August 11, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Asia

I am not the same person that I was before leaving on this trip (and not just because I am now officially tied down), which I suppose could have been expected, but I never really imagined that just a single day could have changed me so much. After two unimaginable days cruising, dining and kayaking in what must be the most beautiful place on earth, Halong Bay, I was certain that Vietnam couldn’t impress me any further. But then one day came along in which Jacobo and I were given the unique opportunity to experience the country NOT as tourists. This is something we relish in doing for guests to Spain and an experience we’d only dreamt we could have in Vietnam, but never imagined would come true considering that we did not know a soul here. I suppose the universe decided to give back a little, though, because not only has this wish come true, but we are walking away from this country feeling so fulfilled and so in love with it.

When we arrived in Hoi An, an hour plane ride south of Hanoi, we were immediately greeted at the airport by our guide, Thuong, who enthusiastically welcomed us to his town and country. He may have been short in stature, but his personality was bigger than life and his energy infectious. Our itinerary was open for the coming few days, so he was explaining to us all the wonderful things we could do in Hoi An (an absolutely charming town by the way), but provided the disclaimer that you couldn’t really know the culture by hanging around in the city. We nodded in complete agreement, knowing all too well how true this was, and as both of us were thinking in our heads how we wished there were a way to experience something else, Thuong proposed a tour to his village about an hour outside of Hoi An. He explained to us that he was starting his own travel business and that a part of his services included a tour to his hometown where he would take guests to the local market, and then to his family’s home to learn how to cook, followed by lunch. This opportunity seemed too good to be true. A completely authentic Vietnamese experience?? Could we really be so lucky, or was this guy taking us for a ride? We both agreed to take him up on his offer, deciding simultaneously without words that the risk was worth taking.

Two days later, we met Thuong at our hotel where he lead us to a big rented van outside meanwhile explaining that we’d be taking his mother back with us from his village (she was to take her first plane flight ever in order to travel north to see one of her sons). We set off, still a little nervous not knowing what to expect, but excited nonetheless. At the beginning of our drive, the streets were lined by tourists, as usual, but slowly the tourists faded, and about 20 minutes later our van stopped in the village of Ha Lam.

We hopped out of the car and followed Thuong faithfully to the market where we would select food for the day’s lunch. Before I even had time to process that there wasn’t another Westerner in site, people were approaching me from all sides with huge grins and saying “Hello! Hello!” Had I met them before? These people were so friendly and excited to see me, surely I must know them! Thuong explained to us that they had never seen anyone like us before – caucasian, tall, or blond. To them we were celebrities – they just wanted to be close to us, see us, take pictures with us. It was overwhelming and humbling at the same time. Standing in the open market we were surrounded by the day’s fresh catches, tons of different kinds of rice, live ducks, every type of produce both imaginable and unimaginable, and what felt like a million eyes looking at us eagerly, hopefully. I could feel the weight of the experience bubbling up from my heart and seeping out my eyes in small tears. It was hard for me to understand that so many people could become so overwhelmed with happiness to see silly old us, and yet there I was doing the very same thing. I knew it was something special to be there with those people, special and exciting for all of us. Walking through the market, I had a permanent grin plastered on my face, and did my best to greet every warm smile with an equally warm smile along with a “hello” and “xin chao.”

We left there with several live fish, some sting rays, cow stomach (which Thuong, bless his heart, knew we would not likely be eating), fresh produce, noodles, and our jaws on the floor. What a tremendously cool and distinctly un-touristy experience we had – an absolute gift and surely the highlight of the trip thus far. Jacobo and I sat in amazement in the back of the van just pondering what might be coming up next, both of us too saturated with emotion to really say anything at all other than shared looks of astonishment.

15 minutes later, the van stopped on a narrow road in La Nga, Thuong’s village, in front of several small little shops and homes. In Vietnam, people’s homes are their shops – business in the front, house in the back (kind of like the mullet of houses, if you will. Sorry, I had to…I’m still working through the mullet I had as a child and it resurfaces in peculiar ways). This was Thuong’s brother’s tailor shop. Thuong explained to us that his brother made some of the best suits around – taking his time (several days versus just one) to make his creations. Inside we were greeted by his brother who graciously served us some tea while we sat down on small little chairs and took in the calm village surroundings. No Westerners in those parts, that was for sure…just a taste of what was still to come, I suppose.

