As we drove through the steep mountain passes, I admired the beautiful scenery around me: mist-entwined mountains and the mosaic of rice paddies in the valley below. I also admired the drop: a nearly vertical affair, featuring plenty of jagged rocks and ominous fog. For most of our journey, my reflections were interspersed with brief prayers that our bus would not tumble from our precarious perch into the seemingly-miniature rice fields below.
So began my exploration in Mai Châu, a small town located in Hoà Binh province of northwest of Vietnam. This area makes a wonderful weekend excursion, located about four hours from Hanoi by bus. With friendly locals and many activities, it is the perfect place for teens and their families to get a sampling of the Vietnamese countryside and an up-close experience of agrarian life in the developing world.
Stay at the Mai Châu Lodge, located at the edge of town. Amidst rice paddies and mountain views, you and your teen will feel as if you’re at the center of agrarian life. Moreover, the front desk is eager to help you schedule local tours or rent equipment to make the most out of your time together. And, perhaps best of all, it hosts a restaurant with a delicious (and safely edible) smattering of local cuisine. Here you can sample the delectable local food without the threat of all-too-common traveler’s sickness, as everything is cooked with the western stomach in mind. This will also make your teens more apt to try new dishes. Diners eat communally, a common practice in Vietnam, and teens will love having the opportunity to try the local version of pho, morning glory salad and crispy spring rolls.
When you arrive, take teens on a walk through the neighboring village. There is a stark difference from the bustle of Vietnam’s big cities and a unique kindness of local people that will surprise teenagers. Local children are endlessly amusing, frequently peeping from front doors with wide eyes. Some of the braver ones even practice their English, shouting “hello” from the safety of their front yard. Any response, in English or Vietnamese, elicits uncontrollable giggles from every child within earshot.
In the morning it is a little cooler so travel like the locals with a bicycle ride through the town. Riding around, teens will see many things that are new to them: people working knee-deep in rice paddies under the brim of a traditional “conical hat,” women scrubbing clothes in cool mountain streams and lots of animals! Ducks, dogs, roosters, you name it. Cows are recurrent road hogs, looking at you with nonchalant calm as you try to squeeze past them.
One of the best ways to get teens excited about these seemingly common sites? Make it into a game. Some tour guides will devise a scavenger hunt to ignite friendly competition between teens and adults. Your family can come up with simple challenges such as finding the most people on one moped or haggling the lowest bargain.
Before you ride back to return your bicycles, be sure to stop at the town’s central marketplace for a cold drink and a little exploration. You might see vendors selling unfamiliar vegetables, a variety of household wares, clothing and even a small pop-up barber near the street. This is a great place for teens to try out their bargaining skills. Many vendors are not as aggressive as in the cities and know how to overcome a language barrier. I haggled for a pair of shorts without speaking a word by taking turns writing prices in a large book with the vendor. On other occasions I used fingers or passed a calculator back and forth. Teens will feel a sense of accomplishment using these methods to communicate with the locals.
Another great feature of Mai Châu is its proximity to several ethnic minorities of Vietnam: the H’mong, Black Tay and White Tay peoples. Visiting any one of these settlements is like taking a step into another world. There are no paved roads, no chairs and no western toilets. The people wear traditional dress and eagerly urgee you to remove your shoes and step into their home. In a H’mong village, we were able to sit around the “dining mat” and enjoy tea out of mismatched cups while our hostess told us about daily life, via translation. She talked about how she and her husband had built their hut when they had first wed with the help of other villagers, just as her newly wed daughter would do in the coming days.
Sitting in that hut and listening to her stories was a refreshing experience. I realized that her daily life was astoundingly similar to my own— fretted with the same concerns for getting kids to school on time and finding a place to store the winter comforter (she has a crawl space that hangs from the ceiling). The only differences were her surroundings. Teens will be astonished to learn that they have so much in common with people living in such different environments from their own.
A visit to Mai Châu exposes teens and their families to a daily life that is worlds away from their own. Moreover, it puts them outside their comfort zone and a stretches their mind to new heights. The more they explore, the closer they come to the realization that the world is full of people who have similar wants and needs. It’s true that most Americans probably do not have a smiling picture of Ho Chi Minh hanging above their doorway, or ride around with three people to a moped. Yet, beyond the “how things are done” is a “why things are done.” And teens might find that those answers are not so different from the ones they hear at home.
Susan Johnson is a recent graduate, currently residing in Annapolis, MD. Though she has no children of her own, she firmly believes in the educational and experiential value of travel for all ages, as well as its ability to bring people closer together.