It had only been 48 hours since we first arrived, but it felt like a mini-lifetime ago. Once again, travel had changed and inspired me. I was leaving with tears in my eyes and a huge imprint on my soul.
Waving goodbye to the people of Yen Duc Village, our wonderful new Vietnamese family and friends, was one of my most emotional travel experiences to date. So much so it’s taken me some time to actually write this article. Firstly because I want to give this incredible experience the justice it deserves, but secondly because I well up with emotion every time I think back to it. Yen Duc Village filled our souls with a mixture of joy, sadness and empathy that we’ll never forget. In just 48 hours, we met some of the most wonderfully hospitable and warm people. They welcomed us with open arms and treated us like extended family in their small close-knit community.
And what a strong community they are, you can feel it as soon as you arrive. As we cycled around the village for the first time, we couldn’t go further than 20 metres without a friendly local waving hello to us or calling out “Xin Chao!” (a greeting in Vietnamese which phonetically sounds like ‘Tsin-chow’) even whilst working hard harvesting their rice, or sweeping their paths, or carrying their homegrown fruit and veg supplies to the market. It seemed that they were genuinely happy for our visit, and that the small number of tourists who visit the village were having a positive influence.
Our wonderful local guide, Ms Huong, explained how the success of their homestay tours had afforded them the ‘luxury’ of 24 hours a day electricity to the village, of which they were very grateful. As well as being able to light up their homes in the evenings, it brought practical solutions for the local businesses and education. Especially during the winter time when it gets dark around 5.30pm.
Note: The village itself is a small community of around 5,000 people who live in the province of Quang Ninh near Dong Trieu town, in Northeast Vietnam, around 60 km south of Halong Bay, hence why it makes for an ideal visit on your way back to Hanoi from Halong Bay!
We visited various different family homes and local businesses during our time at the village, all of which were fascinating and a real eye-opener into rural life in Vietnam.
From living with our lovely and kind host ‘Mr Sans’, to learning to harvest rice and attending our first Vietnamese village-style wedding (including singing karaoke & dancing with the locals haha!), we loved every moment of our time at Yen Duc Village – so read on for some short stories of our highlights including our favourite photos and videos!
Yen Duc Village Homestay Vietnam – Day 1 In Short Stories…
Rice, The Staple And Core Of Rural Life
Amazingly, our visit to Yen Duc Village happened to coincide with one of the most important times of the year. It was harvesting season, and given that it lasts for only 2-3 weeks and occurs just twice per year in the North (3 times per year in the South due to the warmer climate), we were especially lucky!
Before our visit, we knew that rice was an important part of life in Vietnam, but we hadn’t fully understood the impact of it and its fundamental role in community life, especially in this area where rice production is the main source of income. Rice harvesting dominates life here in the village, and almost everyone gets involved in some way. Whether it’s preparing the land for the next harvest, to carefully tending to it, followed by the rather arduous task of actually harvesting it, drying it and finally the long process of separating it from the husk. It’s an unending process and constant work, driving the ebb and flow of daily life in the village.
It was on our first cycle around the village that our local guide taught us about the tools and techniques used for the job. From the old techniques and tools to the modern methods, we were shown how the harvested rice is gathered and separated from its husk. It didn’t take more than a minute of trying it out ourselves to appreciate how hard work it can be!
It was amazing to learn that many local families still use these old techniques to this day, sharing the workload out amongst the whole family.
However modern day rice production has brought some newer machines to the village, speeding up the process and increasing efficiency, especially for the long process of separation from the husk. We saw locals operating these huge machines on our way around the village.
It was fascinating to get up close and personal with the most important part of life here, and we left with a whole new appreciation of rice!
Learning To Fish, The Local Way!
Following our rice harvesting, we tried our hand at some fishing at one of the many fish farms in the village. We’d been fishing before, but never like this. After being provided with our lovely ‘fishing suits’ (which consisted of knee-high welly boots connected to plastic trousers up to the waist!), we quickly realised that this was not going to be any sort of typically relaxing ‘sit-by-the-pond-style’ fishing with a rod, we were about to get knee deep in water, and as it turned out – knee deep in mud too!
