A young child on a Hello Kitty tricycle mimics the style of a young family on a Honda moped. International symbols such as the Japanese cat cartoon are now rife in Vietnamese culture since market reforms took place in the mid 1980s. There is even a Hello Kitty store in downtown Ho Chi Minh city selling all sorts of feline memorabilia.
Vietnam – Been There

A warm bath of hospitality

Photo by Suzanne Chater

Vietnam – Been There A warm bath of hospitality

In the hills of northern Vietnam, I am reminded that spending time with a local family is a worthwhile experience.

Pim Verweij
Pim Verweij

At dusk, after a brisk walk of six hours in a very varied landscape, my guide Pang and I arrive in Ta Phin, a remote village, lying in a peaceful valley. We are on our way to the May Lai homestay up the hill. She points at the wooden house up the hill, partly hidden by trees. The women nod, smile and continue working, while obviously discussing this latest strange arrival.

Mrs Ly May Lai is waiting on the doorstep when we arrive. “Welcome to my family home,” she says. “You must be hungry after your long walk. We will prepare dinner for you.” As I enter, my eyes fill with tears from a thick layer of smoke hanging inside the house. It doesn’t seem to bother the rest of the family: her husband and parents-in-law, her sister and her two little sons. They laugh when they see my tears.

May Lai settles down at the fire and stirs a huge pan into which two men could easily fit. I can smell a sweet mixture of herbs with mint, pine, eucalyptus and much more. I wonder what it is, perhaps some traditional medicine? For a split second, I worry that they have plans to boil me in it, because May Lai points at me and then to the pan. “You go in later,” she says.

After a while, she and her husband carry the pan into a small space behind the kitchen and pour the water into a big wooden tub. After closing a small curtain, they invite me to step in. Now I understand what they were preparing for me: a traditional herbal bath. Later, she explains that these baths are a distinctive part of Red Dao culture. “We have used them for many generations. Tourists enjoy it, especially in the winter when it is cold here. It is an experience they’ll never forget.”

That night, I eat dinner with the family in the kitchen around a large wooden table. I count four different vegetable dishes and others with chicken and pork. I have a small bowl of rice and two wooden chopsticks but my efforts to eat with them make the family laugh. Even the children do a better job. Then her husband offers a toast to thank me for visiting their home. The homebrewed rice wine is strong and I am soon tipsy after such a long day of walking.

Experiencing the daily life of the locals, learning about their culture while contributing a bit to the family’s welfare by paying for a place to sleep, a meal and maybe some beer, has also given me insights about my own life. My hectic life at home, I realize once more, is not the only way to live.

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