One of the main characteristics about the landscape in Northern Vietnam are the terraced rice fields. Northern Vietnam landscapes such as Sapa, Mu Cang Chai, Mai Chau… are greeting autumn with a glamorous view of golden crops on the terraced fields at the foot of the impressive Mount Fansipan. Terraced fields, which look like “ladders to the sky” from the mountainous villages are always wonderful attractions for foreign tourists. The fields, created by talented and diligent ethnic farmers, have remained there for hundreds of years.
Terrace farming is the way that people adapt to their environment. Think of a steep-sloping hillside. If this is the only land you have to grow crops on, how do you then grow crops without everything sliding down the hillside? Since ancient times, mountainous farmers have built terraces to shore up a hillside, creating several levels of farms. In a small, seemingly inhospitable place, they can grow the crops they need to grow to survive.
Instead of flowing freely down the hillside, water stops on the level plain. In this way, the lower terraces are not eroded and, also, the higher terraces get enough water. On a straight, steep slope, water would tumble down the hillside, carrying crops and much-needed soil with it, letting nothing grow. But add the element of a terrace, and you have flat areas on which to farm.
A terraced field has many levels in series and each level is a small field. The more levels there are, the more farming techniques the owner has. Given the scarcity of flat land, wet rice growers use hillsides to create an even and flat plot of land which looks like a three-step staircase. That’s the way terraced fields were created, a rare feature of Vietnam’s wet rice civilization.
Mu Cang Chai with the stunning yellow terraced fields under sunshine
HOW DO PEOPLE FARMING IN THOSE TERRACED FIELDS?
The history of terraced fields is associated with the history of residence of ethnic groups in Vietnam’s northern mountains. Their cultural values are reflected in the farming experience, production customs, the formation of terraced fields of each ethnic group. One of the most prominent examples is in the rice field of Southeast Asia. Acre after acre of what looks like unusable land contains terrace after terrace. Much of the rice that comes from Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries is grown on terraces. Rice, especially, needs a lot of water to grow. The more flat areas existing on which to grow rice, the more rice people can grow. And with the terrace farming idea, water stays on the level surfaces, so rice grows in places that, on first glance, would not necessarily look to be good farmland.
After a place is chosen, the improvement of soil is very important. The first step is to dig a ditch to supply water to the newly-exploited field. Farmers explain that the digging is undertaken by men, who must be skillful enough to make water flow constantly into the rice fields, particularly during the transplanting of rice seedlings. The water flows from the upper levels down and each piece of field is part of this irrigation system. If the terraced field is owned by many households, the management and distribution of water is shared between them.
The most beautiful view of terraced fields right before harvesting from September to October
The land exploitation and rice cultivation has been maintained from generation to generation over hundreds of years. Each terraced field creates a beautiful picture on the hillside.
Together with the formation of terraced fields and the sedentary farming, ethnic groups the northern mountains have adopted many traditional festivals and cultural activities associated with agricultural production. A local woman in Sapa said “The Mong people consider a terraced field an invaluable basket of rice. The field is most beautiful when the paddies turn yellow. When there are abundant rice, we feel very happy”. During the harvest time in October, the gold rice field stands out of green forests, creating a magnificent picture in Vietnam’s northern part.
farmers are preparing for the crop
Different from rice cultivation on the plain, the terraced rice fields can be cultivated with only one crop per year, normally from June to October. With the first summer rains, the hill tribe people all come to the fields to prepare for the new crop. It is really hard work as the terraces are uphill and very narrow. Moving up and down the hills is a much harder job compared to farming on the plain. They call this time the “Falling Water” season. Then they start irrigating the fields in a very special way. At the water source, a bank of the top terrace is opened so that water can run into the field. Then each succeeding terrace will have an open place for the water to run down. It is an amazing scene when you see the silver water running down to all of the terraces. When there is enough water, they can harrow and then replant the rice in each field. This is a very busy and interesting time with all of the different kinds of activities of the hill tribe people. The “Falling Water” season is always the most attractive and lively season for you and your photography.
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