April 30th is celebrated here as Victory Day (the 'liberation' of South Vitnam), and the 1st of May is May Day so we had two days' public holiday! Since this fell on a Monday/Tuesday, most of the government offices and businesses had a four day break, but we had classes on the weekend as usual. So while my Texas BarBQ ladies and their husbands flew off to exotic locations like Malaysia and Phu Quoc Island and stayed in 5 star hotels for several days, I had the awesome privilege of being invited to Xuân's home farm at Tiên Lãng. Quỳnh lives close by, so between them I enjoyed a taste of both rural and village life.
Xuân came and picked me up at 10am and we rode to Quỳnh's house first. It was a very hot day, but the traffic wasn't too bad, and it's always a pleasure to ride through the countryside with the vibrant green of the rice paddies and the fresh air... always something fascinating to see.
Quỳnh's family had actually moved to a new house only the day before, so the whole family had gathered to help and to celebrate. She is one of six daughters, four of whom are married with children, so they had a house full! Check out these kids... aren't they beautiful!... Quỳnh's nieces and nephew.
This new house has replaced an older one... all part of a family compound. This is looking out the kitchen door. On the right is the hen house with an extensive orchard and vegie garden behind it. No-one lives in the house across the pond, but it is used for overflow when the family gather (like now), and there's another house behind that where Quỳnh's uncle and his family live. There are plenty of other rellies living close by as well. This back verandah acts as the wet preparation area, so washing vegetables, washing up etc is done out here.
Lunch was served with large trays of food shared between several people. Others sat on the floor, but in deference to the pretty inflexible foreign visitor, our tray was served on the bed behind the stairs, which doubles as a seating platform. Vietnamese beds are very simple - a bamboo mat is rolled out over timber slats and there you have it.
This is Quỳnh's younger sister's boyfriend, her nephew, Xuân, and Quỳnh's father and mother. The food was delicious... especially the cucumber, carrot and pineapple salad with roasted peanuts. The 'window' in the wall behind the boys leads into Quỳnh's bedroom, which is where we retired to after lunch for a nap, and is also where I slept the night.
This is looking through that 'window' towards the front of the house. That's one of Quỳnh's sisters napping on the bed where we had lunch. You can see the lovely sweeping staircase leading the the upper storey and beyond that the living area and front carport, workshop area (Quỳnh's father is a mechanic) and onto the street.
By about 2 o'clock it was still very hot, but Xuân and I headed off to visit his parents' farm. But first we dropped in at his friend's house. Hơn and Xuân were great mates growing up, and spent their childhood playing and having all sorts of adventures around here.
Hơn's family own a construction business, and part of the farm has stockpiles of gravel and sand and other building supplies. Their home consists of several buildings near a series of large ponds, and is surrounded by rice paddies.
We sat inside with the fans blowing and sipped tea and chatted. Hơn speaks good English. His father and mother stayed for a while to say hello, then headed back outside to work. For many of these rural families, the future of the farm must be very uncertain, as the sons leave home for Hải Phòng or Hà Nội and University educations that will take them away from this way of life. I am assured that the parents will be well taken care of by the sons when they are too old to work and the farm will still stay in the family, but it will usually be rented out. Not many of the younger generation are keen on working as hard as their parents work and it seems that they have not been expected to do so either.
We sat in the shade of some trees out in the garden and the boys told me about their childhood exploits. With only Mum and Dad at home now, the garden was pretty overgrown, but many fruit trees and other plants were recognizable... in particular the farmers' friends!! That weed is just as pervasive here as it is at home!
We were right next to the rice paddies, and for the first time I got to see the little crabs that make up such a key part of the staple diet over here. They are about 2cm across the shell, and they live in the muddy banks of the rice paddies. If you look really closely, you can see two in this photo, one centre top and the other lower left-hand corner... you have to look for their reddish claws to spot them.
This ugly little toad was also enjoying the garden ... along with the usual chooks and a goose as well.
So after a very pleasant, relaxing afternoon we said goodbye to Hơn and headed off to Xuân's place.
How beautiful is this rural landscape!
So here we are! This is Xuân's father in the entry court at their place.
This is Xuân playing with the puppy, and his brother Đạt. There is one room which doubles up for eating, living and sleeping and another room for the kitchen, although like many Vietnamese households, the cooking is mostly done outside.
There is a very neat garden, orchard area at the back of the house. Just behind Đạt on his left, is the wet area that is the bathroom. Just fine in this weather, but it must be freezing in the middle of winter!
This tiny little black tabby kitten is fascinated by the chickens.
Xuân decided that fresh coconut juice was in order, but neither he nor Đạt could climb up to retrieve them, so their Dad shinnied up this tree and chopped out a bunch. Check out the skinny little bamboo ladder he used to get half way up!!
Đạt is using his left hand to carry the bunch (which was surprisingly heavy) because he nearly lost his right index finger in an accident on a lathe at work a few weeks ago. He's missing the flesh off the side of his finger but the fingernail is intact. However, the doctors didn't bind it to a splint so the tendons are shortening as they grow back, so it's possible that his finger may be curled permanently. It looks incredibly painful.
After enjoying delicious fresh coconut milk and scooping out the soft flesh it was time to visit Xuân's cousin next door. It's Xuân's father's brother's house... so there's Xuân's uncle and aunt, his cousin and his wife and their adorable little girl.
