Homestay in Son Thai

Posted 7th October 2013 by David McGuinness

After a morning running around Hanoi taking photos it was time to head to a more relaxed place. We drove Southeast out of Hanoi to a quiet part of what is now Hani province (in the Son Thai region) but feels a million miles away from the city. Billed as a homestay, this was something quite different from the standard homestay in Vietnam. This was a little bit of luxury. On arrival we were offered some green tea and we chatted with Ha, the owner. The beautiful main building of the property was built in the traditional style and was more than a hundred years old but it had moved more than two hundred kilometres and had been painstakingly recreated as it was with all original materials.

An altar sat at the centre and the wooden walls, beams and benches were very pleasing. After the pleasantries it was time for a steam bath, delivered in the form of a large flask of deeply infused herb-water (holy basil, pomelo leaf, lemongrass – like a thick tea) which was to be mixed in a large wooden basin with hot water from the shower and then to wash using a large wooden ladle, seated on a low wooden stool. It was very pleasant and aromatic, and I am sure I smelled better after it! Before dinner we took a walk in the area, watching the farmers harvesting rice, bailing the rice hay, working with the buffalo. Smiles greeted us as we walked around and people were keen for us to get involved. Phuong told me that sometimes guests come down and can plough the fields with a water buffalo or cow with the locals supervising (and generally giggling as they struggle). It is hard work. I was feeling far too aromatic for such work!

Before dinner I dressed in traditional Buddhist robes (supplied) and sat in on a Buddhist prayer session in the main house. It was very nice to watch and listen though I didn’t have much idea of what was being said (despite some commentary from Phuong). After the ceremony I was served dinner on the veranda outside, fried pork and mushrooms, steamed pork and lotus seed, chayot (another green veg) with mint & peanut, and bamboo & green onion served with a thin but flavourful chayot soup. Very different from what I’d eaten elsewhere, and delicious. Impeccably presented too. All the food served here is locally sourced and organic to boot. After dinner I was brought a footbath with something similar to lavender (but without the purple flower) and salt and ginger.

The next morning I had an appointment at 7.30 with Tuan, my Yi Jin Ying teacher for the morning. If you haven’t heard of Yi Jin Ying you are not alone but it is something like a Vietnamese form of Tai Chi (though it probably also originated in China). Tuan showed me through various exercises, each with a spiritual as well as physical component. As you stretched down you were to imagine touching down to poorer, more needy people and sharing with them. Generosity and togetherness are key elements of Yi Jin Ying and I think it would have been more collaborative with more than me and Tuan doing it but we soldiered on, and I tried not to be too awkward, clumsy and Western in my movements.  I have to say I did feel very relaxed after it. When done we sat outside in the morning sun and enjoyed a green tea with honey and ginger, to be drunk through a lemongrass straw. This was what is was all about.

After a breakfast of pancakes and freshly squeezed juice and fresh fruit myself and Phuong saddled up for a cycle to some of the surrounding villages. The route took us along quiet flat roads and farm lanes. It was quiet, gentle and very pleasant. We stopped in Duong Lam, a beautiful traditional village with a beautiful 17th Century Buddhist pagoda, a central square that felt like it still belonged in this era, and some beautiful ancient homes. We stopped for a tea and a banh gai (a sweet made from rice powder, green beans, pork fat, sesame seed and coconut milk, in the form a gelatinous black goo, wrapped in banana leaf – slightly sweet, slightly savoury and surprisingly tasty), and to chat with the local vendors and people watch in the tiny square. It was truly idyllic and I could easily have spent the day there.

We continued to the oldest house in the village (again from the 17th Century) for a tea and another sweet (che lam – made from rice powder, peanut sugar and ginger, again very good!) and watched the lady of the house preparing lunch. We continued to a small temple dedicated to Ngo Quyen, a local, who overthrew the Chinese in the mid-10th Century and it still revered as one of Vietnam’s quintessential heroes. The temple minder welcomed me in. He lit some incense, recited some simple prayers and rang the gong, slowly and periodically, as I held my breath in the otherwise empty temple. The sound reverberated around the building and I felt strangely moved.

We pedalled back through the peaceful countryside to the “homestay” where it was time for a cooking class. My teacher walked me though a spring roll and saw me butcher the tomato flower though I made better job of the cucumber leaves. The spring rolls were only one part of a sort of Vietnamese taco. After the cooking lesson I met an Irish couple on their honeymoon – the only others in the place – in the lunch room, and joined them for lunch.

After lunch we were all treated to a traditional hand massage with local herbs, and sadly it was time to leave this little corner of paradise. This was undoubtedly one of the nicest experiences in my time in Vietnam.

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