Up close and personal

Homestays give travellers a taste of what life is actually like in Vietnam’s remote regions.

By Le Diem. Photos: Xuan Viet, Kristen on July 10,2015 08:02 AM

Up close and personal

There are a number of comfy hotels in Mai Chau, one of the most popular places in the north, but many people, especially backpackers and thrill-seekers, choose the more modest option of a homestay. Not only in Mai Chau but also in many other areas, from the north to the south, from the highlands to the delta or islands and particularly in tourist destinations such as Sapa, Moc Chau, Hoi An, Ly Son, and the Mekong Delta, homestays have become a favoured option among travellers.

Totally new experience

About 130 kilometres northwest of Hanoi, Mai Chau, in Hoa Binh province, captivates visitors with its picturesque valleys, beautiful terraced rice fields, traditional stilt houses, and the rich culture of the ethnic Muong and Thai minorities. As local tourism quickly developed, Mai Chau was one of the first places to offer homestay services, in the stilt houses of local people.

Up close and personal

Opening her house to welcome travellers to Mai Chau since 1996, Ha Thi Chung said only a few guests stayed every week at the beginning. But after a few years the number grew remarkably and she now welcomes 20 to 30 guests a week and even 20 a night on weekends and holidays. In nearby villages such as Lac and Poom Coong almost all households offer homestay services.

The demand for homestays is growing everywhere, with many travellers preferring them to hotels when booking tours, according to Cao Thao, a sales executive of inbound tours at Viet Fun Travel.

For just VND50,000 ($2.5) a night you can get a safe place to sleep in a stilt house in Mai Chau or elsewhere in the northern mountains. A stay in a ‘normal’ house costs VND100,000-200,000, and for a few dollars more the host will prepare a meal as well.

The dirt-cheap cost of homestays is a plus for those who hope to find a new experience when travelling, according to Johannes Burow from Germany, who used homestays in the central region and the Mekong Delta. They’re also easy to find, he added, on popular websites such as www.booking.com or www.hostelworld.com, and sometimes the chance comes to you at bus stations and ports. ‘Sometimes I want something different. Homestays give me the rare opportunity to live with a real local family and learn more about them,’ he said.

Of a similar mind, Claire Bonnette from France said she usually chooses homestays when she travels so she can better explore the local culture, life and food. Her experience in a stilt house in the Pu Luong Nature Reserve in Thanh Hoa province, was priceless. ‘It was totally different and something you just can’t get staying at a hotel or a hostel with their concrete walls,’ she said.

She still remembers the creaky sound the floorboards made every time she took a step, as the house was entirely built from wood with a thatch roof and split bamboo for flooring. ‘The host told me this helps the house stay cool in summer and warm in winter,’ she said. ‘They’re very smart in taking advantage of nature to cope with nature.’ She also found it to be great fun, as the house was large enough for 20 people but had no partitions. ‘So the host’s family and the guests, including our group and a group of local travellers, slept in the same room, just in different corners,’ she smiled. ‘It was a bit inconvenient, with no privacy and no hot water for a shower, but it wasn’t a big deal because I got to experience local life.’

Claire and her friends also had a delicious and memorable dinner of fresh vegetables, chicken raised in the host’s garden, and ‘interesting but scary-looking’ roasted grasshoppers. Bedtime was early, as there’s not much to do and it’s pretty dark in the mountains, though not completely dark as fireflies danced around the house. ‘It was amazing. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a firefly but it would have to be at least 20 years ago,’ she said.

Just as the flickering of fireflies lulled them to sleep, so did the crowing of roosters wake them up early the next day. Sticking her head out of the window, Claire took in the fresh cool mountain air before noticing her host and his neighbours were already ploughing the fields while the older kids took care of their younger siblings and played around the house. ‘It was like time just stood still,’ she said. ‘Everything was so peaceful and beautiful. I think it was the real Vietnam.’

Homely feel

Thanks to the diverse surrounding terrain of mountains, forests, beaches, rivers, homestays are more alluring for travellers with a sense of adventure and hotels can be hard to come by in remote regions. And they’re more than just a place to sleep amid a pretty landscape, as it’s the local people and their rich culture that are the heart and soul of a homestay. Johannes said that although the facilities at the homestays were simple and basic, like in a hostel, the difference is the warm hospitality of the host family, which ‘makes you feel like you’re one of them or a good friend,’ he said.

Up close and personal

Travellers not only get to meet the host family but also their neighbours. ‘Every time I went out of the house there would be someone saying “Hi, how are you?” or “Where are you going?”, accompanied by a friendly smile,’ Johannes said.

He and his ‘homestay mate’ on An Binh Islet in the Mekong Delta’s Vinh Long province, John Coakley from the US, also had some lessons in how to cook Vietnamese dishes like spring rolls and banh xeo (a pancake of rice flour mixed with meat and shrimp) and were invited to eat and drink with the family and their neighbours. ‘I had the chance to try their traditional wine,’ John remembered. ‘Oh my God, it tasted so good and Vietnamese people can drink so well. They “zo” (toasted) every time we drank it. Back home we only toast a few times during a night out. It was really fun, so we drank a lot and sang some songs we just made up on the spot.’ And he was very happy to be given a small bottle of the wine after the party.

Their host, Quang Vinh, said he started offering homestays two years ago after seeing the success his neighbours had. ‘Initially I just let the guests stay and sleep,’ he said. ‘But then I started providing some activities for them, like cooking and drinking or some short tours by bicycle or boat around the islet, to help them enjoy their time here.’ He can earn nearly ten-times more with the homestays than he can toiling away in the fields all day, and his children also have chance to improve their English.

A close up look at family culture is also an interesting part of a homestay.

It’s very different, Johannes said, to see three generations of one family living together. In his country children may move out of home when they’re as young as 18. He was very much impressed by the family spirit he encountered. ‘I like the way a family shares a meal,’ he said. ‘Everyone gets together to eat and talk about their day. After I moved out of home I usually ate alone or with friends, so it was a really nice thing to see.’ He also liked the way young people showed respect to their elders and the clear role of men and women within the family. ‘It’s amazing to be a man here,’ he laughed. ‘The husband and sons don’t need to do anything at home except enjoy the great food. The wife and the daughters do all the cooking and housework. Back home we usually share the work, like if the woman cooks then the man washes the dish.’

Another great thing about homestays is the handy tips the host family give about what there is to see and do nearby and even in other places around the country.

While it’s a great experience, a homestay does come with the odd inconvenience. The language barrier sometimes makes its hard for host and guest to understand each other, Johannes said. But with goodwill, everything is dealt with by body language or even, when all else fails, Google Translate. For John, following the 11pm curfew and not being allowed to invite a woman to visit him was a hassle. ‘It was a bit annoying, but I chose a homestay to try a new experience and see the local habits and customs, so I must follow them. When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ he smiled.

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