The fast-paced countryside tour covered lots of territory! Once again, my guide, Hoa, provided a vast amount of information very quickly, and I had to ask him to slow down. The fun ride from Hanoi to the countryside took about 30 minutes each way. We passed the amazing Ceramic Mosaic Mural along the walls of the Red River dike system. It’s the world’s largest (2.5 mile) ceramic mosaic.
Craft village families make a living with specialties “reflecting the customs and culture of Vietnam’s rural areas”. Specialties are passed down from generation to generation. Vietnam has about “1,500 craft villages, of which around 300 make traditional crafts that help maintain the country’s heritage”. Craft making includes special skills, like bamboo and rattan weaving, silk and lacquer painting, drum and pottery making.
Handmade Brooms Thôn Hội Phú
Our first stop was Thôn Hội Phú, an 800-year-old village. We spent time with a family skilled in knitting and tying straw, bamboo, coconut, and other materials used to create traditional brooms. Their brooms come in several sizes, shapes, and categories for different uses inside and out:
- Chit brooms popular for inside cleaning
- Straw brooms for sweeping floors
- Bamboo brooms for outside
- Coconut leaf brooms for big outside jobs like cleaning rough ground and stone
The entire family gets involved, and they make about 1,000 brooms every week. The brooms last from 6 to 12 months, depending on how they’re used and stored. The family sells to a wholesaler who takes the brooms to market, where they’re purchased for about $1.50 – $2.00 each.
The Vietnamese Government allows families one-hectare plots of land for growing rice. The quantity of hectares allowed depends on the number of men in the family, i.e., a family with a father and two sons gets three hectares (one for each male).
Women provide the labor in rice paddies, because men are “expected to take on bigger jobs” in caring for their families. I know what you’re thinking... It’s hard work in the hot sun, and there are dangers like venomous snakes hidden in the rice paddies.
Depending on the weather, northern Vietnam has two rice crops per year, with harvests in spring and autumn. It takes the rice three to four months to grow, and there’s a one-to-three-week period between plantings.
Sticky rice (xoi) is more expensive to produce, and can take 6 months to grow. There are several varieties of sticky rice, and it’s eaten at festivals and special occasions like Lunar New Year. It’s delicious!
Between crops, chemicals are sometimes used in the rice paddies, but most of the work is done by hand, including ridding the crop of insects and snails. The fields are extraordinarily beautiful, and the lush landscape is rich with lotus ponds and other endemic trees, plants, and flowers.
Village Burial Plots and Reburying Rituals
The Vietnamese are superstitious about burying their dead, and elaborate funeral fanfares are a very big deal. In each village, the Vietnamese Government allows one burial plot per family. They’re scattered throughout the rural landscape and sometimes pop up between crops planted in the fields. I saw one large field with a small, single burial site right smack dab in the middle. The basic philosophy in Vietnam is “it’s unwise to mess with the dead“. Taking photos at burial sites is discouraged.
In Vietnam, dead bodies are prepared in many different ways, including placing grass and flowers around the corpse and burying it for 3 to 5 years. After that, family members dig up the body, retrieve the bones, and rebury them.
“When a Vietnamese person passes away, it’s believed that life does not end, but the afterlife begins. Vietnamese families practice the ancient custom of digging up and reburying the remains of their relative years after they’re initially interred. The tradition is more popular in the north, but observed by families throughout Vietnam.”
Vietnam is not an overly religious country. Buddhism is the largest religion, and it’s followed by about 15 percent of the population. Other religions include a small percentage of Christians, Hòa Hảo Buddhists, and CaoDai followers. Regardless of their religious faith, most Vietnamese people believe in ancestor worship, including grandparents and collective national ancestors like former president of North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh and Tran Hung Dao, a genius military man, politician, and writer.
Đông Anh Village
Đông Anh, a peaceful, out-of-the-way village, was the next stop. People who live and work in Hanoi during the week, often travel to Đông Anh to relax on weekends.
We stopped at the lake bordering Cổ Loa Citadel to enjoy a cold drink. I had a refreshing glass of homemade sour plum juice (xI muoi), a traditional Chinese drink. The recipe is over 1000 years old! We relaxed and watched fish jumping in the lake. Hoa told me about the Legend of the Water Dragon (King Kinh Dương Vương of the Xích Quỷ Kingdom) and the Forest Fairy Princess Âu Cơ. This legend about the beginning of Vietnam is taught in school and dear to the Vietnamese.
According to the story of Lạc Long Quân, the legendary hero of Vietnam, “he slayed a water monster, ended a nine-tailed spirit fox reign of terror, and married forest fairy Princess Âu Cơ, beginning a lineage that still binds the people of the mountains to those who live by the sea.” Matthew Pike Culture Trip
Legend of the Dragon and Forest Fairy
“According to Vietnamese myths, the first Vietnamese people descended from the union of Dragon Lord Lạc Long Quân and Immortal Fairy Princess Âu Cơ. The couple had 100 sons before they decided to part ways. Fifty of the children went with their mother to the snowcapped mountains. The other fifty sons went with their father who favored living by the sea. The eldest son became the first in a line of Vietnam royalty, known as the Hùng Kings of the Hồng Bàng Dynasty. The country was called Văn Lang, and its people were referred to as the Lạc Việt.”
