Update: 16:49 | 19/12/2021
In Vietnam's northern highlands, replete with breathtaking scenery, one commune offers something extra special: a chance to commune directly with the clouds and get close to the stars.
Around 200km west of Hanoi, the commune, named after a mountain that it hosts, is an emerging tourism hotspot for good reason.
Ta Xua carries some French imprints in the manner of famous northern Vietnam destinations like Sa Pa, Tam Dao and Mau Son.
A person stands amid clouds in Ta Xua.
Ta Xua, nestling as it does in a 2,800m high mountain range in Son La Province, is no ordinary escape from the urban smog, dust and noise. While it takes some getting to on the road from Bac Yen that seems to spiral endlessly, a heady ending awaits.
The sight of clouds gliding across rice fields on arrival in Ta Xua during the day sets the tone for the euphoric experiences in store for the intrepid visitor. Arriving after the sun has set and it has gotten dark, twinkling stars line up to greet you.
As a perfect antidote to a somewhat long and tiring journey, the visitor can rest by a warm fire in a cosy, traditional H'mong home and savor typical local dishes like black chicken, pickled bamboo shoots with chilli and beef jerky smoked over the fire for more than two months. These delights can be washed down with the specialty tea of the area, Shan Thuyet (which you can take home for about VND2 million a kilo).
A herdboy in Ta Xua.
Enhancing the warm glow is the natural hospitality of the ethnic minority people who live in the commune. Mac Truong Giang, who runs a homestay business in Ta Xua, says: "The reason why I feel it’s a great place is that the people here are very friendly with especially lovely children. The community’s particular characteristics add to the attraction."
There are some Covid-19 related restrictions in the area, but, Giang says: "It seems that Ta Xua is very crowded with tourists. It is not just the young people, the older ones also like to come here and the place gets very busy on weekends."
In fact, the pandemic gave some people in the area an opportunity to upgrade their services, says Ha Manh Luan, who owns the Ta Xua Clouds Homestay. "Covid separated us for a few months. In that time, we improved our services and built a new facility to prepare for the end of the epidemic and welcome back guests."
The area was closed to tourists for most of the summer. Only essential businesses remained open for locals. However, after months of isolation, Ta Xua was allowed to welcome tourists again in October.
Cloud hunters in particular have been delighted with this news because October to April is considered the best time to take in the extraordinarily heady sight of a sea of clouds within touching distance. Such experiences, including opportunities to catch up close glimpses of the Milky Way, keep luring visitors back.
These incredible sensations are the commune's USP and it would be wise for people to visit this place sooner rather than later, before it becomes the tourist hotspot that it is inevitably heading towards.
Dao Truong, who works in the local hospitality industry, said the commune’s tourism popularity was rising because of "very good online marketing" and the "short distance from Hanoi.
"Many cloud hunters come here repeatedly. When news got around that tourists can return, the eagerness to get back and breathe in the mountain air was evident. Now, Ta Xua is often overloaded because there are not enough rooms for tourists."
A path up to Ta Xua peak.
Despite its growing popularity, tourism activities and facilities are still limited in the region, which experiences frequent power shortages on the weekends when establishments are filled with customers using multiple sources of electricity.
But, when one is sitting around a fire and looking up at the dazzling night sky with old and new friends, electricity loses some of its shine.
Truong said: "With its natural advantages, tourism development is happening in the right direction. Ta Xua will develop even more strongly in the future. It is even attracting people from other places looking for career opportunities."