We laughed as we climbed into our long pants and boots, this was going to be fun! Next we were handed our special wooden baskets and shown the technique to apply, which mainly involved moving as quickly as possible around the pond whilst slamming our baskets open top downwards into the mud with every step…sounds easy right? No way! The mud was so thick and deep it was like trying to move around quicksand, except it was thicker and very sticky! However we gave it our best shot and despite my movements being significantly slower than Barry’s and our expert guide’s, amazingly I managed to catch one! Not wanting to slip my hands through the basket weave to grab the poor little fellow though, thankfully Barry was nearby and did the job for me…but then stole the glory for catching it – typical!
Our guide caught a few more fish, but we decided one was enough for our next meal, so we carefully released the others back into their pond and happily set off to cycle back home to Mr San’s house to enjoy our catch!
Attending Our First Vietnamese Wedding!
If there was one thing we didn’t expect from our Yen Duc Village homestay experience, it was definitely this!
Getting to attend a local wedding obviously isn’t usually included in the 3 day/2 night itinerary for visitors to Yen Duc Village, but again we got lucky with our timing and were very kindly invited! Little did we know that it would be one of the best moments of ALL of our travels, and here’s the short-ish story…
Fresh from our fishing experience (well ‘fresh’ isn’t really true!), we had only been back on our bikes for around 5 minutes or so, navigating our way through the village’s brimming rice paddies when we spotted the beautiful multi-coloured marquee. Well, correction, we’d actually heard the loud party music blaring from it first! It stood out a lot in such a peaceful rural setting! And so our guide was just beginning to explain about it being a big local wedding celebration when we saw a beautifully dressed woman standing outside the entrance, cheerfully waving as if to usher us all over!
It turned out that this was Ms. Men – the mother of the bride no less! It was the pre-wedding celebration party of her daughter, Huyen and everyone in the village was invited, even us! We couldn’t believe it, including our guide Huong, who couldn’t wait to show us what a real village-style Vietnamese wedding was like. So we immediately peddled over and parked up our bikes, alongside what looked like around two or three hundred other motorbikes lining the pathway to the marquee!
Eventually making our way over to our lovely host and mother of the bride Ms. Men, we were greeted with the most pleasing smile and hug, and were reassuringly told (thanks to an english translation by our guide), that we were warmly welcome and that in fact “everyone was waiting for us to join the party!” – we couldn’t believe it and for a moment we felt like foreign celebrities in the village!
So, despite smelling a little fishy and in desperate need of a shower(!), she reassured us it was fine as tonight was the more informal ‘pre-wedding party’. It was the next day that the main wedding event would take place (and the one to dress smartly for) – phew we thought! So with the music already blasting out and lots of the local village already in attendance, we no longer felt like gate crashers and were ushered in to join the party. Oh and apparently we were just in time for the buffet dinner being served – result!
We’ll never forget the moment we entered the marquee. We were welcomed with open arms and smiles, it was a little overwhelming but totally amazing at the same time. Right in that moment, our love for the people of Yen Duc Village was cemented, forever.
Without wanting to dominate proceedings too much (it wasn’t OUR wedding after all!), we waved and greeted as many people as possible with our best pronunciation attempt at “xin chào” (greetings in Vietnamese) before searching out the bride amongst the sea of friendly faces. It didn’t take us long to find her. Surrounded by her close friends and female relatives, each taking turns to hug her in celebration of her impending wedding ceremony the next day, she was glowing and had a beautiful sparkle in her eyes. To be honest I was a little embarrassed to go over to her, given that I’d never met her in my life and we had just been invited to her pre-wedding party, garnering an unnecessary amount of attention already! This could be awkward I thought, letting my typically British social norms in. But of course it wasn’t. It was Vietnam and I was in a rural village where everyone was welcome (even foreigners!). So true to form, as she spotted me (kind of easy given that I was the only pasty white female amongst her guests), her face lit up and she greeted me with the most beautifully sweet smile, whilst all of my remaining nervous and awkward feelings totally washed away. She was delighted to have us there, thank goodness! After a mutually warm hug and lots of congratulations, best wishes and thank yous from Barry and I, she was quickly ushered away to greet more arriving guests. Luckily we managed to snap a quick picture with her.
