While in Hoi An, John and I discovered Grasshopper Tours, a highly-rated bicycle touring company. One of their offerings is a ride to the villages in the Vietnamese countryside. We both signed up but, unfortunately, on the morning we were to go, which was our last day in Hoi An, John wasn’t feeling up to it, but encouraged me to go on my own.
As it turned out, I was the only one to show up for the tour that day so I ended up getting a private tour. My tour guide was a young Vietnamese woman by the name of Yen. Her English is so good that at first I thought that she had studied in the U.S. or Australia. The actual story is quite different. Yen comes from a village a couple of hours outside of Hoi An and her parents are rice farmers. When Yen was a teenager, she knew that a life of rice farming was not for her. She asked her parents if she could go to university. Initially, they said no, and they had good reason to be reluctant. Rice farmers make a meager income of around $300 USD per year, and in Vietnam, everyone must pay for their children’s education through high school. Yen is the eldest of three daughters so her parents still had financial obligations for her younger sisters when Yen was in high school. In addition to this, parents are responsible for student loans in Vietnam, not the students themselves. If Yen had not been able to repay her parents, they were at risk of losing their home. Eventually, they relented and agreed to support Yen in her quest to go to university. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending — Yen studied English in college and completed her degree. She has worked in the tourism industry for the past few years, allowing her to continue to improve her English and, importantly, to repay her parents.
The tour took us through villages in the Hoi An area to the homes of local people who live and work in the traditional Vietnamese way — lifestyles that are disappearing as the country becomes more prosperous and Westernized.
The first place we visited was a home where the couple who live there make rice paper in the traditional way. They own a small, hand-operated mill that they use to make “rice milk,” from water and rice. The rice milk is then used to make rice paper by cooking it on a hot surface. The heat comes from burning the rice husks. Nothing is wasted. We ate a few treats made from the rice paper and they were delicious!
Next we went to visit the Dangs. They are the oldest couple in their village, and also are the keepers of their family chapel. In Vietnam, the majority of people do not belong to a formal religion, but adhere to the teachings of Confucious and engage in worship of their ancestors. The chapel and the family altar are used in this worship.
This part of the world is subject to regular floods and Yen showed me some of the marks where the water came into the house in past years and also showed me the ladder the Dang family uses to climb into the attic where they stay until the flood waters subside. This is not unlike what friends and family in my home state of Louisiana sometimes have to do.
Our next stop was at the home of some folks who make sleeping mats out of reeds that grow in the water. Their house is pretty rudimentary and is a kind of an open-air affair. It doesn’t get cold here as it does in the north of the country, still, there are times when one wants the weather kept out and this house didn’t look like it could do this very well. The eldest lady in the family is 100 years old and has been making these sleeping mats since she was 5 years old — 95 years of making sleeping mats! The mats are sold to middlemen, so the people making them don’t earn a lot. Many of these sleeping mats are machine made now, in fact, the folks who make the sleeping mats sleep on a machine made one. I asked why, and Yen told me that it’s because the loom they have only makes the size mat for a single or twin size bed and they have a double. Their beds are either bamboo slats or a flat piece of wood – no pillow top mattresses!
Our final stop was at the home of the man in the village who makes rice wine. Yen showed me how he uses the brown rice, then ferments it over several days. She showed me the bubbling of the fermented product in with the rice. The man is also the village healer and he has many jars of herbs and other remedies, including a bottle of rice wine with a scorpion it and another with geckos in it. These remedies are used to treat a wide variety of maladies, including infertility, and can also increase libido.
Too soon the tour was over and it was time to ride the ferry back to Hoi An. We took a special local ferry and the operator was completely prepared to take our bikes. The tour was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in our travels and I was very impressed with all of it. In fact, we’ve signed up for another Grasshopper bike tour when we get to Siem Reap, Cambodia.