BEYOND THE GUIDEBOOK

It’s the lives of local people that are the real story on trips to meet a community in the countryside.

By SAM PATERSON on March 11,2019 09:08 AM

BEYOND THE GUIDEBOOK

PHOTOS: SAM PATERSON

While most were green with the shoots of plants, this patch could only be described as mud. In front was a farming couple, husband and wife, wearing traditional Vietnamese hats and smiles to go with them. Next to them was the second vehicle of the day - a buffalo.

Hoi An has long been one of the most famous destinations in Vietnam. The historic townhouses, wealth of shops and restaurants, and nearby beaches provide the typical guidebook attractions for the droves of visitors who come to the area. But tucked in alongside this is a way of life largely untouched by the tourism boom, as quiet country villages, farmland, and rivers host people and activities that are linked very much to the traditional past. It was this that I was hoping to find, as I booked a tour of the local community.

I found details of the tour in the hotel. Soon after booking, our guide, Mr. Viet, arrived, bringing with him our primary means of transport for the trip - bicycles. Getting around on a bicycle makes perfect sense in the countryside just outside of Hoi An. A slow passage down country lanes and though fields of growing rice helps set the tone for the traditional activities to take place. As we cycled away we also left behind the throngs of tourists, who we rarely come across on our journey.

Some 15 minutes outside of town was our first stop. On either side of the country road were rice paddies as far as the eye could see. While most were green with the shoots of plants, this patch could only be described as mud. In front was a farming couple, husband and wife, wearing traditional Vietnamese hats and smiles to go with them. Next to them was the second vehicle of the day - a buffalo.

Riding a buffalo isn’t easy. I checked with the farmers, who said the animal wouldn’t be too perturbed by my large frame, though thankfully for both man and beast I only went for a short ride. After this, we got down to the real work. People in the area still use buffalos to plough the land, although modern technology is beginning to take over. The traditional method requires one person lead the buffalo and the second be behind and direct the plough. Today my friend and I would get to be the person behind. After my friend made a cursory effort, politely paddling in the mud for a moment, I was left to do the real work. As I waded about in knee deep mud, going back and forth across the patch, I listened to Mr. Viet talk about the area. In the past, many people were involved in farming in the area, but a lot had been displaced by the American War. It was not the only time on the tour I would hear about the war’s influence on this area.

BEYOND THE GUIDEBOOK

Leaving our farming friends behind we continued on our journey. The landscape began to change as we passed several areas of shallow water. Mr. Viet explained that these were shrimp farms, made to capitalize on the large demand for seafood that comes to the area. What was striking about them was how they were created. The ditches the water occupies were bomb craters from the war, and our guide quipped about it being good of the Americans to help out, which left my friend and I a little shocked.

Eventually we arrived at a river. On the far bank were a few houses and a series of brightly colored boats with an array of flags; a fishing village close to where the river meets the sea. We would be helping to catch crabs today. Our vehicle was a boat, but not one of the ones on the far bank; but rather a round basket boat. Woven from bamboo, these boats are both inexpensive and durable and can endure the frequent knocks and scrapes that come from operating in shallow water.

Manning our boat, our driver and guide was a local fisherman. We were provided with a simple reel and hook and some bait. It reminded me very much of my childhood, catching crabs off the pier near my home, and now just as then it was all about competition. Bobbing about next to the mangroves, we raced to catch as many as we could, though I somehow ended up with only a solitary crab to my friend’s five.

The final stage of our trip took us to the house of our guide. Situated in a village, his house was typical. In the middle was a large living space, with no walls, and a roof thatched from the same bamboo as the boats. Surrounding it were few other small buildings. The main living area featured a table and chairs for eating and a stove for cooking.

These features would be used for our final task of the day. We were invited to eat with the family, but not before we helped by making spring rolls. A mixture of vegetables, pork sausage, and rice noodles are lined up inside a piece of rice paper before being folded, and then fried in a pan of oil. The process is not as easy as it looks, especially as the rice paper tears easily. As we worked, Mr. Viet’s wife told us how her mother had told her as a young child of the importance of making a good spring roll to entice a marriage partner. Suffice to say, I won’t be getting married anytime soon.

The meal gave us a chance to chat together and learn about the family’s life. Mr. Viet had grown up in the shadow of war and it had impacted upon him personally, just as much as the area around him. Leaving the table, he returned cradling his young son. Just six-years-old, he is tragically suffering from cerebral palsy. His condition is a direct consequence of the war and the extensive use of Agent Orange, which was sprayed on crops in the area and is capable of damaging genes and causing disabilities in the children of those exposed to it. It was a somber end to a day full of the experiences of the environment and people who lived there.

I’ve always valued the opportunity to meet and share experiences with local people. At its best it can help you feel more in touch with the place you’re visiting, as you get a sense of the space you are in through the eyes of the people who live there. This tour of the countryside didn’t feel like the conveyor belt of scheduled activities and photo opportunities that is sadly becoming the norm in other places in Vietnam where meeting a local community is on the agenda. People had a genuine interest in talking about their daily lives and the stories that shape them, even those that were harrowing. While it’s usually the tourist attractions that bring you to an area, it’s often the people you meet that you remember the most long after you’ve left.

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