Isn't she a cutie?
Meanwhile, Xuân's mother had come home to put dinner on. His father caught these fish this morning and his Mum cleaned and prepared them at the river across the road from the house.
So that prompted a boat ride and a walk through the 'forest' on the other side.
Xuân got the boat out and I gingerly climbed in.. much to the delight of the on-looking neighbours... and we paddled over to the other side. We walked past the ruins of an old farm house. some of the plants are still growing wild, but the buildings are all rotting away.
I wonder who lived here, and what their lives were like. How many children grew up laughing and playing in this garden and on the river right next to the house? And what happened to them?
Even though thoroughly negected, the pineapple plants are still faithfully producing fruit.
A little further on were several ponds, so Xuân decided we should go fishing... which meant Đạt got to go back to the house to get his father's fishing net (which we had watched him laboriously clean and put away earlier). Then Xuân waded in and spread the net.
By now it was dusk, so the fish were not very active, so Xuân waded up stream a little way, then proceeded to whack the surface of the water with a long switch to stir them up.
When he finally gathered in the net there were quite a few small fish and lots of sticks and bits of weed entangled in the fine mesh of the net.
I couldn't resist trying to capture the serenity of watching Xuân paddle the boat back in the fading light.
And quess who got to clean up the net!!! ... again!!!
Several people came by to stare at the foreigner, including Xuân's aunt and these cheeky boys.
Xuân's mother had put on dinner earlier and gone back out into the evening to spray her watermelon patch. She didn't finish working till 7.30pm and it was quite dark... apart from the light of a half moon. The boys weren't at all surprised or concerned that she was working such long hours... it's normal.
For dinner we enjoyed an absolutely delicious fish soup, grilled fish and mixed greens.
Then Xuân took me back into town to catch up with Hơn and a bunch of his high-school classmates who get together on public holidays when everyone comes home for a visit.
Fresh sugar-cane juice was the order of the day, and the evening was lovely and balmy. Still, we'd had a big day so I wasn't sorry when Xuân dropped me off at Quỳnh's. It was my first time sleeping on a Vietnamese bed and it wasn't as tough as I'd expected, but I was so concerned that I would snore and keep Quỳnh awake that I didn't sleep very well.
Nevertheless, I was sound asleep when Quỳnh woke me at 6.30am to say breakfast was ready! Everyone was already up and about.
The extended family and a constant stream of friends and neighbours making themselves at home...
Delicious fresh breakfast
After breakfast, Quỳnh and the girls and I went for a walk. First we visited the village market which was bustling with shoppers at 7am. It was so very picturesque!
As you can see, most people are very friendly
These chicks and ducks had no water and were all panting.
Apparently the lady with the clothes was a visitor to this market, so most of the locals stopped to check out her stock.
Right next to the market square is this pagoda. You can see the rice paddies right next door.
Everything is so very fresh. These prawns were still alive and wriggling.
After we left the market we dropped in to visit Quỳnh's best friend. When they were girls Quỳnh spent a lot of time at this house.
I was totally impressed watching this little boy eating slippery rice noodles with chopsticks!
That's Quỳnh's friend holding her baby brother.
This is her mum with the youngest of her several children... I think there are 4 girls and 2 boys.
After that very pleasant visit we left half cups of tea and went to visit Quỳnh's cousins and uncles. Several half cups of tea later we came back to the family compound through the back way.
How gorgeous is this photo of little Quỳnh Anh?
There were several small groups of men chopping and slicing, preparing the house-warming feast to come. I saw that among other things they were preparing dog, but I didn't look too closely.
This house at the back of the compound was interesting. I thought from the architecture that it might be another pagoda, but it is the home of the eldest brother. It is his responsibility to perpetuate the worship of the family's ancestors, so the dominant thing in this house is this huge gilt altar.
When we got back to the house, Quỳnh joined the workers in the kitchen, so I sat with the kids and we sang lots of songs. The older ones are learning some English at school, but they were all happy to join in and sing along with Heads and Shoulders, Galump Went the Little Green Frog, Open Shut Them and so on for an hour or so! By then it was about 9am, and I ducked into Quỳnh's room and had a little snooze.
Meanwhile, Xuân had arrived and was helping out in the kitchen.
There were at least 50 guests coming for lunch, so the food was prepared in bulk, then several large trays were loaded with a selection of all the various dishes and placed on mats, each to feed 6-8 people.
That cucumber salad is so very good... I'll be making that one myself.
Nick, the guy in the striped shirt is a friend of Quỳnh's.
After eating our lunch, it was about 12 and everyone headed for a place to lie down while the family did a huge clean-up. It was too hot to think of riding back to Hải Phòng and Xuân, Nick and I ended up sitting across the road having a cold drink at a little tea stall there. We were in the shade, with a fan blowing at full strength to try and keep cool, yet across the road this lady was labouring away in the hot sun cutting huge chunks of peat and loading a cart.
And there it goes, off to be delivered.
Then it was time to say good-bye and thank you for wonderful hospitality.
We went to Xuân's place to pick up his bag and say good-bye to his folks. His Mum loaded up the boys with rice and a huge long marrow/cucumber vegetable and Nick gave Đạt a lift back to Hải Phòng Then it was a long slow ride home. . . for a shower and a snooze before going to Khánh's place for dinner! (That's the next blog)