The juxtaposition between the two destinations during our final week in Vietnam was noteworthy. Our experiences in the rural region of Hoa Binh and then flying south to Ho Chi Minh City were both exceptional despite the vastly different settings.
We spent the first half of the week living in large group homestays in a rural community called Da Bac, specifically splitting our time between homestays in the Sung Village and Mo Hem Village. After personally having spent the previous 6 days in Hanoi, getting out to the quiet and peacefulness of these rural communities was a treat. Our host families, members of the Dao Tien ethnic group, warmly welcomed us with open arms despite the language barrier. Our partner Peter graciously translated so that we could thank them properly for opening up their homes to us and feeding us so many delicious meals over the course of our stay.
Our activities in Da Bac consisted of what can be mostly described as “Community Based Tourism (CBT).” According to our partner organization, the CBT model aims to maximize the benefits of tourism while mitigating any social and environmental costs. With the goal of putting the community members’ needs at the forefront of the enterprise, visitors can have genuine experiences, cultural education, and enjoy their trip while the locals benefit as well.
In practice, this meant a mix of cultural education activities as well as a very short stint of manual labor during our stay in Da Bac. We went for a hike through the mountain outside the Sung Village where we learned about local plants used for traditional medicine and cooking, stopped by a huge cave where local residents waited out bombing strikes during the Vietnam War, and enjoyed the fresh air and greenery of the forested hills. Various community members invited us into their homes in the village, where they demonstrated and taught us about the processes of making paper, rice wine, sour meat, and the traditional clothing and textiles of the Dao Tien people. In Mo Hem Village, which is situated along the bakes of Lake Hoa Binh, we joined local fisherwomen in their boats to check their traps for shrimp and fish, swam in the warm and beautiful lake, watched and participated in local dancing with bamboo rods, and got to try our hands at bamboo basket weaving.
It was amazing to be able to see and learn about so many different customs and traditions of the local people. That being said, one of the downfalls of community based tourism on a short term scale is that it can sometimes feel as though individuals are being forced to appear “traditional” or “exotic” for the enjoyment of tourists. It was clear that many of the processes we were able to learn about were still being practiced, but some aspects, namely the dance performance and basket weaving seemed more like performance for us than a true cultural exchange. Nonetheless, it was certainly a jam packed few days in the communities, and we were grateful for all the lessons and activities we were able to enjoy with our local guides.
After saying goodbye to Peter and our homestay families, we headed back to Hanoi where we made the first in-country flight of the program to Ho Chi Minh City. After being in the open-air setting of the rural villages, the massive vertical city of HCMC was certainly a big adjustment. And yet, with its wide boulevards, steel framed skyscrapers, and familiar brands, the Western influence (and our comfort with these recognizable aspects) of the city was clear from the beginning.
Our students decided to take advantage of this influence with our first meal in the city, and as if being called by the famous golden arches we made our way to McDonalds. While normally I’d push back against such a blatantly American act while travelling abroad, after over three weeks where we’d been eating fairly local, and seeing the excited faces of our students when they saw those arches, I felt it was a necessary indulgence. Full from burgers and McFlurries, we began the exploration of the city that would be our primary venture for the next few days.
There were many highlights of these days in the city. We wandered through the dense stalls of Ben Tanh market with its knockoffs of luxury goods, local clothing, and seemingly endless souvenirs. We took in the full scale of the city from the 49th floor of the impressive Bitexco tower, watching the city light up and come alive as the sun set and the moon rose. We ate delicious pastries, noodles, and rice dishes, noticing the differences from the northern cuisine we had feasted on for the three weeks prior.
Most impactful during this time in HCMC, however, was visiting the Independence Palace and War Remnants museums and learning more directly about the troubling and fascinating history of the conflict. Learning from the perspective of the Vietnamese was particularly insightful. It is incredibly difficult to grapple with the extreme acts of destruction, torture, and evil perpetrated by the United States Military and its soldiers, especially considering how the war is taught in the United States and its failure to be learned from on the political scale. Despite these frustrations, we were glad to be exposed to direct remnants and spaces where this history took place. Furthermore, learning about these atrocities, all while having been openly welcomed and hospitably hosted throughout our time in Vietnam, gave us even more gratitude for the kindness of our hosts.
And just like that, our time in Vietnam came to an end. It was remarkable to be able to see so many different landscapes and environments, and to have interacted with so many different individuals who welcomed and taught us. From the rice terraces in Sa Pa to the bustling, motorbike laden streets of Hanoi to the peaceful calm of the country side in Da Bac to the history and modernization of Ho Chi Minh City, I have appreciated the amazing sights and experiences of Vietnam. I look forward to the journeys ahead in Cambodia, and look forward to updating again soon!