AUTHENTIC ENCOUNTERS

The best to way to appreciate people’s lives in Vietnam’s more remote areas is to simply go out and spend a few days with them.

By KEVIN RAISON on March 07,2019 10:16 AM

AUTHENTIC ENCOUNTERS

PHOTOS: KEVIN RAISON

Community-based tourism isn’t exactly a new concept in Vietnam. The number of homestays and tours one can take with local people seem to grow every day. After half a decade in Vietnam, I was finally getting around to the experience. Of course, one can learn about rural life and some of the ethnic minorities and their traditions at Hanoi’s exceptional Museum of Ethnology, but experiencing such cultures first-hand definitely puts things in a much more human perspective.

We woke up in the early morning and headed out. We needed to make it to Ben En National Park in Thanh Hoa province in time to meet our first contact, a park ranger who was going to tell us all about the area. The initial tour was brief but he soon led us to a massive lake at what seemed the heart of the national park. The sheer cliff to the left and drop to the right bounded the dirt road we traveled along on our way down to the lakeside. As the small van trundled around switchbacks we saw another van, one even more squat in design, before us at the water’s edge. The ranger told us the truck was soon to be bound for either Thanh Hoa city or Hanoi and was getting loaded up with fish from the lake. Parking on the side of the road, we walked down to the water’s edge. There wasn’t even the slightest fishy smell in the air despite the stock the van was about to take into the city; testament to its freshness. Continuing on there was a man at the edge of the lake standing before a couple of long half-covered boats - our next contact.

The man was one of the local people whose family had been living and fishing in the area for generations and he was going to show us how fishing was done Vietnamese style.

Casting off from the narrow shore one couldn’t help but remark how, besides the sound of the boats, the area was impossibly quiet. One thought sprang to mind: “Yeah, I could give up the rush of the morning commute for this”, as we rounded a mini-peninsula to discover a house that seemed to be half on land and half in the water. Looking past the house though, one could see what seemed to be some sort of massive wooden contraption. Pulling up to the house we met another local man, a veteran of the freshwater fishing business in Thanh Hoa. “So … what’s that?” I had to ask. “Wait, wait” was the response. Apparently, folks in Thanh Hoa also believe it’s better to see than hear about something … and also better to do than just see.

We went on our way with an additional two new crew members joining the veteran fisherman. The contraption’s expansive nature became apparent as we rounded it to make landfall on hands-down the muddiest cliff I’ve ever tried to walk over in my life. The veteran alighted and strolled along like it was no big deal but I … well … I eventually made my way to the wooden platform beside the large device (my pride prevents extensive details of how difficult it was to fight with the slippery mud and maintain proper footing along the way). Four large poles stuck out at the corners away from one another, forming a square in the water over which a massive net was stretched. Pulleys and ropes led to each, along with a pulley held in the center, all with lines leading back to the platform that we stood on and a large horizontal cylinder around which was the rope we were, evidently, supposed to do something with. Either side of the cylinder had bars sticking out so that it looked like both the veteran fisherman and myself were at the helm of bamboo ships. On his word we removed the bar, which prevented the wheels from turning and slowly let the rope out. As we did so the net slowly descended. Fishing in this manner was more about trapping than using a line and bait it seemed. After the net was in the water the guide mentioned we’d be back later that evening to retrieve the bounty. They then pointed to the four bamboo poles lashed together in a laughable excuse for a raft. I didn’t laugh though, because their suggestion to “get on” was very much sincere. Given that the whole structure we were standing on was used to catch fish and seemed to have been exclusively made of bamboo poles and lashing, I certainly didn’t doubt their knot work, and faster than you could say “how do you say ‘Crocodile’ in Vietnamese?” I was on my way on the raft. Certainly, my concerns ended up being about nothing and I had soon paddled out in the water to help the other fisherman set a trail of nets near the shore that, when brought up, would create a wall forcing the fish either to the shore or into the net.

