Tucked up in the mountains, 1,050m above sea level, Moc Chau has a temperate climate with average summer temperatures of 20oC and is a haven for city slickers seeking refuge from the summer heat.
The plateau covers 1,600ha of prairie, with vast tracts of dairy farms, tea plantations, paddies and fields of sunflowers. Many different ethnic groups still follow traditional ways of life here, like the Dao, Thai, Mong, Muong and Kho Mu people.
Korean visitor Kim Min-baek says ethnic people welcomed him and his party with traditional dances. “Our favourites were the Thai people’s folk dance xoe and the Mong’s people’s khen (pan-pipes) dance. They took us by the hand and drew us right into the thick of things,” he says.
For the khen dance, young Thai women play the pipes and dance in tune with the music. Mong women, decked out in their traditional costume, perform xoe dances during festivals or for special occasions.
Local farmer Hoang A Choong says the best time to come is September 1, when the Love Market takes place. The market is part of a traditional festival of the Mong ethnic people, and brings together different Mong groups like the Mong Do (Mong wearing white), Mong Du (black), Mong Si (red), and Mong Lenh (flowers).
Other ethnic groups, like the Dao, Kho Mu, Muong and Thai also enjoy the festival. Similar to the Khau Vai Love Market in Meo Vac in the northern province of Ha Giang, many young Mong people go to the market hoping to find their soul mate, while others see it as a reunion of old friends.
Kim says he was surprised such a remote place was so easy to get to.
“We thought the road to Moc Chau would be rough and difficult. It’s 173km from Ha Noi along Highway 6 via Hoa Binh, but it only took us five hours.”
A favourite spot to enjoy a view of the plateau is Son Moc Huong or Doi (Bat) Cave. Inside the cavern, stalactites and stalagmites form fantastic shapes inside the mountain.
Also a feast for the imagination is Thac Nang (Girl Waterfall) or Dai Yem (Pink Blouse Waterfall) at Vat Village. Sourced from Bo Co Lam and Bo Ta Chau, Vat stream merges with Bo Sap Stream and tumbles over a precipice to become Dai Yem Waterfall.
With its lush vegetation and polished coloured pebbles, locals say the waterfall is one of nature’s gifts to the long-standing village, which is home to a number of historical buildings like Vat Pagoda as well as folk songs, dances and traditional cuisine.
At the bottom of the falls, visitors can have a rest in Vat Village where Thai ethnic people in their stilt houses weave traditional brocade.
If you want to get your heart-rate going, the climb to Phieng Luong Peak, about 1,500m above sea level, and Chieng Vien Pagoda, reveals a stunning panoramic view of the plateau.
A good way to quench your thirst is with a fresh cup of warm milk, sold from small shops on the road through the plateau. Most of the dairy cattle produce milk for a State-run dairy farm, one of the biggest suppliers of fresh milk for the country.
Keeping tourism in harmony with the environment has been a priority for a project to develop Moc Chau’s remote, mostly Thai-speaking Chieng Yen Village in Phu Mau Commune.
The year-long project, supported by the Netherlands Development Organisation, was promoted as a model for eco-tourism. It wrapped up last year.
“The consultancy programme included surveys of potential tourism sites and the potential market for tourists,” says chief planner of the Son La Province’s Trade and Tourist Department Nguyen Dinh Phong.
The village, 330m above sea level, was selected from 16 other sites because of its natural landscape, traditional occupations and culture. It is home to 90 families – most of them farmers.
“The commune is one of Moc Chau District’s poorest villages,” says Phong. “But it has the potential for tourism development.”
Apart from the peaceful landscape, tourists visiting the village will have the chance to taste its culture and enjoy the peaceful life of the local community. These features distinguish the village from other popular tourist destinations, argues Son La Trade and Tourism deputy director Nguyen Van Binh.
“Tourism development could help eliminate poverty,” he says.
Although the Netherlands Development Organisation consultancy programme has ended, the work has motivated the district’s administrators to continue with the idea.
A provincial Trade and Tourism Department team is working on establishment of the eco-tourism model and the Moc Chau District is a part of the effort.
The project focuses on how to develop eco-tourism so that it eradicates poverty. It includes a collection of the information necessary to establish an eco-tourism model. The information will be disseminated to villagers so that they understand the concept of eco-tourism and adapt themselves to tourism services. “Every aspect of eco-tourism in the region will be covered,” says Phong. This will include development of service skills and, most importantly, awareness of the need to preserve traditional values and the environment.
Promising results information about tourism in Moc Chau District has been widely disseminated among tour companies and tourists. The provincial Trade and Tourism Department has organised many fact-finding tours of the village to introduce tourism-industry representatives to the model that combines eco-tourism with poverty eradication.
“The village has welcomed more than 300 visitors,” says Phong. “Although this is not a considerable number, it signals that investment will attract more visitors.”
Dissemination of information about the model to the villagers has motivated people to protect the environment and conserve traditional values, he says. The planner is confident that the draft project will not only ensure the village’s development, it will also help eradicate poverty in the remote northern highlands.
Moc Chau Tourism Site has been listed as one of Viet Nam’s priority projects until 2015, says Dr Nguyen Minh Duc, head of Son La Province’s Moc Chau Tourism Site’s Management Board.
Duc says that a 442ha area had been allotted for development of a central resort area with a golf course blended into the surrounding Moc Chau dairy farm.
Bo Nhang site would include a multi-purpose sports training centre and a healthcare centre, he says, while Chieng Yen site would offer hot mineral springs and a cruise on Hoa Binh hydroelectric reservoir project.
A 4.7km road into the centre area is expected to be finished by the end of this year, he adds, and over 15 domestic and foreign partners from China and France have registered to invest in various aspects of the project.
“The Son La Province aims to preserve a number of villages including Chieng Yen for agriculture and avoid disrupting the lives of local people while, at the same time, encouraging more farmers to take advantage of tourism,” Duc says.
He says Son La Province also plans 1,500ha of facilities around the 442ha central area, with total expenditure estimated at VND5,000 billion (US$286 milion), 20 per cent of which will be invested by the province in basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water supply projects. The rest will be mobilised from domestic and foreign partners.
“We hope that the Moc Chau Tourism Site, when it opens in 2015, will attract over 1,5 million visitors each year,” says Duc. The province also plans to hold a culture week titled Moc Chau Plateau – A Paradise for Green Tourism in 2010.