A Weekend in Mai Châu: The Rice Harvest

“Hai người, xe buýt ở Mai Châu.  Two people, bus to Mai Châu,” I stumbled in my best Vietnamese.

The lady behind the thick glass of the ticket counter of the Mỹ Đình Bus Station nodded curtly and tore two tickets off a pad, scribbling Mai Châu 8h30 on each.  “Một trăm hai mươi, one hundred twenty thousand,” she said.  Totally the foreigner price but whatever, I was getting the hell out of Hanoi for the weekend.

Half an hour late, our overcrowded, un-air conditioned bus rolled slowly out of the parking lot, honking loudly as it heaved its way through jams of motorbikes and taxis filled with passengers heading to their hometowns.  I was traveling with a CouchSurfing friend, Alexi, and we survived the trip by listening to Greek ballads on his iPhone when we weren’t sleeping.

Finally, the conductor shouted at us that our stop was approaching; it stopped and let us out at a crossroad in the middle of a rice field, across from a shack selling tea.  Typical.

Spread across the valley is a patchwork of rice paddies and corn fields doted with small groupings of stilt houses. It was harvest time and the air hung with dust and smoke from the milling process.  In front of houses, mats with corn and grain dried in the sun.

Rice is harvested with very little machinery, probably because farming equipment is expensive, so it is a collective effort involving men and women from the villages.

Grains of rice are sorted, separated from any stones that may have been caught up in the milling process, and laid out to dry.

Rice is a fundamental part of Vietnamese cuisine: it is the main carbohydrate for most meals, can be used to make noodles like the famous pho and, my personal favorite, xoi. Xoi is sticky rice mixed with peanuts, mung beans, topped with fried shallots and sometimes served with a fried egg or pulled pork.  Cooked in bamboo tubes lined with banana leaves, this sticky rice was slightly sweet and mixed with black beans.

People have a sixth sense; they know when they are being watched. This man turned back to look at me just as I snapped the photograph. The bridge they are about to cross was constructed because of a partnership between Japan and Vietnam.  There are many such projects throughout the country, including, I’ve heard, a plan to create a subway system in Hanoi.

Bundles of rice tied to a fence, a change from the usual piles of rice on the paths between fields.  Someone’s harvesting with design in mind.

***

It has been difficult to get online lately, which is why this post has been slow in coming.  I don’t know if it is because of government interference, weather or just a bad internet connection but thank you for your patience and, hopefully, I will have more photographs sooner rather than later.

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