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Homestay tour provides lasting memory of vibrant Hoa Binh

Homestay tour provides lasting memory of vibrant Hoa Binh

Last update: 27-07-2013 06:49:17
Hand in hand, tourists and young local men and women dance together around a jar of ruou can (wine drunk through pipes) while elders and children gather to enjoy our improvised performance.
A night of traditional music performed by locals is part of our home-stay tour to Mai Hich Commune in the northern province of Hoa Binh, 160km from Ha Noi.

However, we don't sit down and clap for the performers, we become part of them. Here, tourists and locals entertain each other to make a true festival night at a quiet village on the mountain.

After four hours driving from Ha Noi centre, we reach Mai Hich Commune, surrounded by high peaks and forests. Crossing a small bridge, our car enters the valley where the fresh air and wind blows from the fields of ripening rice plants.

Ha Thi Tho, hostess of the house on stilts where we stay, and other women in traditional costumes of the Thai ethnic group welcome us with cups of fragrant tea, their faces beaming.

They treat us to local specialities, including mountain crabs, which we have never tasted before.

"The crabs live in mountain caves and holes in this region only," Tho said. "The men go catching them before dawn, because when the sun rises they will hide deeply in their hollows.

"The crab's favourite foods are crickets and other small insects which we catch and use for bait."

Tho said some tourists asked her to take them to the mountain and catch crabs with other villagers. They had a lot of fun and wonderful experience. However, they were clumsy hunters.

Later, when we ride bicycles across the fields and through villages I can't help thinking how much I love this peaceful afternoon in the valley. Ha Thi Hao, 24, our tour guide leads us along small paths through the valley to enjoy the landscape and take photos with the farmers who generously invite us to join their farm activities. Roofs, yellow fields, green gardens and wooden wheels bringing water into the fields, all create a picturesque landscape.

Hao also brings us to the "ghost forest", the term Thai ethnic people use for their graveyard. Each grave is built as a mini house on stilts. Some newly made ones still display food and farm tools. On the way, the forest is eerie and deserted, making our hair stand on end.

However when Hao tells us about the Thai funeral customs, we find it so interesting we forget our fright.

Later we take a trip to Long Cave, about 10 minutes climb up stone steps. It's about 200m long and contains many bats, but after trekking and riding bicycles, we feel relaxed in the cool atmosphere with the radiant glow of sunset which permeates through holes in the cave, creating a quaint light and atmosphere.

When we come back to the stilt house, Tho and other women are preparing a dinner. A big flat basket filled with unfamilar banh oc (snail-shaped cake), another speciality of the Thai people, draws our attention. Tho invites us to join her in making them. It's made from glutinous rice and black beans, and then covered in banana leaves until the cake forms the shape of a snail.

Tho explains they will be steamed for supper, in case we are hungry after dancing and singing with villagers.

She is far-sighted. We are tired after the performance and tipsy after drinking ruou can so when Tho brings the hot cake, flavoured with black sesame and white salt, we devour them.

Next morning Hao wakes us up early and hurries us to start the new day. She leads us to Xia Stream where young men wait on the bank with rafts made from bamboo trunks.

At first we hesitate, especially when we see the water reach the surface of the raft. Hao calms us, however, explaining that the bamboo won't sink.

So we climb on the rafts, which look as if they are about to go under. We leave the bank in apprehensive silence but gradually our confidence is restored and we enjoy the clear water, some of which washes over our shoes, and the beautiful forest.

Irene Chane from France said later that the tour to Mai Hich Commune was "marvellous".

"My family had a wonderful time in the beautiful and comfortable house on stilts," she said.

"The conditions and hygiene were good. Tho and her family are friendly and caring, though they need to improve their English."

In fact the fledgling homestay service in the area has grown with the support of the Centre for Community Health and Development and tourism experts from HCM City-based Comtour Company.

In Mai Hich, farmers are now working as tour guides, cooks and performers. They are trained and equipped to receive tourists.

After two days living with local people and taking excursions developed by them, we have a lot of good memories, not only of the service but also the lifestyle and culture of the local people. And it's great to know that visits by tourists are creating jobs, helping reduce poverty and preserving the locals' rich culture.
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