We learned from our local guide that this one of the most prestigious family weddings for the village and everyone had been invited (as is tradition in rural villages in Vietnam). It was the wedding of the beautiful daughter of the manager of the Yen Duc Village tourism programme and so we’d apparently become their ‘guests of honour’ (regardless of the fact we were just lucky enough to be visiting the village at the same time)!
Following our warm greetings by everyone, we were ushered to our table and sat alongside a number of wonderfully cheerful and friendly locals to enjoy our wedding feast. And what a feast it was! About 8 different delicious looking dishes were gradually delivered to our table for us to share. It was incredible and all home-cooked by the family and friends of the bride.
Next came the ‘important’ part of the meal. It wouldn’t be a proper Vietnamese party without copious amounts of rice wine! And so it began. Round after round our little designated shot glasses were topped up with special homemade wine by various different locals wanting to “cheers!” with the foreign celeb guests – haha!
And so, it didn’t take long before we were feeling the effects and being unwittingly ushered towards the dance floor, and, oh dear, the karaoke mics…
The idea of the wedding guests hearing a popular English song sung by foreign native-English voices was apparently an exciting prospect! And so, not wanting to let our wonderfully kind hosts down, and as a sort of thank you for their incredible hospitality (maybe it wouldn’t be seen as a thank you after hearing us however!), we obligingly stepped up to the stage and took the mics. The joy and anticipation of our new Vietnamese family and friends was written all over their faces. We had to do this! Now it was just the small matter of picking a song…
The main sound system suddenly stopped blaring out its Vietnamese techno, and the karaoke screen set up whilst our new friends starting shouting requests. What to sing! Barry, a little over ambitious about the song availability, shouted over to request “anything by Oasis!” but was unsurprisingly greeted by confused faces. That clearly wasn’t an option! So we decided to leave the song choice up to our ‘fans’, and waited for the screen to load…
The first English song choice was then selected…grinning at each other, we cleared our throats and prepared to belt out ‘Hello’ by Lionel Ritchie, what a classic!
If you’d like to hear our not so dulcet tones, and the 2 songs that followed (yes one song wasn’t enough apparently!), check out this go pro footage of our amazing experience and highlights from the wedding!
Singing and teaching the local Vietnamese farmers the moves to the Bee Gees ‘Stayin’ Alive’ was a surreal but brilliant moment and one we’ll never forget! And so a little tipsy on rice wine and elated from such a wonderful and unique experience, we decided to leave on a high. After all, we knew it would take a while to say cheerio to all our new found friends and kind hosts, so we hugged, waved and thanked as many people as possible as we walked back through the marquee passed the long tables of guests, young and old, all having a great time.
What a memory and an experience we will never forget!
Yen Duc Village Homestay Vietnam – Day 2 In Short Stories…
After being invited by the mother of the bride again, we returned to the marquee the next day to see some of the formal wedding day. We only had a short time but were delighted to arrive just in time to see her beautiful daughter, Huyen, in the most amazing wedding dress and being whisked away by her handsome new husband. It was an emotional goodbye for the bride’s family and friends in the village as she was leaving to begin her new life living with her husband and his family, as is the tradition in rural Vietnam.
