From tourist central, our phượt next took us far from anything. Nestled at the edge of the mountains in Nghe An province, near Pù Mát National Park is the tiny town called Anh Sơn. And tucked away on a rural road several kilometers from town is the humble farm Trang’s sister, Quỳnh, calls home. And there, far from anything I might call familiar, we settled for the better part of a week.
For my girlfriend, the week was all about catching up with her sister, playing with her young nephew, and enjoying the rural air unencumbered by city pollution. For me, an American (ex-)suburbanite, it was more an opportunity to understand how life runs in places where electricity is still relatively new. Ôm Bình and Cô Liên, Quỳnh’s elderly in-laws and our hosts, raised six children in their timber-and-palm house. Fresh water access was limited to their well, and only recently have they had the resources to build a shower and washing outbuilding to make hygiene a bit more convenient. Even more recently – as in only in the past nine months – have they replaced the old wooden house with a larger, more modern brick one.
Yet it’s interesting from my perspective to note that, expanded though the house is, it’s still only two rooms – one of which is the kitchen. We tend to react with pity toward those stories that include the phrase, “I grew up in a one-room home.” Having lived in Vietnam, stayed with various families, and seen the way society works here, I’ve come to understand at least a little better what people mean by it. The Western preconception of a one-room house is that of poverty and squalor – a tiny, vermin-infested hell-hole that one should seek with all one’s might to escape. Situations like that exist, to be sure, but the majority of the time, a one-room house have more to do with culture than poverty.
Vietnam as a society focuses very strongly on family community. Large extended families traditionally live together on the same plot and often in the same house. At least one son in the family is expected to remain in the family home, caring for his aging parents while raising his own children where he himself grew up. As such, Vietnamese houses are rowdy and multi-generational. Like many “third-world” societies, families tend to be large, so there’s always kids underfoot. Businesses are most commonly run out of the home, so the associated equipment or products are ever-present. An open floorplan can thus be a reasonable choice on both accounts.
There is little emphasis on privacy, which further reduces the push for individual bedrooms and the like, and it’s common for the kids to share their parents’ bed long into adolescence, especially if finances are tight and they can’t afford more beds. This all seems strange to us (and would certainly drive me crazy), but here in Vietnam it’s entirely ordinary. Even many of those who have upgraded to multi-room houses often sleep all in one room – that’s just the culture.
And thus, Ôm Bình and Cô Liên never came across as pitiable. Nor did they invite it. Bình was happy to remark on his family’s lifestyle, “We have little money, but we are rich.” They enjoy their simple life. Most of their food comes from their own small farm – they grow various vegetables and raise chickens by the house. They’re surrounded by the banana trees they cultivate and sell. And a few small nearby plots allow them to grow corn and other crops as necessary. With the exception of some pork and a few herbs, effectively everything we ate all week was sourced from home.
I hope to make it clear, too, that I’m not endorsing some hippy-dippy, “get back to nature, man” philosophy. Subsistence farming does not, and cannot work on a global scale with billions of humans worth of population, and those dwelling in cities certainly can’t make something like this work. My intent with this bit of introspection, is to make clear that ours is not the only style or standard of living. Try not to approach a one-room living situation with pity, but rather view it as a way to understand. Humans have too much of a propensity for judgement of difference. Try to add this bit of advice to your quiver of strategies to overcome those base instincts.
Learning is so much more interesting that judgement anyway.
Introspection aside, Anh Sơn is not the most inviting place for the average tourist. This is not for lack of friendly people (quite the opposite), but more due to a lack of facilities. The town itself, as well as its twin, Con Cuông down the road, shut down almost entirely during the middle of the day, when locals tend to go home for lunch. Restaurants, corner stores, and damn near everything else is shuttered for the hot hours of the day. Salespeople at their small markets will be excited to meet a foreigner, but if you visit at noon, don’t expect to find a large selection. So if you’re out here, try to keep some food in reserve.
Once you’ve got that covered, however, you’ll find there are a few places to see. This is no Hạ Long Bay, but Pù Mát National Park is large and beautiful. Take your time on the drive – the road is pocked with broken sections of asphalt – and enjoy weaving through the tall mountains. We made our way to Khe Kem Waterfall, a winding serene drive up to the deserted, rocky cascade. There was what appeared to be a toll station a few kilometers below the falls, but nobody manned it so we went on through. Your mileage may vary.
The falls have a long drop (official websites say 500 meters, though I’m skeptical of that figure), bouncing along the outcroppings of stone, but not throwing as much mist as I’ve experienced at some others. It terminates in a pair of pleasant pools that in warmer weather would make for good swimming holes. A couple little bridges invite photos from all angles, and there are even changing rooms if you need to get in or out of your swimsuit (or if the park is as empty as it was for us, you may not need to bother with the room). Bring a snack and relax in some of Vietnam’s natural beauty!
Pù Mát is a good fill for a day or two. We spent more of our time around the farm. We tried our hand at plowing the corn field (buffalo are slow, but they suddenly seem much faster when you’re trying to keep a plow stable), cutting down some bananas (the trees are very easy to chop through), and helping our hosts with road repair (their dirt driveway was washed out in a flood a short while back – they happened to be getting the fill to repair it while we were around). Oh, and eating really well – Trang’s sister is a great cook (thanks Quỳnh)!
After this short foray into Vietnam’s highlands, we’re heading back to the coast for a little bit longer. A visit to Trang’s old stomping grounds: Quỳnh Phương!