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08 Jun 2013

"We did not pay for a commercialized, purpose-built 'homestay' with no farm on it. What we wanted is to homestay with a family in an authentic farmhouse so that we can experience their daily lifestyle!" my travel partner raged.

We brought this up with our tour guide amongst other gripes. "Ok! Ok! I will try to look for a new homestay for you," the tour guide pacified us.

After lunch the next day, we were told that we would be 'looking' for a new homestay. Our guide took us for a walk as he asked around for the location of a farmhouse homestay. We were kept in suspense as he kept stopping to ask for directions. At one point, he stopped at a local house where he asked permission from the owner for us to take some photographs.

"We will go trekking through this farm for a short-cut to the homestay." Puzzled, we just followed.

The mists were beginning to descend on us. Weather was very unpredictable in the Bac Ha highlands. It could be sunny now and the next minute, the place covered with mists so thick, you couldn't see what was ahead of you.

We balanced along the raised embankments which divided the farmland into checkered portions for cultivation. Most were for planting paddy while some were planted with corn, salad, cabbages and other types of vegetables according to the season. This field seemed to be harvested. The reddened mud had been ploughed and broken into disorganized chunks of hardened soil strewn across the farm. It was dry. After awhile, we stepped down from the embankments and trudged on the broken mud instead.

Soon, thick white mists surrounded us and we could feel the wetness in the air. We trudged along and passed by a couple working on a checkered portion with their toddler nearby. After asking some questions, our tour guide moved on forward. We followed quietly.

We passed in between two small hills into another section of farmland. In the distance, we saw a hill covered with white blossoms of the plum trees. Our tour guide was already scrambling up to the trees. They were planted on the steps of terraces on the slope of the hill.

Plum and blossoms at Bac Ha, Vietnam

We caught up and soon were admiring the blossoms right in front of our faces. "Bac Ha is called the white plateau because of the white plum blossoms," our guide told us this morning. We had seen the blossoms from hills afar. The nearest maybe a stone throw away but never this close. We trudged and scampered around and under the lower branches some of which were no higher than our shoulders. The white five-petal blossoms were in such abundance right from the bottom branches all the way up to the tree top. The flowers sprouted with great flourish and almost covered every branch. Fresh green leaves interspersed in between.

In the thick white mists, the fields of plum blossoms looked surreal, almost jumping right out from a page of a fantasy book. It was as if you have just entered through a secret doorway into a totally different time and place.

Cobwebs strung across leaves and plum blossoms at Bac Ha

There were so many cobwebs strung between the leaves. In some, a tiny little spider rested in the center amidst the many dew drops that got caught in the cobweb when the thick mists wafted through them. On some trees, there were already tiny green plums hanging from the branches.

"You are very lucky! Usually the plum blossoms come in the months of November and December. This time the winter had prolonged and you are just in time to see them blossomed in February," our guide informed us.

We slowly scrambled up the terraces. Each 'step' was about the height of a full-grown adult. We were totally surrounded by the plum trees. At the top of the hill was a wooden house belonging to the farmer. There were some pink blossoms nearby belonging to peach trees. They were beautiful and looked like the cousins of the plum blossoms. We moved on.

With the house behind us, we scampered down a mild slope. In front of us was a valley with some hill terraces rising up here and there. Some terraces were covered with more white blossoms, others were covered with vegetables. The scenery was breath-taking.

"I think I'm the only tour guide ever to bring tourists to this place," our guide proudly announced before continuing.

We took some quick snaps and trekked down the slope. We passed by some farmhouses and vegetable patch. It was getting dark soon and we began to worry if we would make it to the new homestay. "The homestay is just behind the school over there," our guide volunteered to calm us after asking a local.

By the time we passed the school and another kilometer or so, it was already dark. The guide was so far ahead, we couldn't see him anymore. We began to get worried. He disappeared for what seem like ten minutes before he came back to us.

"Follow me... I'd found the homestay!"

We were so relieved!

Another few hundred meters and finally we were there. It was a big farmhouse at the edge of a big farm land. The family were friendly and we felt welcomed instantly. The farm belonged to them and the ancestral hall upstairs doubled up as a homestay for extra income. They were of the Tay ethnic minority.