A few short moments later, we were back in the van. Just down the road a bit, we turned off onto an even narrower path that zigged and zagged through overgrown country foliage and up and around the low lying hills. The road finally ended revealing Thuong’s colorful home where we were greeted like family by his darling little father, his mother and moments later by his nieces, nephews, chickens, puppies, kittens and even a baby pet monkey. Touring the house we saw their beds, the kitchen, the well, the fire pit – a home so completely different than anything I had ever seen in my life, and yet every corner was filled with love.

As we absorbed our entirely foreign surroundings, Thuong summoned us to mount a couple of motorbikes with him and his uncle so that we could head to the nearby reservoir. Only just up the road, the small reservoir, with cattle grazing at its banks, hovered above the lush rice fields below. Thuong explained to us that this location was where a battle between US and Vietnamese troops took place and that in fact land mines could still be found in the hillsides. A sobering thought. Such a beautiful, peaceful place, with such happy, hospitable people, had a battleground for a backyard – literally. My mind still can’t wrap itself around what life must have been like for his family living in that home decades ago. I had to shake those thoughts away though as Thuong instructed Jacobo and me to navigate our way back to his house by foot while he and his uncle returned by bike. So Jacobo and I descended the damn toward the rice fields where along the way we were met by one of his darling nephews who never seemed to wipe the affable grin off his face nor the sense of awe from his big puppy dog eyes. I think he and I became good friends, even though the most I could say in Vietnamese were the few things Thuong had taught and quizzed us on in the car (I’m 28, I’m American and I don’t have children – an important fact in Vietnamese culture, and probably not of too much concern to this little boy, but oh well). I think smiles and hand gestures alone were enough for us both to do some serious bonding.

Arriving back at the house, the men (Thuong’s brother, brother-in-law and his father, among several others) had speared the live fish vertically to a brick and were nestling it in a pile of shrubbery from the rice fields. Slowly, as they covered the fish, they began lighting the whole thing on fire. The heat from the blaze was intense given the already grossly hot and humid weather. Meanwhile, the boys gathered large banana leaves which they laid out on mats under the surrounding trees. Moments later we were all sitting down on those same mats, toasting with our homemade rice wine, sharing bites of the cooked fish and sting ray, and then noshing on spring rolls, Vietnamese pancakes and noodle soup. Perhaps the best meal of my life. I felt like an outsider getting the most exclusive peek at this special world, not just because I wasn’t Vietnamese, but because I was a woman – apparently this wasn’t something the women would typically join in on. Usually they would occupy themselves in the kitchen, preparing the food, and drinking soda (they do not drink alcohol). But there I was with a group of Vietnamese men who were toasting and refilling my shot glass one right after the other. Jacobo and I couldn’t understand a thing they said, but at the same time, strangely enough, we understood everything. We laughed, we ate, we drank, and somehow I felt as though I was right back in Spain having a nice long meal, sharing tapas, drinking chupitos (shots) and just chatting away with friends. It’s amazing how friendly gatherings have no cultural barriers – it’s pretty much the same wherever you go…family, friends and good food made with lots of love.

After finishing our lunch I think we all needed a Vietnamese siesta, so it was time to hit the small windy, bumpy, motorbike-filled road and head back to Hoi An. We said our good-byes to Thuong’s family as warmly and graciously as we could without using words. My heart was exploding with gratitude and no way to really communicate it other than holding my hands to my heart, smiling and saying “Cam on, Cam on” (thank you).

We are so grateful to Thuong and his family for the once in a life time experience. They are truly incredible people with so much spirit and such big hearts. If you ever plan to go to Vietnam (which you should) please visit Thuong’s site and don’t hesitate to contact him. Not only is his pride for his country contagious, but he’s got big dreams (he would love to someday create a small resort by his parents’ house). I am certain that if he can continue to share Vietnam with people the way he did with us, that both his future and Vietnam’s will be brighter than ever. What a special place.

Please pardon the poor quality of my photos – I’m not using my own computer, so I’ve had some file issues!