AUTHENTIC ENCOUNTERS

Returning that night (technically the next morning) in pitch black darkness, we repeated the same procedure but in reverse. The net was brought up slowly at first with little to-do but soon the water between the bamboo poles looked like a Jacuzzi from all the fish churning up the water on the surface. Curling up one side of the net, we pulled the fish in closer to the boat, tossed them into insulated containers, then covered them with ice. Then more fish were loaded, then more ice, more fish, more ice until box after box was full. It was that easy. The fishermen told me their catch would be sold soon enough the next morning. And that’s how they’ve lived, for generations. It’s amazing how some people can still live in a traditional way while integrated into modern society and culture and do the same job their father did and their father’s father did and their father’s father’s father did. It was a truly impressive experience that led me to reconsider the notion of “purpose” in work. These men, laborers who toil hours before the sun is even up, have a clear mission every day. Intense work as it undoubtedly is, maintaining the equipment and hauling loads in the wee hours of the morning, I almost envied these fishermen. Certainly, they have never had to go on “self-discovery” retreats that they’ve paid exorbitant rates for to understand what it means to have a meaningful day and life. “But still,” I thought as I climbed back into the guest house bed up the road, “getting up at 3am every day would probably be impossible for me.” Once was enough, but I was glad I did it.

The next day the park ranger took us across the river. We were to meet some other locals but … things were to be a bit different. We were off to meet a local Thai village. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’d been to numerous museums at that point, many of which mentioned the Thai people. I knew about their architecture and traditional clothes but not much else. Approaching the shore, a man wearing a distinctly Western outfit of well pressed shirt, but not too pressed like he might try to sell you insurance, slacks, and leather shoes waved us over. It turns out he was a member of the village, the series of small houses that could be seen trailing off along a single road. To the immediate left was a large traditional stilt house, the kind one reads about when studying Vietnam’s history. The afternoon was spent relaxing, taking photos and chatting with people. I drank mangosteen juice while trying to keep up with the conversation between the Hanoians and the locals, albeit to little avail. Something that didn’t escape my understanding, however, was the friendliness of the people in the village and the pristine nature of the air. After spending so long in smoggy Hanoi it was almost like breathing for the first time. The hours slipped by simply contemplating life until it was dinner time.

AUTHENTIC ENCOUNTERS

After spending so long in smoggy Hanoi it was almost like breathing for the first time.

For dinner we were invited up to the stilt house, where large mats were laid out on the floor. I’ve yet to master sitting cross-legged, but the freshness of the food, especially the fish, and the convivial nature of our hosts left me completely unaware of such things as “knee pain”. Everything was local, all from gardens in the area, all hand made. The last time I enjoyed such fresh and local food it was at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, a pilgrimage most foodies in the US will make at some point. But here, in the jungles of Thanh Hoa, local and fresh took on a whole new meaning. Those at the dinner slowly drifted away and I followed along down the stairs to see other traditional pastimes being brought out: dancing and alcohol. The drinking was first, large clay pots with long narrow bamboo straws sticking out. I was invited to sit in a circle around a pot of the “Ruou Can”, and the host began singing to invite us to drink, pouring what looked like water back and forth between two small pots before pouring the water into the pot. At that point it was up to all of us to reduce the water level down from the very brim. The drink was sweet, light and smooth, but speaking from experience I knew it was not a potion to be trifled with, as the impact of the alcohol content was something hidden under the fermented rice’s sweetness, waiting to strike only half an hour or so after imbibing. There were repeated songs, lots of handshaking, and more smiles than I could count. This led to the second part of the after party: the dancing. Not dancing in the modern sense, but rather what seemed a game. Eight people lined up four on each side all facing one another, each holding a bamboo pole in each hand tapping out a rhythm, three times on the ground and once bringing their hands together in a sort of light bamboo vice. The trick was, with a partner, to try to cross from one side to the other without getting caught in the bamboo when it closed. Yes, this does sound simple when just walking across, but when trying to hop after drinking several rounds of rice alcohol it was that much more of a hilarious challenge.

All in all, getting to spend time with the local people was definitely the best way of exploring Thanh Hoa in my opinion. I got to learn a lot and really get an appreciation for how people live there, much more than I had gained just from museums. I suppose the main thing I noticed was that local people had mostly what one would call a modern life. There were notes of tradition and culture that added a certain spice to the way in which they lived. These nuances and differences are the sort of thing that goes unnoticed if one doesn’t really spend time with someone to get to know them and how they live. Many people travel just for that reason, to understand about different lives better. For such people, choosing community-based tourism is a must. Not taking advantage of such opportunities in Vietnam would leave a visitor with an incomplete picture of a complex, diverse, and unique country.

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