Hong He, the Red River, starts life near Xiaguan in Yunnan’s northwest and runs southeast across the province, entering Vietnam at Hekou and flowing through Hanoi before emptying its waters, laden with volcanic soil, into the Gulf of Tonkin. For much of its journey the river is straight, channelled by high mountain ranges into a series of fertile, steep-sided valleys. These have been terraced by resident Hani, whose mushroom-shaped adobe-and-thatch houses pepper the hills around Yuanyang. In spring and autumn thick mists blanket the area, muting the violent contrast between red soil and brilliant green paddy fields. Though the best time to see them is between March and May, when the paddies are full of water, they are spectacular at any time.
Yuanyang (元阳, yuányáng) covers two settlements: the riverside township of Nansha (元阳南沙, yuányáng nánshā), terminus for Jianshui buses; and, where you actually want to base yourself, XINJIE (元阳新街镇, yuányáng xīnjiēzhèn), 30km uphill at the top of a high ridge. Xinjie is a small, untidy brick-and-concrete town which becomes a hive of activity on market days (every five days), when brightly dresssed Hani, Miao, Yi and Yao women pour in from surrounding villages.