Experiencing Pu Luong, rural Vietnam

March 18, 2007 - Ha Noi, Vietnam

In the morning we ate breakfast and met with our guide “The” and our driver “Viet”. We bought a few small gifts for the families we would visit including pencils and drawing pads for the children. Our guide also stopped for us to get some Banh Sua, or milk cake to give as gifts. The four of us drove to Mai Chau where we met our local guide “Doc”. As it turns out Terry and I had a support staff of 3 people for our 3 days in rural Vietnam. Our local guide knows the villages, paths, and will help the home stay family with all the cooking. We ate lunch in Mai Chau. This village is occupied by the White Thai ethnic minority group. It was here that we first stepped foot into our first stilt house, or house on stilts. In the past the animals were kept under the house, but this practice is no longer common do to the noise and smell. The floor of the stilt house is bamboo and fairly strong (keep reading)... We walked around and it was clear that Mai Chau had been greatly affected by tourism. Every house in the village was a home stay and the locals were aggressive with their sales.

We drove to Ban Sai our first rural village. Actually, “Ban” means hamlet which is a small village. So “Ban Sai” is the hamlet of Sai. From here we walk about 3 hours to Ban Hang where we would spend our first night passing small villages along the way. Both these villages are part of the Pu Luong nature reserve. Our first night would be spent with a family of 5. Mom, dad, the 2 older sons, and a very shy 23-year old daughter. We gave our gifts including the pad of paper and pencils asking our host to please donate it to some of the village children. Outside of “Hello” and “Thank you” (Com on, pronounced gum urn) all communication occurred through our guide acting as our translator. I soon realized that I much prefer being the translator myself.

Terry helped make Cha La Lot, a mixture of ground pork, green onion, ginger, black pepper, wrapped in a “Lot” leaf and deep fried. It has become one of my favorites. Terry came out looking embarrassed and told me she broke the kitchen floor. Apparently there was a small hole in the floor and Terry sat down on a block of wood, it cracked and the hole was made larger. The house was 11 years old and the bamboo floor in the kitchen was pretty dried and old anyway. The houses have two separate rooms connected by a small bridge. A great room and a kitchen. The kitchen has a pipe which brings water from the mountain and an area to cook over a wood fire. The houses have electricity which is used for lights, fans, and the TV. Yes, a satellite TV which sits on the original packing Styrofoam and is well taken of; covered with a cloth while not in use. These houses do not have phones and cell coverage does not reach the villages. The electrical wiring is all external and is very primitive.

It reminds me that I forgot to mention something about the floating village in Cambodia. Those houses too had TVs. The house floated from location to location so wiring the house with electricity was not possible. Probably not a good idea for a house floating on the water anyway. So TVs and lights were run off car batteries, and instead of a gas station there was a floating battery charging station in the floating village.

Back to Pu Luong in Vietnam. So while Terry was helping in the Kitchen I went out back and noticed the our host choking a duck (our dinner). He seemed to have been hiding from us as if he had been instructed that foreigners didn’t have the stomach for the details of the meal. But this is exactly why Terry and I chose a rural home stay, so I sat down next to him and watched him gut, clean and prepare the duck for dinner. I retired to the great room and watched football (that is soccers for you Americans) with the guys while the women prepared dinner. I guess some things transcend all cultures.

After helping with some of the preparations, Terry returned to the great room and asked about what one of the brother were smoking. It was a “Thuoc Loa” or a water bong from what I could see. So Terry said she wanted to try it and so we both smoked a bit of tobacco for the experience. Our non-smoking lungs didn’t seem to like this and everyone chuckled at our amateur coughing. Dinner was great and after eating Terry and I were spent. Our home stay hostess set up our beds and mosquito nets and after a bit of reading we were out for the night.

In the morning, I woke and snuck out into the sunlight to do some reading. This has always been one of my favorite parts of travelling and I have fond memories of drinking coffee and reading before sun-up in Africa while the group still slept. Our breakfast was setup up in the great room, but only for two. We wondered why we were eating alone. Terry talked me into marching into the kitchen to join everyone else for breakfast. She is often more daring than myself and I admire that side of her very much. So we carried our soup into the kitchen. We later found out that it was believed that foreigners wanted some privacy and so Terry and I made it clear that we there to learn about the local life style and we didn’t want special treatment. We noticed that everyone else was eating fried rice and we were served a more elaborate meal. I know Terry wanted to try the fried rice so I asked and explained to our guide that we really did want to experience the local live style (within reason). We said good bye to the family and left with the dad who brought us to a local cave and showed us around before we parted and left the village. We found some Hawaiin Velcro (plant leaf) and showed our guides how it is used in Hawaii to attach a flower to your shirt. Our guide wore his attached fern leaf (didn’t have a flower at the time) proudly until it fell off hours later.

We had a 5 hour hike ahead of us to Ban Eo Ken inhabited by the Muong ethnic minority. We past many small villages along the way. We often wondered how our new friends Dave and Namita were enjoying their trip to Sapa and how it differed. I often thought that after a long day of trekking a good Euchre victory would do my back some good. Every where we went the adults would quietly smile and give the occasional “Xin Chau”. The children would run the to roadside or peak from their windows, wave and say “Hello”. But the local dogs and cattle seemed to be afraid of us. Although they lied peacefully while our guides past, they turned and fled went Terry and I approached. We are unsure if it was our smell of our forein bodies or the sound of our foreign voices, but the animals clearly wanted nothing to do with us. It was very bizarre. We saw some beautiful scenery including the much sought after terraced rice fields. As we entered the outskirts of Ban Eo Ken we stopped for a break and tried a local sour fruit named “Nhot”. A group of children followed us into the village. Photographing them was very hard. They would have these great natural expressions but would stop and pose when I raised my camera. So I learned two tricks. 1) to shoot without looking through the view finder and 2) use Terry to distract them. Terry would take a photo and show it to the kids on the digital camera LCD. They were amazed and overjoyed and that is when I tried to take my shots. Terry gave the children some candy and as the kids dropped the wrappers I picked them up and put them in my pocket. I soon had children on every side handing me their spent wrappers. Interacting with the village children may have been the highlight of our stay.