The party doesn’t stop once the bride has left however, apparently the drinking and eating goes on for the rest of the day! However we had lots of other activities organised for the day as part of our tour, so we bid the guests and our lovely host farewell for the last time and hopped back on our bicycles for our next adventure in Yen Duc Village. It was time to meet the wonderful Mrs Thai…
Learning The Sad Reality Of War, Through The Wonderful Mrs Thai
As it was our second visit to Vietnam, we had gotten all too familiar with the history and harsh reality of both the French Indochina war of the forties and fifties and the Vietnam War of the sixties and seventies. Through our visits to various museums and the fascinating Cu Chi tunnels of the Viet Cong in the South, we’d learned a lot about the country’s war-torn history. But it was meeting the inspiring and wonderfully strong Mrs Thai of Yen Duc Village, that gave us a whole new appreciation and empathy of the impact of the war. So much so that we decided to create a short documentary about her.
At the tender age of just 23, Mrs Thai’s husband was assigned to join the southern resistance army to fight against the U.S. army in the Vietnam War, leaving Mrs Thai, only 21 at the time, to fend for herself and her 4-month old son. During what was an extremely hard time, Mrs Thai’s husband made 3 visits home over a period of 4 years but sadly then lost his life fighting in the war. He became a hero in his village.
During our visit to Mrs Thai’s humble home, we spent time talking with her whilst she cooked us lunch on her traditional firewood stove. Thanks to the translations of our guide Huong and with the use of various facial and hand gestures, we got to know Mrs Thai and learned of her emotional story and strong spirit. Despite being offered the hand of marriage of many other local bachelors (Mrs Thai was a popular young lady!) she’d decided to remain faithful to her beloved hero husband and to this day has remained in their first family home and worshipped his photo and spirit ever since.
Meeting Mrs Thai first hand was an emotional experience, however our guide explained how much joy we had brought her that day. She’s barely travelled outside the village and therefore never had the opportunity to meet ‘foreigners’ before. We couldn’t believe that we were her first ever non-Vietnamese visitors. She was just as fascinated with us as we were with her, asking where we were from and about our lives and families back home. Her eyes actually sparkled with interest and joy at meeting us, we felt so touched.
We didn’t want to leave and we’d been equally touched by our short but fascinating meeting. After cycling away from Mrs Thai’s beautifully shy and satisfied smile, we knew immediately that we had to return before leaving to thank her for such a special experience. We decided we would buy her a gift and return to surprise her with it. So the next morning, we headed to the local market and chose a beautiful hand-embroidered pillow, hoping she’d like it. We returned later that morning, taking her by surprise. Sweet as ever, she was embarrassed she hadn’t tidied the house and offered us to stay for lunch but we politely declined and said our final emotional goodbyes.
As with all of our best travel experiences to date, it’s about the people you meet, and it’s safe to say we’ll never forget Mrs Thai. We gained a great deal of empathy and appreciation for Mrs Thai and the many other widows of the war that will now remain in our hearts forever.
(Note: Meeting Mrs Thai isn’t part of the usual homestay itinerary at Yen Duc Village, we had simply requested to meet a member of the community and luckily for us she was kind enough to oblige as a favour to her neighbour and our lovely guide Huong, despite feeling very shy about it!)
Sampling The Best Local Dishes & Learning To Cook Them!
There’s nothing better than a home-cooked meal, and that’s why our homestay experiences never fail to disappoint us when it comes to food. They’re usually healthy, made with freshly sourced local ingredients, delicious and totally authentic!
Having experienced a Vietnam homestay before, we had pretty high expectations for our meals at Yen Duc Village! But incredibly they managed to totally exceed them and surprised us with every meal, so here’s a sample of what we enjoyed. From homemade clam & pork soup (a delicious breakfast speciality for the area!), to grilled fish and fresh prawn spring rolls, it was a culinary adventure as well as a cultural one!
Another experience we loved during our time at Yen Duc Village was being able to test our own culinary skills by learning how to make some traditional dishes, including this locally famous rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and some delicious sweet rice deserts! Including rice dough balls with green bean, sugar cane & sesame seeds inside which Huong then boiled with fresh ginger juice & coconut milk – it was soooo tasty!
