By Ally, Savvi's Growth Manager (originally from her blog SpreadSomeSun)
The northern highlands of Vietnam are a must-see. They're abundant with the lush Hoang Lien Mountains, rice terraces sweeping into the valley, and home to dozens of hill tribes. Life in the village is much different than what we've seen while traveling up the coast of Vietnam. There are an array of villages embedded in rugged mountainside, no one the same as the other. Within each community, villagers speak their own language, specialize in their own cuisine (in accordance with what they harvest), and have their own unique way of living.
We decided to stay with a woman named Mai who approached us when we arrived in Sapa in the early morning. She is 26 years old, married and has two beautiful children, whose names we couldn't seem to master. Mai is from the village of Hau Thau. We really enjoyed our time here and it was unlike any the accommodation we have stayed at thus far. As followed are the highlights of why I feel staying in a homestay allows for the most genuine way to experience a culture.
Enjoy Authentic Food & Drink
In our 2 day, 1 night experience at Mai's home, we were lucky enough to share many meals with her family. Alongside her husband, Mai cooked us an assortment of food over a small fire pit in the kitchen area of the home. The meals included pumpkin soup, eggs with scallions and black pepper, boiled potatoes, rau muong (the Vietnamese name for sautéed greens), fried noodles with cabbage, shredded choko, and, of course, rice. She also treated us to several cups of green tea (the tea leaves picked on one of our treks). Granted we have experienced a lot of authentic food during our trip, but you cannot get more authentic than a true home cooked meal.
've always heard about how you should research the proper etiquette of eating in different cultures (and we did) but our studies were never tested as deeply as they were at Mai's table. We would eat until we were full and then Mai would insist we continue, filling our bowls until we ate everything on the table, exclaiming, "you eat more, you finish!" She explained to us that whatever we don't eat goes to the animals so being wasteful is not an option in this household!
Experience a day in the life
After eating breakfast with the family, Mai took us on a trek from her home through the rice terraces to the river. The trek down was no easy feat. The three of us were stumbling down the steep rocky parts with our nikes and athletic clothes. Meanwhile, Mai was wearing long sleeves, pants, and slide sandals cruising along just fine. She's accustomed to it from the many hours she would spend harvesting rice in the hot sun with her baby strapped to her back. We weaved down through the terraces for about 2 hours until we reached the local school. Just before we arrived at the school, Mai picked up two grasshoppers and stated, "baby needs to eat." A bit confused by this, we continued to follow her to the school. We then realized she was bringing the grasshoppers to her daughter at school to eat for lunch- what a meal! Although I cringe at the thought of eating an insect, it was very interesting to see Mai catch a grasshopper with ease to simply bring it to her daughter at school. Unexpected moments like this were what made our experience so memorable.
One of the funniest parts of our homestay experience was showering. When we arrived at Mai's home in the morning, the thought crossed my mind but escaped me because of everything else that was going on, but after the daylong hike a shower was in order. Mai turned on the water that comes from the mountain through a bamboo spout and into a bucket in the outhouse. Without any specific direction, we quickly realized that showering pretty much consisted of pouring cold buckets of water over your head. This was one for the books. With the light of a flashlight, we all took the fastest showers of our lives (while also the most eco friendly). Freezing, but clean, we happily enjoyed a cup of warm tea afterwards.
Learn About Local Family Life
I think most people can agree that spending 2 days with a family can really teach you a lot, regardless of where you are in the world. Considering the home we were staying in was essentially one big room, there was no separation between guest and host. We were able to see Mai's family dynamic in all its glory! The kids were both around age 5, so you can imagine the relationship between the two- constantly up and down, playing and fighting, sharing toys, wanting attention from us, etc. We loved playing with the kids and language barrier made it even more entertaining. We were also able to learn about Mai's family and how she came to be a wife and a mother. Mai and her husband have known each other since they were young, but were from different villages. When they married, Mai moved to her husband's village where they started a family. Mai's husband is in the process of building their home, so during our stay he spent most of his time cutting and sanding planks of wood. Living with another family made me miss mine even more!
Have the Opportunity to Ask Questions
Even though we had been in Vietnam for nearly 2 weeks, we still had so many questions about life here in the highlands, especially since it's so drastically different than the other Vietnamese cultures we have experienced. Staying in a homestay and spending so much time with Mai allowed us to ask practically any questions we wanted. Of course we had to keep the language barrier in mind, but at this point we had a pretty good handle on how to ask our questions in a thoughtful way. Mai taught us about the different hill tribes, the craft of weaving and dying with indigo, the importance of the harvest; she was able to answer almost all of the questions we had.
Gain a Different Perspective
There have been many humbling experiences during the past few weeks, but this one stands out the most. Growing up, when my sisters and I would comment "ewww!" or "weird!" in reaction to something unfamiliar to us, my mom would always chime in by saying, "it's not weird, it's just different." Living in a home much different than my own would have, of course, seemed daunting to me at that point of my life. There are still aspects of Mai's life that make me hesitate and bring me outside of my comfort zone. However, after observing how mindful and effective some aspects of this culture are, I begin to rethink my own life and the actions I take. Living in someone else's home and watching them live in their own unique way really sheds a lot of light on how we can make changes in the way we do things in America.
Sleeping in a double bed with 2 of my best friends, in a one room home, with an outhouse, on the side of a mountain is definitely not something I thought I would ever do. Then again, I never thought I would spend 2 months backpacking around Asia either, but here I am, sitting in a van driving to Luang Prabang, Laos. Overall, I loved the time we spent with Mai and her family and would highly recommend it (I have her contact information if you're ever headed to this part of Vietnam). It became clear to me that when everything is stripped down, we're all humans just working, eating, spending time with their families, and living in different places all over the world!