Mai Chau or "Women At Work"
Nestled deep in a green valley of rice fields, about 110 miles southwest of Hanoi, lies the enchanting village of Mai Chau. It is inhabited by the Black Thai people, one of the minority ethnic groups that live in the mountainous areas. Their culture and lifestyle are very different from the Vietnamese living in the coastal regions.
To get to Mai Chau, we traveled for four hours along winding roads that climbed through picturesque mountain scenery and over misty mountain passes. We were transported in a new van that just managed to hold eight westerners, our Vietnamese guide and the driver, who smoked several cigarettes along the way despite a prominently displayed "No Smoking" sign. But I guess the sign was facing toward the passengers, and not the driver!
We passed a road repair work team on one of the winding inclines. It was a scene which looked oddly Australian; that is, two people working, without exerting themselves too much, of course, while half a dozen stand and watch, leaning on their shovels. Quite a few of the road workers were women and they were usually the ones doing the work. (Some things are the same the world over!)
The people of Mai Chau live in clean, spacious bamboo long houses on stilts. Leaving your shoes at the bottom of the stairs and climbing up into the house was like stepping back into another age, until you noticed the fridge and the television and the stereo and the fluorescent lights and the ceiling fan. There was nothing modern about the kitchen and bathroom facilities though. We had to laugh at being allowed to spit our toothpaste onto bamboo slats of the bathroom floor. That was pretty cool, but went against all our western training!
Upon arrival we were offered beer, soft drinks and green tea, the latter of which we felt obliged to accept. Some older men were sitting on the floor nearby eating their lunch. They pretty much ignored the noisy visitors. Only one younger man, who we assumed was the man of the house, joined us for a drink. This was the only attention paid to us by any of the men during our visit. The household seemed to consist of about half a dozen men and half a dozen women, including a little old woman with her back hunched over from years of working in the rice fields and a young woman with a new baby who did not look at all well. There were also two children, about six years old, a boy and a girl, who we were told were cousins.
One of the young women seemed to be in charge and did most of the work. In spite of her poor English, she was a very good saleswoman. She did quite a good business with a selection of handicrafts made to sell to tourists. These included colorfully embroidered bags, scarves and velvet skirts. They also sold knives and traditional musical instruments made from wood and bamboo.
Our meals were brought out on trays from the kitchen. The kitchen was a fire sunk into the floor with some sort of ash or dirt around it and numerous large black pots. We sat crossed legged on the mats on the floor to eat. The food was blander than elsewhere in Vietnam, but there was plenty of it. The menu included soup, rice, a meat dish, cabbage, a fried egg dish and chilies--swallowed whole without chewing so you don't burn your mouth. They are supposed to be good for killing any bugs you may have eaten. At each meal we were offered soft drinks and beer, kept cold in that fridge in the corner. After we had eaten, the women and the children ate. We noticed this was the pattern at every meal. Men and women eating separately and the men always first.
The next door neighbors had a backyard barbie while we were there. Actually, they cooked a pig in a hole in the ground. It resembled an Aussie barbecue though because the only time men will cook is when they can be outside burning steaks on the barbie with one hand and holding a stubbie of beer in the other. Meanwhile, the women are inside preparing the salads and drinks. Same thing happened at Mai Chau! The men tended to the meat, and drank beer, of course! The women appeared from inside the house every now and again carrying bowls of something, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Cuong was our excellent Vietnamese guide for the tour. He could crack a joke with the best of us. Aussie tourist: "Do buffaloes ever get bogged in the mud of the rice paddies?" Tour guide: "Oh no, they've got four wheel drive!" Well--ask a silly question and you'll get a silly answer!
Cuong took us on a marathon walk across rice paddies. Actually, it was a two-hour stroll and on mostly flat ground, but--heck--we're from Tasmania at the south of Australia (next stop - Antarctica!) We are just not used to hot, humid weather. We walked to a nearby village, where excited children ran to meet us, asking for pens and giving us high fives. They enticed us to their school where we sang "Waltzing Matilda" and "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands" for them. They reciprocated with a song ending loudly with a patriotic "Ho Chi Minh!"
We also met some shy girls, carrying baskets full of wood suspended on strips of cloth across the top of their heads. They stopped on the track for a rest. Some of the men, and the women, in our group attempted to lift the baskets as we had seen the girls carrying them. Try as we could, not even the men could lift the baskets. The girls thought this was very funny and giggled hilariously at the "weak westerners".
We were pretty good entertainment value for the women working in the rice fields too. A couple of the women in our group were a little largish by Australian standards, but must have been huge by Mai Chau standards. The women would look up from their work politely greeting us with friendly smiles. As soon as we had walked past, we would hear gales of laughter. When looking back to see what was so funny, they would be standing with arms wide apart to indicate how amazingly wide Aussie rear ends were!
On the way back across the rice fields, we could hear some dreadful squealing in the distance going on for about 15 minutes. Then it stopped. We concluded a pig had been killed, but shortly after a motorbike came roaring by, with a very large white pig, and very much alive, but tied upside down along the side of the bike. It must have weighed considerably more than the driver and the motorbike combined! "To market, to market, to sell a fat pig!"
After our evening meal, we did something I would never do back home. We entertained the two children by singing songs for them. The neighbors also thought we were amusing and watched us from the doorway of the house. They thought our songs with actions such as "London Bridge is Falling Down," "If You're Happy and You Know It," "I'm Too Young to March in the Infantry" and the "Hokey Pokey" were pretty strange. The children rewarded us with enthusiastic renditions of songs in Vietnamese, including the "Ho Chi Minh" one we had heard at the school earlier. We managed to get them to join in with "Ring a Ring a Rosy." Then we watched telly--"Little House on the Prairie" is a bit bizarre when dubbed into Vietnamese with the same male voice doing all the parts. The men spent most of the night mesmerized by the TV and paying very little attention to the ridiculous Aussies.
At about 9:00pm (it felt like midnight) they put us to bed on mats under large mosquito nets, with little hard pillows that felt like bricks covered in several layers of brightly colored material. I was so exhausted that I slept quite well until the rooster started crowing directly underneath me. It soon began to get light as I lay listening to the bird. The family began to stir and the women prepared our breakfast in the kitchen, watched by the skinniest little cat, who had somehow produced two cute fluffy kittens. The men were outside making thatch for a roof and smoking and talking the way men do. They never did anything inside the house except eat and watch TV.
We were supposed to leave at 8:00am, but our driver was still asleep. Apparently he had had a very late night visiting one of his "wives." I had wondered where he had gone off to, all dressed up early the previous evening. Our guide told us, "confidentially" that the driver had three wives! I wonder where the others live and if they know about each other.
We had experienced the traditional way of life in Mai Chau, except for the TV, refrigerator, fluorescent lighting and ceiling fans! The Vietnamese government has made such a priority of getting electricity to all areas of the country that even the poorest mud and thatch huts have electricity, if only to run a naked light bulb and a TV. Comparatively speaking, I think the Black Thai villagers get a pretty nice income from tourists, but it is still a very simple, largely unchanged lifestyle. Many of the villagers have never even left their valley. They were as fascinated by our photographs of Hanoi as they were by photographs of our families in Australia.
And the women ran the place, while the men watched the telly. Just like home!
Published on 1/1/99