It’s no secret that Vietnamese food is our favourite cuisine, and was one of the driving forces in our decision to return to delicious Vietnam. We’re so glad that we did as its depth of flavours and fresh combinations continue to surprise us at every meal. We can’t get enough!
Meeting Mr Te & His Historic Old House
During our interactions with the local people of Yen Duc Village, we quickly discovered how highly they value tradition and family life. One of our visits in particular brought us to the fascinating home of Mr Te, owner and occupant of the oldest house in the village.
It was a pleasure to meet Mr Te and through translations by our patient guide Huong, we were able to enjoy an interesting conversation with him about his family and life in the village over some delicious cups of jasmine green tea (the most popular local tea and now my favourite!). We also answered his questions about our travels and life in Scotland. Amazingly, although he’d had many visitors, we were his first from Scotland so he was very interested to meet us and learn about Scottish culture. Luckily I had one of our wedding photos to hand so he’s now familiar with kilts! Though explaining Haggis was a little more difficult…
He told us fascinating stories about his life and in particular his important job during the war which involved managing the production and distribution of rice supplies from the village to Vietnamese troops in the South. He and his wife worked very hard during this tough time.
Afterwards he gave us a tour around his beautiful old house. The main part, authentically decorated and adorned with many family portraits, was surrounded by intricately carved wood without the use a single nail, as he proudly told us!
Mr Te is now retired and in addition to maintaining his old house and beautifully blooming garden, his other main passion is his family tree. Proudly displayed in the worshipping area annex to the house, it’s huge and takes up the whole wall!
Grabbing his pointer, he talked us through generation after generation of his family starting with his grandparents and finishing with his many beloved grandchildren. It was so impressive and especially fascinating to hear about the roles that he and his several brothers and sisters played during the wartime.
As with everyone we’d met so far in Yen Duc Village, he was incredibly warm and friendly, and so kind to invite us into his beautiful home, a historical treasure of the village.
We also got the opportunity to meet various different local people of the village during our short 2 day stay, so here are some of our other highlights.
Meeting The Local Traditional Folk Musicians
We had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours visiting the home of one of the village’s well known local folk musicians and songwriters. Along with his group of singers and musicians, they played us various traditional local songs and even attempted to teach us one! That was a challenge!
Learning About Local Business – The Basket Weavers
On day 2 of our Yen Duc Village tour, we made a stop off to meet this hard working couple and to witness their fascinating broom making process and basket weaving skills. Being the sole suppliers to the village and to other markets outside the village, they are very busy and spend long days crafting their products. It’s a long slow process but the results are amazing. Here’s some examples of their beautiful work and us attempting it ourselves!
Behind The Scenes Of The Water Puppet Theatre
And finally, Yen Duc Village wouldn’t be the same without their water puppets! A strong tradition and unique talent only in the north of Vietnam, this is a fascinating old art form which is still learned and performed today. Yen Duc Village proudly puts on a show every day for tourists making a brief stop off on their way back from Halong Bay, so as guests of the village, we were invited backstage for a view of the show on our last day. It was amazing to see the skill and detail involved behind the scenes in making the show.
Suited up in plastic wellies and waist high trousers, we watched as the team plunged themselves into the pond behind the black screen and skilfully presented various traditional folklore stories to the audience with their handcrafted water puppets, perfectly in time to the soundtrack. Although the performance itself is a little bizarre, it’s a fascinating art form and was incredible to get a first hand glimpse at the skill involved in making the show.
It might sound a little cheesy or cliché, but it’s experiences like this that reaffirm our love of travel. The people of Yen Duc Village truly touched our hearts and gave us memories we will never forget. This is without a doubt one of the greatest ‘homestay’ experiences we’ve ever had, and we’d recommend it to anyone looking for a genuinely authentic insight into real Vietnam. We left inspired by this friendly community and with a desire to share our stories. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about them.
Note: To arrange a 1 or 2 night stay at Yen Duc Village, contact them via their own website or through the Indochina Junk website. We were guests of Indochina Junk, but as always all our opinions are our own!