we've either passed through the province along QL32 or stayed at Mu Cang Chai Eco Lodge (recommended). Stay a couple of nights at the Eco Lodge and spend a day exploring its beautiful setting. It was priced around $50 - $65 for a private bungalow and they also have a dorm room that's much cheaper. Check out of video and note that this place is quite remote, and a long way from Mu Cang Chai town. There are no restaurants around so you'll most likely end up eating in the lodge.

Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, VIetnam
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai Province, Vietnam
Yen Bai Province, VIetnam
Photo: Mark Bowyer Yen Bai Province, Vietnam


Best time of year to travel to Yen Bai

Yen Bai is great for travelling at any time. It has four seasons with different things to see and different temperatures. The hot wet months run from June to September. Rainfall and temperatures drop between October and April.

Photographers tend to converge on Mu Cang Chai in late September or October before the last rice harvest of the year.  It's lush and humid between June and September. Deep greens abound, rivers streams come alive and there are spectacular storms with occasional landslides that block roads.

Things are less visually dramatic between October and March - but the cooler weather and more muted tones have a different beauty.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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