The wooden house was modest. As with the houses we'd visited, the home had an open concept. The center of the hall served as the living 'room' with a table sandwiched between two nicely-carved wooden three-seaters. Near the back wall was a wide cupboard with free open shelves in the center, where the TV set was placed. On the right of the cupboard, a medium-height fridge stood.

The left section of the hall had one double bed on each corner. Hung on the wall between the two beds were the wedding photographs of their elder son and daughter. The youngest son lived with them. Under the photographs stood a collapsible table with a desktop PC together with a CRT monitor and a keyboard.

The husband was a dashing man covered with an almost white top neatly combed. We strode into the kitchen which was the next room over the right side of the hall. We saw something wrapped in dried leaves and enquired about it. The husband immediately cut it open to reveal a roll that was about the size of a wrappo except that this was solid sticky rice with some fillings inside. He proceeded to cut it into slices and fry them before serving to us. It was simply delicious!

We were happily eating in the kitchen as we soaked in the environment. At the back wall was a fireplace for cooking. Long chopped wood rested on the side of the wall ready to be fed into the fire. Once in awhile, an electrical blower with a long nose was used on the fire to make it bigger.

Homestay couple cooking dinner at Bac Ha, Vietnam

Nearby the fireplace was the larder to keep unfinished food. Next to it was the table to cut ingredients before cooking. There were some seasoning bottles, a gas cooking stove and an electrical rice cooker. They cooked using the gas stove and the fireplace. The wife washed and cut a big bunch of fresh vegetables.

"Tonight the owner wants to give you a treat!" our guide exclaimed.

Next to the fireplace wall, hung a pork hind leg. It looked doubly thicker than a baseball bat. The wife took it down to slice a chunk, scrape out the burnt skin, washed it off and cut into bite-size slices. The husband took them and started frying on the fireplace. The couple was a fine culinary team.

We sat at the toddler-height stools and table while the couple placed plates of roasted pork slices, stir-fried green vegetables, beaten fried eggs and the sticky rice slices. We ate merrily the authentic home-cooked farmhouse meal. The husband toasted a few times with us on rice and corn wine. The corn variant was much stronger and gave a greater 'kick' in the cold night.

After dinner we'd watched a little local TV in the living hall and spoke a little via our tour guide. We were served some local tea. The wife gave me a little more corn wine as I gave her the thumbs up earlier in the kitchen. We took turns to bathe. Surprisingly they had hot water as the earlier homestays didn't. However, we each had to wait about ten minutes for the water to heat up in the below ten degrees cold.

The lady of the homestay cooking at the fireplace, Bac Ha

The husband was an avid nightingale collector. We watched him put his finishing touches to a bird-cage he handmade while sitting in the living hall. Before long, we retire upstairs to a large empty hall exactly the same size as below. In the center stood an ancestral altar. We slept in one corner under two thick heavy blankets.

In the morning, we woke up to find the wife had already left for the Sunday Bac Ha market. As we came out from the house, we saw the third son carrying a bulging sack of freshly-harvested cabbages from the farm and scooted off in his motorcycle to deliver to his mother to sell. We made our way to the farm proper and took some photo opportunity with a neighbour harvesting some vegetables.

Soon, we ourselves were leaving the farm for the market. Sure enough we came across the wife who was happy to see us.

Despite the earlier hiccups, we count our blessings to have come face-to-face with the abundant plum blossoms that utterly surrounded us in surreal thick white mists. Trudging through the fields of white blossoms indeed gave us our private page in our own fantasy travel tale. What's more, the farmhouse homestay added to the rustic adventure complete with a home-cooked meal next to the kitchen's fireplace.

In the past, I'd never understood why ladies swoon over cherry blossoms in Japan and vow to catch the right timing to witness the flowers.

Now I understood why.

Last modified on Friday, 29 May 2015 04:29

Hello... I Am Josh

A Travel Writer & Photographer from South East Asia

A little about me

Josh For some, it's shopping therapy. Others, movie therapy. Yet more, reading therapy. For me, it's writing therapy.
 
Why writing? When I travel, I enjoy first-hand the experience like in shopping therapy. But when I write about my travels, I live vicariously the experience again, as if like a movie sequel (or more like GroundHog Day, except that this is fun!). Yes, writing evokes the memories, the fun and the not-so-fun but all-in-all it gives the satisfaction of reliving the sense of place once more.
 
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