These are words you probably hear quite often nowadays. There has been a lot of discussion lately about mindfulness, being present, and taking the time to slow down during the day and observe our surroundings.
It seems that to some extent we have become automatons, constantly staring down at the little bright screen that illuminates our brain for nearly all of our waking hours. Everyday, I look around on the subway and I can say with confidence that 90% of people are looking down at their smartphones, either watching a video, talking with a friend via text message, or reading some news article.
To be clear, I am definitely not holier than thou. I am a participant in this phenomenon and like to browse articles or enjoy some YouTube videos just as much as the next guy. I just never really stopped to think how it could be affecting my behavior. It really hit me like a brick wall when I was staying with “Moo” and her family in the mountainous rice fields of SaPa Vietnam. Moo and her family are part of the Black Hmong Tribe, one of several indigenous tribes that inhabit this region of Vietnam.
So why did it take a trip to the rice fields of Vietnam for me to see this?
Well, you see they don’t have smartphones, television, internet, or any of the other incredible technologies that have come with the 21st century. Rather, they live minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. They don’t think about what they’re going to be doing next week or next year because that doesn’t matter. They care about whether the pigs have been fed, if the firewood has been cut or if they can find another tourist to host so that they will have money to buy some groceries to feed their families.
Watching this family work for two days straight and not even bat an eye really made me think about my own thoughts and how I perceive my daily life. The two nights I stayed with them could be described as very tiring, boring, and most of all, humbling.
This is part one of a two part post in what will make for an interesting read for anyone who has considered doing a homestay or taking a route that is a little off the beaten path. This is NOT to make anyone feel bad about their lives or their own usage of smartphones, social media, or whatever. Really, I just wanted to describe what I experienced and how it affected my outlook on what it means to be present in a day when we are constantly searching for the next bit of stimulation.
Homestay In SaPa Vietnam
My buddy Taylor and I grabbed an overnight train from Hanoi to Lào Cai and then took a shuttle from Lào Cai to SaPa. With no plans on what to do, we arrived in SaPa about 7:30am. Literally the moment we stepped out of the shuttle we were greeted by this short woman wearing some colorful garment wrapped around her head. In decent English, she explained to us that she would take us to her home where we could explore the rice fields and they would cook us meals and drink “happy water” with us (happy water is rice wine that they make themselves).
We were sold. This is exactly the type of adventure we were looking for so we happily agreed to follow this stranger into the mountains.
She brought us to a local eating spot where we ate breakfast to fuel up for the long hike ahead. After eating, we set out and walked through the city until Moo took us off the main road and up to a path that led into the mountains. From here it was quite intense. The mountain was incredibly steep and quite muddy. I honestly couldn’t believe that this little lady hikes this path everyday. These people must be in incredible shape! Meanwhile, Taylor and I were getting our asses kicked, huffing and puffing, and sweating bullets.
On the path we passed a number of wild bison, a young boy, about 10 years old, carrying heaps of wood, and an old man yielding a ginormous sickle. I thought we were about to become the main characters in a real life horror film. Thankfully, that did not happen.
About 3 hours later we arrived at a small road that led to a little wooden building. Moo explained that we would eat lunch here. Upon arriving, a group of 4 to 5 tiny girls stormed us and repeated “buy one from me” as they stuck out their hands full of little hand-woven bracelets. I had heard about this tactic but we were also told not to buy from them as it encourages them to continue missing school. So we ignored the little girls, which didn’t feel good, but the right thing to do…apparently.
After we chowed down on some fried noodles and rested a bit we got ready and set off for the next leg. Fortunately, the second part was much less intense. It was about 1.5 hours on a dirt road that wove in and out and up and down through various hills until we arrived at a small hut.
“This is my home,” Moo exclaimed. We walked towards the hut excitedly. It was build with wooden logs, mud, and leaves that looked like they were pulled off of trees in the area.
This thing was legitimately made by hand. Like 18th century style. No modern tools or anything of the sort. I’m not sure what I expected but it was kind of blowing my mind. I thought, “this is going to be awesome.”
We stepped inside her house and this is where the real fun began. No flooring, no lights or electricity, and a tiny pit in the ground off to the left where a group of 4 kids sat huddled, stoking the remnants of a small fire. My eyes burned and my throat dried up rapidly.
Hmmm. This is going to be an interesting two nights.
Moo showed us where we would sleep. It was a hand cut plank of wood propped up on some other logs with a couple of blankets. An insect net draped over the entire thing. At least the mosquitos wouldn’t get us!
At this point is was about 2:30pm and there was still several hours of daylight ahead. Although we were exhausted, there was nothing really much to do in their home so Taylor and I told Moo we would explore a bit and return. We left her house and started walking in the opposite direction from the one we arrived in. We wanted to try and see some of the famous rolling rice fields that you see in the photos but we quickly realized that this might not be the case. It was insanely foggy. So much so that you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of you. Shit.