Cổ Loa Citadel
Cổ Loa Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site and Vietnamese historical relic. The citadel complex is an example of rare, ancient Vietnamese architecture. The citadel’s history and legends are part of Vietnam’s culture. Built in the 3rd century BC, the Cổ Loa Citadel is associated with legends about An Duong Vuong who built the citadel, Kim Quy the giant golden turtle god of Hoan Kiem Lake, and the tragic love story of My Chau and Trong Thuy. For generations, “traces of this ancient citadel and its mythical characters have entered the subconscious of the Vietnamese people”.
“Since 1962, Co Loa has been recognized by the Vietnamese Government as a National Monument. In 2012, the Citadel became Vietnam’s Special National Monument, with value in history and artistic and archeological architecture.” Travel Hanoi
“Every year, on the 6th of the first lunar calendar month, Cổ Loa villagers organize a solemn festival to commemorate those who built the Citadel and express their appreciation to King An Duong Vuong – the founder of the feudal Au Lac Kingdom.”
Lai Da Village
Our last destination was a building in Lai Da Village exhibiting traditional Vietnamese architecture. The oldest building in the village is home to Thuan, a proud former government official, who displays photos of his impressive life, career, and family tree in the entry lounge. Thuan’s ancestry dates back thousands of years. His carefully remodeled home maintains its original historical integrity.
Thuan’s hobby is cultivating bonsais, and his garden is brimming with healthy specimens. The house is surrounded by beautiful but gnarly loc vung trees. The same species grows around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi.
Thuan and his wife, Mai, have three sons and many grandchildren. They met when both were employed by the government. Mai’s well versed in military procedures. A known markswoman, she knows how to use an ak47. Thuan’s brother lives in the village on weekends, and three of his young children came to visit while I was there. No doubt they were curious about “the American visitor”. They gave me a good “once-over” and commented on my height – tall to them : ). Except for me and Hoa, no one else spoke English.
Café Giang Old Quarter Hanoi
Hoa and I headed back to Old Quarter for coffee at Café Giảng, a famous traditional coffee shop in Hanoi. The popular café is almost hidden along the street. It’s frequented by tourists and locals alike. Giảng opened in 1946 and is named after its founder – Mr. Nguyễn Giảng – a well-known chef and bartender at a colonial hotel in the French Quarter.
Giảng created the recipe for egg coffee during the Great Vietnamese Famine of 1944-45. At that time, rice and milk were impossible to find in Hanoi. Egg coffee is made with strong Vietnamese coffee, egg yolks. and honey.
I had Vietnamese iced coffee instead and haven’t sampled egg coffee yet but definitely will! Visiting Hanoi’s countryside and learning about craft specialties was another satisfying and incredibly educational day in Vietnam!
I’m finally adjusting to Vietnam’s summer climate – a bit – some days are better than others. WiFi is inexpensive here, and I got a local SIM card with plenty of data to fire up Google Maps when exploring. I found ground coffee for my little mocha pot, and know where to do grocery shopping – of course the food selection isn’t anything at all like in the US. I keep trying to avoid buying those fattening croissants at the French bakery around the corner, but they’re so good and the perfect comfort food.
Lost iPhone Drama
Hanoi is truly exotic, and its energizing, challenging, and sometimes unnerving environment is a total change from my comfort zone. I’ve made several crazy mistakes, that can’t be blamed on anyone but myself. After a long, hot day, I stopped at the mom-and-pop store next to my apartment building to buy cold drinks. The elderly proprietors speak zero English, just as I speak less than zero Vietnamese. I was tired and left my iPhone in the store – TRIPLE SCREAM!!! To my defense, the store is a massive mess with disorganized piles and boxes of just about everything everywhere you look. I’m 100 percent certain the iPhone was left on a box by the cold drink cooler in front of the store – there’s no checkout counter. I remember placing it there while using both hands to retrieve money from my daypack. Clothes with pockets are helpful when traveling…
By the time I noticed that the phone was missing, it was almost midnight, but street stores stay open late on weekends. The receptionist downstairs went next-door with me to translate and help retrieve the iPhone. They had it, but refused to give it back or call the number to verify it was mine.
I went around the corner to the police station, and a policeman came back with me and helped sort things. He was nice, extremely polite, and very efficient. He didn’t admonish me too much, other than to “suggest” I might want to keep closer tabs on my phone – #*%@!
I’ve shopped at the store before and am pretty sure the storekeepers knew it was my phone, and that I was staying at the apartments next door. I don’t understand why they gave me such a hard time. I apologized and offered to pay them for their inconvenience. Now, I’m much more guarded and careful, especially with the phone. Smartphones are an absolute necessity and indispensable part of foreign travel. Guess I’m relearning the need to take more “recharging” breaks when it’s hot, and I’m tired… Needless to say, I was elated to get the iPhone back!!! Without it, travel would be much more difficult!