While Vietnam may have dished up some the lowest moments of the trip, our final stop in Ta Phin Village was quiet possibly the most rewarding experience of the entire HoneyTrek. We lived and taught English in a Red Dao tribal village for the week leading up to Tet New Year and were brought into the community in a way that touched us forever. We initially came here to scout a prospective program for Muskoka Foundation’s volunteer network…as it turned out, the program was not a good fit, but our experience in Ta Phin Village was something we will never forget.
Ta Phin is located in Lao Cai, a place carved out of massive mountains with plunging valleys layered with rice terraces. Sa Pa is the nearest town, which is not much to speak of except that it’s a cultural crossroads where six ethnic minorities come to market. The diversity of dress and customs in Sa Pa is an absolute feast for the senses—enough so that it has become a bit of a tourist buffet. We had a short walk around but were excited to leave for the Red Dao village of Ta Phin, 15km away and a genuine world apart.
The Red Dao are actually a Chinese ethnicity (Yao) that began migrating to Vietnam in the 13th-century. They have kept some Chinese elements like their character-written language, but they feel independent from China and even Vietnam on most levels. Red Dao communities like Ta Phin are still agricultural societies where there are still dowries of livestock and rice wine, matchmaking by horoscopes and chicken legs, and patriarchy as a governing force. Textiles (how gorgeous are these?) are the main source of income and ladies are constantly at work embroidering and selling their goods.
Our base for the week was the house and school of Ly May Chan. This local lady has taken it upon herself to start an English class to give more opportunities to the young women of Ta Phin. Anywhere from 10-20 students would show up each day, fitting class in between their normal schoolwork, tending to the family farm, collecting firewood, and making/selling handicrafts. Despite all their obligations, the girls came to class so eager to learn and so grateful to have teachers—even though we let it be known that we weren’t really teachers, just people lucky enough to be born into the world’s dominant language. We tried our best to solidify the basics and come up with some fun lessons like singalongs and vocabulary scavenger hunts around the village. If anyone is going to northern Vietnam, you MUST reach out to May Chan (email@example.com)…we are sure she would love your help!
We always love homestays in foreign countries but two things made this family experience like no other. 1.) We were teaching their kids so they respected us as people invested in the community. 2.) It was Tet New Year, the happiest and most familial time of year. When we weren’t teaching their was a lot of quality downtime in the house, helping cook, learning to embroider, playing with the kids, taking walks, and just living like a local. Watch this video (above) for a little glimpse at life in the house.
The week of Tet New Year (based on the lunar calendar like the Chinese) is a time for family reunions, ancestral worshiping, spring cleaning, and celebrating with copious amounts of food and rice wine. Every day we were invited to someone’s house to share in a feast of freshly slaughtered pig. We felt so honored to be included that we always tried to eat everything offered to us (intestines, heart, snout, fried skin, and who knows what else). The pork is also served with rice and veggies but it’s considered rude to fill up on these everyday foods before eating all your meat (the former vegetarian in me died this week). May Chan also threw a party which was fantastic—minus the shrieking of the pig getting slaughtered in our kitchen while we were teaching and eating the pig leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that whole week.
On lots of levels we were in over our head this week but thankfully we had Marta. This lovely Spanish girl had been volunteering at May Chan’s “school” for a month and she helped us navigate much of cultural and linguistic confusion in our homestay and teaching experience. It was a great trade since she was excited to have a pair of Westerners to confide in and explore the area. She always wanted to hike the massive mountain on the edge of town but didn’t want to do it on her own, so together we scaled this unmarked beast (see slideshow to see the bushwhacking we had to do and the incredible views that made it worth it).
The next day May Chan’s son “Smiley” (so nicknamed for his perma-smile and spontaneous fits of laughter) let us borrow his motorbike to explore the area and buy our bus ticket before everything shut for Tet. We pulled into Sa Pa and we hear someone shout “Mike! Anne!” and amazing enough it was our trekking companion and friend Emily from Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal five months prior! Apparently she was also in Rai Lay Beach Thailand at the same time as us but neither of us knew–apparently, we were bound to meet again!
We headed home and were delighted to find out that May Chan had prepared a traditional herbal bath for us. Bathing in medicinal herbs is a Dao New Year’s Eve tradition and god knows we needed a scrub (the house didn’t have running water and the only option was splashing ourselves with the cold river water). Soaking in the wooden tubs, taking in the aromatic vapors, and cutting the winter chill in a heat-less house couldn’t have felt better.
The next day the New Year’s festivities began around 10am with copious amounts of rice wine. These were our homestay brothers, always down to lead the drinking charge and toast you with a “Sức khỏe dồi and Chúc mừng năm mới.” Too sozzled to drive, they asked Mike to bring them (three to a motorbike) up the muddy mountain paths to the Dao diviner’s house for the New Year’s dance, ancestral worship, and exorcism.
As we approached the diviner’s house, we could hear the drumming, chanting, laughing of people and squawking of chickens. What were we walking into? This little wooden house was overflowing with 100+ people, all gathered to watch the New Year’s procession—which involved mosh-style dancing, flailing on the floor to exorcise the year’s demons, throwing hot coals, slaughtering chickens and drinking the blood. You have to see it to believe it: Watch this incredibly privileged look into the Dao New Year’s ceremony.
As time has gone in the HoneyTrek, we’ve realized the greatest experiences in travel always seem to come back to the people you meet and the cultures that open your mind. Ta Phin is not a place you’d think to visit (and if you did, you’d walk it in an hour) but stay a while and it will touch your soul.