We couldn’t see anything and we were dead tired so our decision to return to Moo’s home was easy. That is when we really started to see just how much we rely on our phones and computers to keep us entertained.
Moo had left to do other work, leaving her young children and one of her cousins. They sat by the fire, talked, played games, or slept.
The minutes ticked by.
We would walk inside and sit by the fire to warm up only to be driven back out by the accumulation of smoke (there is no chimney or outlet for the smoke to escape).
It became evident that there was not much to do here. They don’t have soccer balls, or scooters, or board games to keep themselves busy. We contemplated what we could do to kill the remaining hours until dinner.
Could we hike? Already tried that and couldn’t see anything.
Could we watch a movie? No television, or electricity for that matter.
Yeah we could read a book, but how fun is reading when you are seconds from passing out from exhaustion?
Earlier they suggested we could take a nap but we declined out of fear that it would screw up our ability to sleep during the night. However, after running the gamut of choices on things to do, this became the next best option for killing time. So, we laid down on the hard plank of wood, wrapped up in all of our smelly smokey clothing, and passed out in a matter of minutes.
We woke up a couple of hours later and found the whole family cooped up around the fire, cutting fresh vegetables, cooking rice, and hand rolling spring rolls that would soon be tossed into a hot pan of oil. They were making us dinner!
Taylor and I plopped down next to them and watched as the entire family took on a different role in preparing what would be a feast of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Using only the fire in the pit and headlamps to light what was in front of them, they created a slew of various dishes that would then cover the entirety of the table that we ate at.
We all sat down and began to eat. They wouldn’t let our plates empty for a moment without pushing more food on there. “Don’t be shy,” Moo kept saying. “Eat as much as you like.” Their hospitality was incredible and it really made us feel at ease.
Out Comes The Happy Water
We put down numerous deep fried egg rolls, endless bowls of rice, and steamed vegetables until we simply could not eat anymore. That’s when Moo’s husband broke out the “happy water.”
He pulls out this 2 liter Dasani water bottle that looks like it has been reused 100 times. Next he grabs four clay shot glasses and puts one in front of himself, Moo, Taylor, and myself and fills them to the brim. Moo explains to us that she doesn’t like too much because it hurts her teeth.
“Chunkuh” Moo’s husband says as he raises the shot glass and indicates for us to cheers. I bring the mystery liquid to my lips in anticipation of what I’m about to drink.
An intense flavor pierces my taste buds and I wince as I gulp down what could only be described as nail polish remover. Taylor and I look at each other and start to laugh.
“Chunkuh” he says again. I hadn’t even realized he filled our shot glasses again. Damn this guy doesn’t miss a fuckin’ beat.
About 3 “Chunka’s” later and I start to feel warm and fuzzy as a blanket of happiness rolls over my body. Ahhh, this is why they call the shit “happy water.” Makes sense.
The sensation was familiar but at the same foreign. I felt drunk and silly minus the part where you lose your inhibition. All of my thoughts and feelings seemed sober but part of my body did not. It was extremely bizarre but also hilarious. Taylor and I were having a conversation about how weird the drunk felt. We also noticed that Moo had continued to drink with us despite her reservations earlier.
Between the shots of mystery liquor and conversation, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that their young son, maybe 10 years old, taking huge swigs of the stuff. It didn’t even phase him or the parents. Considering everything else I saw those children endure that day, I can see why a little drink wouldn’t stir them up too much.
Well, we finished that whole bottle and had some funny conversation with Moo as her husband got up and tended to the fire with one of their older sons. Taylor and I weren’t paying much attention but after about 15 minutes we noticed that he was holding what looked like a long stick over the fire. And on this long stick was was the perfect shape of a rat… “Isn’t dinner over?” I thought to myself. Taylor and I both smirked as we anticipated what more was to come.
Another 10 minutes passed and Moo’s husband comes over with this soupy, watery sludge with odd shaped pieces of meat.
“This is a rat stew dish,” Moo said enthusiastically. If it weren’t for the full effects of the “happy water” at that moment, I could have probably gone without trying the rat meat stew, but you know how they say, “When in Rome…”
So that night I ate my first ever rat and I will say that not surprisingly, it was really quite disgusting. It had a super gamey flavor and nothing redeeming about it but hey, we were polite and we acted like it was the best damn rat we ever tasted. I’m sure China has some interesting things in store for me as far as weird foods, but I digress…
Once we were done, we all sat next to the little fire and warmed up before passing out for the night. It was only about 8pm at this point.
If you enjoyed the read, stay tuned for day 2 coming up soon!