One of the most surreal experiences of my trip was staying in homestays. It was unlike anything I’ve done before really. Our first homestay, lying in the heart of the Mekong delta in south Vietnam, we encountered after a very long day of travelling.
We were all a bit sunburnt from our long day on the beach in Sihanoukville as we took a bumpy six hour minibus to a border between Cambodia and Vietnam. Interestingly, the area we now require a visa to get to (we’ve got ours already from the Vietnamese embassy in the UK) used to be part of Cambodian territory and it seems like many Cambodians are still bitter about the loss of the extremely fertile delta lands. This means this area of the Mekong Delta is also rich in languages; there are many, many different languages spoken here and one of the predominant ones is Khmere.
All kinds of people are passing through the border. If you’re on foot you’ll be using the same piece of road as the articulated lorries and the swarm of mopeds, balancing everything from three families to an acre’s worth of straw or hay, to a few hundred chickens or a pile of material. Not all of these mopeds are going all the way though, some are coming to the half way point – which we reach in a sweaty fed up mess – where cart sellers have made a daytime camp to try and tempt you with cool-ish drinks. At the half way point many of the mopeds trade loads, or give their load to an empty waiting moped to take it on into Vietnam; this means they don’t need a full visa to get into Vietnam and must be cheaper for selling their goods. Anyway, we wait and wait in the baking sun while the border guards took their time checking our visas and we fended off wasps and gave up looking for shade.
But soon enough it was over and we got on another minibus for a five hour trundle into the heart of the Mekong delta lands. The most striking thing about this place was the soil; a bright terracotta red covered everything, even the people, the dogs, the children playing and the fruit for sale on the stalls are covered in a dusting of red powder. Everything seems to have a slight orange glow because of it and everywhere the van goes a small cloud of dust follows. But this is the soil that brings so much life to the area. We follow many river tributaries, in fact, there seems to be in every direction. These are also the largest expanses of rice paddy I have seen yet, patchwork green squares, some so bright they are luminous, spreading out to the horizon. It’s in these fields that I see my first duck farmers of the trip – there were so many – being followed by a huge flock, a cloud of white ducks with little orange beaks waddling through the damp rice fields. You can also spot, all across Vietnam but certainly in the south, occasional strange structures, like small houses protruding from the centre of the rice paddy. It was explained to me that these are grandparents or parents of the family which owns the land; because the Vietnamese culture is very family orientated they like to keep relatives close after death, and believe that by burying them in these Stupas on the land they are scaring away unwanted spirits and blessing the rice field. It’s something the government is now discouraging but traditionally these giant coffins are nestled in the middle of the family farm land.
Eventually we hop off the truck into the warm, wet countryside and meander our way down a stone and red-mud path towards the homestay. It’s specially set up, with the help of the travel company, to have us there; the family live in the main house, with their very friendly dog, a gaggle of chickens and ducks which occupy the yard and an extremely annoying cockerel, then there is a covered courtyard in the middle, where we eat and hang out (this place even has wifi), and adjoining that are our quarters. Past the pond with the little terrapin perching on it is our concrete sleeping block. Several mattresses, all draped under mosquito nets, line the floor of the main room, while off to the side there are a few individual rooms, one of which I nab for myself. There isn’t much to be done about keeping cool here, although there are fans and I cheerily share my room with quite a large gecko, who keeps the bugs away. But that cockerel…
The food here is some of the best we have all trip though (I feel I may have said that on the blog before). We are brought, as always, more food than we can possibly finish. Sweet pumpkin soup, with soft whole chunks of pumpkin, fresh broccoli and beans, several fried meats in various sauces, homemade pancakes, rice dishes. It was all perfectly cooked and delicious; I would definitely have taken cooking lessons from grandma or mum, who were responsible for the food.