For the Love of Long Coc

Nestled in Phu Tho province, Long Coc, once a quiet farming commune, has become a photographer's paradise.
June 24, 2024 | 11:38

Prior to experiencing it for myself, I would often stare at photos of Long Coc, meditating on its serene beauty. The photos would depict verdant tea hills rising over mountain mists, with farmers deftly navigating the leafy pathways. From afar, the rolling hills resemble the serpentine silhouette of a dragon (hence the name Long Coc - Dragon Cave). At dawn and dusk, the skies would light up with fantastic warm colors, accompanying the deep green acres below.

The Long Coc Tea Hills are the biggest source of tea cultivation for Phu Tho province and the fourth largest tea plantation in Vietnam. However, in recent years, this remote farmland has earned some international acclaim thanks to some skillful Vietnamese photographers.

In 2019, Nguyen Phuc Thanh was recognized at the Sony World Photography Awards for his photo of Long Coc’s iconic horizon. Two years later, Bui Viet Duc earned the silver prize at the Smile World Photography Awards for his depiction of Long Coc cloaked in a heavenly, morning light.

Indian photographer Prabu Mohan, who began his photography career in the wilds of Vietnam, always speaks highly of Long Coc and offers me a lot of travel advice.

“​​Bong Long Coc Tea Hill before sunrise is a good place for star gazing if you get a clear night. It is generally safe here and if you need anything, the homestays will help. I have camped here many times,” says Prabu. “At the sunset spot, if you go by motorbike, you can drive all the way up there, although the road is rough during the last two kilometers.”

With its new reputation as a photographer’s haven, I knew I had to see Long Coc for myself.

While only a mere three-hour drive from Hanoi, this picturesque region in Phu To province remained unknown to Hanoi’s expats. Additionally, the idea of driving for three hours on a Saturday was not appealing to most.

Fortunately, the photography of Long Coc was enough to entice a few friends.

For the Love of Long Coc
A bird's eye view of Long Coc. Photo by Tony Luan.

“Wow, it looks like The Shire!”

“No, it looks like Dragon Ball Z!”

“I think it looks like a level from Super Mario!”

We could all agree it looked like something out of this world. On one lazy Saturday, on a whim, we climbed onto our motorbikes and headed west towards Long Coc.

The drive took us through quiet towns and past jagged mountains. We stopped at several roadside cafes which lengthened the three-hour journey by quite a bit. Ultimately, we arrived just before sunset and drove our motorbikes through the tea leaves.

For the Love of Long Coc
Upon first arrving in Long Coc. Photo by Glen MacDonald.
For the Love of Long Coc
Goregous greenery. Photo by Glen MacDonald.
For the Love of Long Coc
A Long Coc sunset Photo by Glen MacDonald.

Unsurprisingly, we were not the only visitors to see Long Coc for Golden Hour. Children’s giggles echo throughout the gorgeous valley as mothers pose for photos taken by their smiling husbands.

A few Vietnamese uncles seemed to be more amazed by Western tourists over the incredible view and asked us for a photo. Now bitten by the shutterbug, we couldn’t stop taking photos of ourselves, the undulating hills, and the golden horizon.

For the Love of Long Coc
Driving through the tea leaves. Photo by Glen MacDonald.
For the Love of Long Coc
The full glory of Long Coc. Photo by Glen MacDOnald.

It was quite surreal to finally see a place that had enchanted me with photographs for so long. Now I stood there with a camera of my own (despite not knowing how to properly focus it), adding to Long Coc’s magnificent photographic canon.

In the final moments of the golden hour, we uncorked a bottle of Prosecco and toasted to another adventure on the open road.

For the Love of Long Coc
The boys love Long Coc. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

We arrived at our homestay, a traditional wooden stilt house built next to an old Vietnamese farmhouse. While there were few amenities, the staff was happy to supply us with a banquet of pig’s ear, bamboo shoots, chicken, soup, and several crates of beer.

The four of us chatted long into the night and left early the next morning. Unfortunately, we left without ever properly meeting the owner, Ha Van “Tony” Luan, who despite his young age has already made a name for himself as the owner of the first homestay in Long Coc. Tony Luan, who is also a photographer, has big plans for Long Coc’s tourism potential.

In a post-trip interview with Tony Luan, I learned more of his background and ambitions for Long Coc.

Before getting involved with tourism, Tony Luan worked alongside his family in tea and wet rice cultivation, a common practice for inhabitants of Long Coc. After finishing high school and working in Hanoi as a freelancer, Tony Luan returned to Long Coc with dreams of introducing Long Coc to foreigners.

“I really want to welcome many foreign guests to exchange and learn as well as to introduce the beautiful scenery of my hometown as well as the culture and cuisine,” said Tony Luan. “As a young person, with a desire to contribute and get rich in his native land, I understand the development potential of Long Coc Tea Hill, so I boldly chose the tourism business.”

Since our interview, Tony Luan has been hard at work renovating his homestay for larger groups of people, believing the popularity of Long Coc will continue to grow. Now his homestay has expanded and inspired by his hometown’s natural beauty and local cultures.

“To create closeness to nature, Tony Luan homestay is designed in the style of a stilt house of the Muong ethnic group in Tan Son,” explains Tony Luan, “with materials such as wood, thatch, bamboo, and cork leaves to create a cool atmosphere, and a spacious campus and a colorful flower garden, surrounded by farmers' products such as rice, corn, and forest banana flowers.”

For the Love of Long Coc
Long Coc's refreshing mountain stream. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

Before getting on the road back to Hanoi, my friends and I waded in a refreshing mountain stream, with the lovely tea hills still in our view. We sat in the warm sun, sipping beers cooled by the rushing stream. Like Tony Luan and scores of photographers before me, now I too have felt the love of Long Coc.

For the Love of Long Coc
Overlooking the tea hills. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

Will Long Coc be able to compete with larger Vietnamese tourist spots such as Sapa or Ha Long Bay? It remains to be seen. As a mostly underdeveloped region, tourism is still an uphill battle for the tiny farm commune. However, as Long Coc lovers can attest, size doesn't matter- it's how you use it.

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