I wanted to do something off the beaten track, and experience the “real” Vietnam, not the industrialised city version with its mobs of people and crazy traffic. I wanted to go bush. Well, go “paddy” really – aren’t the paddy fields whatVietnam is all about? So I decided on a home stay in the remote village of Mai Chau, about four hours drive out of Hanoi.
With that in mind I hooked up with some fellow travellers – an American girl living in China (called Sarah), and a French guy of Japanese appearance (called Claude). We headed for the hills in our own personal 4WD complete with driver and English-speaking guide. En route Sarah and I bonded. I told her about the fact that Australians don’t ride kangaroos to school and she taught me some dirty drinking songs involving British sailors. Claude slept stretched out on the back seat.
Our home stay itself, once we reached it, was a wooden stilt house nestled amongst narrow dirt laneways and brown, muddy paddy fields. Our host was an elderly Vietnamese lady, a member of the White Tai tribe. We were eager to explore, so set off on our first adventure with our English-speaking guide. Soon we were standing in the middle of a remote village, drinking in the simplicity of life here. The mud-clad road through the village could accommodate three people abreast, and the odd motorbike or cow. Entire families lived in the tiny wooden houses, our guide explained, extended families such as grown sons with their wives, and elderly grandparents. As we were walking past one such house a young man called out to our guide and they exchanged pleasantries in Vietnamese. The guide turned to us and said “He wants to know if we will come inside?” We nodded as one.
We were told that the houses were built on stilts so that wild animals couldn’t attack those inside – also the domestic animals of the house (chickens, pigs and water buffalo) could be housed underneath. We climbed the stairs and took off our shoes before entering the cool of the main room. It was one large room, with a short-legged table just inside the door. There was a shrine on the far wall – incense sticks and flowers in front of a few framed black and white photos. We were told not to sit with our backs to this shrine. The young man, called Tuyen (pronounced Two-In), motioned for us to sit at the table, on the floor.
Tuyen was energetic, always smiling, and apparently content. He looked healthy and happy and proudly introduced us to his wife, three year-old daughter and mother. There were several children inside, who were all fascinated with us. As soon as we got out our digital cameras they forgot all their shyness and crammed around for a glimpse of themselves. Tuyen’s mother went into the back room and dressed up in her traditional clothes for us to take a photo. Tuyen and his brother poured weak tea into little cups the size of shot glasses, refilling them whenever they were emptied.
In between cups the boys asked us a barrage of questions about ourselves: Were we married? Why not? How old are we? (and then dismay that we could be nearing 30 and not be married!). Did we live with our parents? What did we think of Vietnam? Did we like the food in Vietnam?
When we had had several cups of tea, Tuyen looked at us with mischief in his eyes and asked if we’d like to share some rice wine. We didn’t really know what we were in for until he poured us our first shot, which after downing in one go I found was a bit like vodka in strength and taste. I’m not really one for neat spirits, but Claude was a guy and couldn’t refuse the many encouragements by Tuyen and his brother to down shot after shot of the strong drink.
Sarah and I sat on our second shot, so weren’t at all tipsy, but Claude was looking flushed. We decided to make our farewells. The family waved goodbye as we retreated back down the road with fond memories of hospitality in the remote hills of Vietnam.