But none is more spectacular than when applied to the sculptured fields of cultivation in South-East Asia. At their best when the crops are ready for harvest and the sun is shining, these terraces look almost fake as they wrap around steep hills in stunning unison. Some suspect they might be the work of aliens.
In Ben Bai province in the heart of the northern hills of Viet Nam, they are very real, are fashioned by human hands and have been there for thousands of years. Their neat and tidiness belies the toil of the farmers who built them and those who still tend them, and offers a stark contrast to the surrounding wilderness. And why Hang A Do, born and raised in one of the most celebrated areas (Mu Cang Chai) in 1991, realized there might be a better living in getting others to look at them than tending them himself.
Not that he was ever going to do that after his parents had scrimped and saved, raising animals and growing crops in harsh conditions, to send him to university. He takes up the story: “After finishing high school I entered the Faculty of Economic Law at the Open University in Ha Noi. For a family of upland, ethnic people, the cost for my four years of study required a great sacrifice. In 2013, I graduated from college, holding a bachelor’s degree in Economic Law.
“I wanted to find a suitable job to earn a living and lessen the burden on my parents. However, after submitting a lot of resumes without any response, I was extremely disappointed. So I decided to return home, going back to the uplands and the fields.” If his tail might have been between his legs, it was not there for long: he soon realized what a smart move he had made.
Tourists had started to flock to his neighbourhood of Mu Cang Chai drawn by the spectacular rice terraces. La Pan Tan, one of the most photogenic, was right on his doorstep. And as the world was discovering the beauty of the area, it opened the eyes of the locals to just what a jewel of a place they were living in.
Mr A Do recalls: “At that time, there were some households in our village already involved in community tourism. I immediately saw that the potential of Yen Bai was huge – there is just so much variety here. Visitors can experience the cultural life, ecotourism and adventure sports and so much more. Demand was great but the ability to meet the accommodation needs was limited.”
The granting of national-level site status to Mu Cang Chai rice terrace in 2007 had awakened the area to the new possibilities and the locals had even come up with a slogan, ‘I can also do’. Embracing the new mood, Mr A Do decided to open a tourist guest house. But, as a natural scholar, he also went back to school: to attend training courses on tourism organized by the district council. “In order to have a greater knowledge of tourism as well as a better understanding of how to serve foreign visitors, I registered,” he says. Once equipped with the knowhow, he was not going to be stopped.
“I decided to borrow money from relatives,” he explains. “I wanted to invest in buying land and build a house worth over VND800 million to serve tourists. I named the house as ‘Do Gu homestay’ but it was not easy to begin with. I found it hard to cope with so many visitors from so many different countries and cultures. But I soon learned how to cope and the quality of service improved. General standards did too, including the environmental awareness and sanitation, and gradually more guests came.
“At present, Do Gu homestay has the capacity to serve between 50 to 60 tourists. In addition, I hire out traditional Mong costumes for them to wear and take pictures. I also invite them to perform pan-pipe dancing. After almost two years of operation, income is not very high, but it is still much higher than farming. Thanks to tourism, my family has more income, extra funds to expand the campus and has learned English to communicate with visitors”.
“Not only that but I and my family have mobilized people to reclaim more terraced fields to expand the landscape and attract even more tourists. Visitor numbers to Mu Cang Chai are growing; the economic life and awareness of the people are increasing. All of this has helped change the economic outlook and improved the lives of people in the commune. This is the reason why my family is now more enthusiastic about the work that we have chosen”.