We continued on and with over an hour to go we were both out of water. Our itinerary said that “a reasonable amount of water” was included. It was hot, we were trekking for hours, and we both finished our two 0.5 liter bottles. I would usually drink 3 liters on a hike like this. Next Terry and I ran out of memory space in our cameras. We took so many pics, we filled up the 5GB of memory cards we had. We finally made it to the car and Terry and I were given the last 0.5 liter bottle of water which we immediately drank. Fortunately we had the laptop so I transferred 4GB worth of images to the computer. This took 30 minutes and then the laptop battery was spent. With no water we decided to end the trekking at 5 hours and ride in the car a bit. We got stuck on the rough dirt road more than once and we had to get out. The car wouldn’t start once and both guides help to push start it. At the time I was still carrying the laptop waiting for the transfer to complete. It was quite the scene. Even without water I didn’t last riding in the car very long. I was missing out on too many photos so I told the car to go ahead and Terry and I walked the last 2 km alone while the driver took our 2 guides back to Ban Sai. On the way to Ban Sai some locals invited us into their house for some rice wine. They have this ritual of filling a glass with the wine and pouring it from glass to glass until each glass was rinsed with the wine. Then all glasses are wiped and the wine is served. The rice wine was extremely strong. Terry and I were very touched that the locals were so genuinely hospitable (or just very drunk). One guy even kissed me on the cheek. We all just kept saying Xin Chau (Hello, pronounced sin chow) and clinking glasses and drinking since we didn’t know what else to say to each other. It definitely ranked up there with the village children as one of our best travel experiences.

When we arrived at our Ban Sai home stay house our guide had already made him self comfortable. He was lying about watching TV. He seemed to order the little girl around a couple times and Terry and I agreed his attitude seemed to be a combination of City vs. country folk, male vs. female, and older vs. younger mentality. This was another family of 5. The 2 sons had moved to the city leaving mom, dad, and “Lan”, their 9-year old daughter. She too was very shy. We gave her the drawing pad and pencils and she sat down and started drawing. I helped in the kitchen rolling Vietnamese spring rolls. Then I sat down with Lan and drew a few doodles of my own. After asking 3 times Terry and I finally got some more water. We went through a liter immediately and save our last 0.5 for an emergency. Terry and I washed up for the first time in 2 days and it felt like we were reborn. The stilt houses have a small wash room with water from the mountain filling a small bucket. Dinner was again awesome. The entire group ate together. After dinner the hostess set up our beds and mosquito nets. Between us Terry and I we got only 3 mosquitos bites during our entire stay in Vietnam. As advised by our travel doctor, we are not taking any anti-malaria medication. Since we are visiting a large number of malaria infested areas, no one medication would prove effective against the various strains. So prevention is our best defense.

In the morning again we were served breakfast alone. We asked the guides and family to come join us in the great room and we all ate together. This was our final day in Vietnam. We would drive back to Hanoi then the airport. Since we had left Mai Chau 2 days prior, we had not seen a single foreigner. And since the driver stayed with the car and our 2 guides were often ahead of us or trailing, Terry and I spent much of our time trekking alone through the villages. The experience was exactly what we were looking for and we loved every minute. There were no tourist shops in the village and the villagers have not learned to ask for money to take there photo. I sincerely hope this never changes but at the same time realize that our very presence as with each future visit by a tourist may start the wheels of change rolling. On the way back our guide stopped to buy us some Jack fruit. I had never seen it so I took a quick shot and got back in the car. A few seconds later I heard a knock at the window. Someone associated with the Jack fruit vender (I assume) was asking me for money for the photo I had just taken. I knew we were back in the city. I quickly dismissed him with a hand gesture and he went away. For lunch we ate various dishes made from “Dao” snake which from our guides description, must be a viper. Our guide did go out of his way to introduce us to local food and customs. He always opened/closed the car door for us and told the driver to slow down or stop when he saw me taking a photo out of the corner of his eye. Overall we were impressed. And he was only 17 years old. After we returned from Pu Luong, we said our good byes to Vietnam and left for Bangkok.

Errors and Omissions:

Our “Banh” meal is actually called “Banh Tom”. Banh means cake. Banh Tom is the specific bean sprout and egg cake we ate at 22 Hang Bo. Also, “Hang” just means street. Hang Bo means the “street for bamboo baskets”. In the old days of the old quarter of Hanoi there were 36 artisan guilds and a street for shops of each guild. Each street was named after the products of that guild. So on hang Bo all the shops sold bamboo baskets. So if you needed silver, you went to Hang Bac, the silver street, and main drag of the present day old quarter. As I mentioned, motorbikes rule the road. Although now helmets are the law, people rarely wear them. There are about 30 deaths a day due to head injuries caused by accidents. This is the #1 health risk to tourists. Seeing the traffic in the cities I am surprised it was not higher. But since traffic control, like traffic signals, are rare people really do seem to drive cautiously. Rain does not reduce the number of motorbikes on the road. Some use a specially designed poncho that covers the handlebars with holes for the motorbike mirrors, and clear vinyl for the headlight to shine through. This keeps the driver and his cargo, usually kept between his legs, dry.


Lunch in Mai Chau
To Ban Hang
Stilt house kitchen
Thuoc Loa
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