The cities of Việt Nam are booming – coming apart at the seams – but 70% of the population stills lives in rural areas. This is a different Việt Nam than seen in the cities. The nation is long past the time when people lived in deep poverty and were starving. Today, most countryside folk live in concrete houses, have a motorbike and television set, and send their kids to school. Nonetheless, the farmer’s life is a hard one.
To describe the Vietnamese countryside would fill a couple of encyclopedias. I just want to give the Gentle Reader a small glimpse of it – nothing more. This is the countryside of flat rice fields and rivers. I’ll save the mountain areas for another day.
To no one’s surprise, rice is the staple food. It is approaching harvest time in central Việt Nam, an area that normally has two harvests a year. In another few weeks, the grains of rice will be golden and the stalks bent with the weight of new rice.
Wet rice agriculture is labor intensive and requires large amounts of water. In order to move the water from the river to the fields, gasoline powered pumps move it around a system of irrigation ditches and canals.
Here and there in the fields are grave sites, most of them for entire families. These are Christian (Catholic) tombs, but most are Buddhist. Notice that the earth has been built up so the bodies are buried above the water line.
The cultivated flat lands are laced with small rivers and streams. Of course, there are a lot of boats, but there are a lot of bridges too. In the past, such rural bridges were made of bamboo (sometimes called monkey bridges), but those are all but gone now. This bridge is due to be replaced soon by a newer one that will be better able to withstand flooding.
Small villages dot the countryside. There are homes to fishermen and farmers as well as some small shops. These two ladies show off a new grandson as if he were a trophy. Traditional Vietnamese families include all the generations. It is common for four generations to live in one house. Just as the grandmothers care for the young children, the children will care for the grandparents in their old age. Besides the small “corner store” where people can buy some soap or piece of pork, craftsmen often have small shops in the villages. This gentleman builds front doors for new homes. He has some power tools such as a table saw and power drill, but much of the tongue and groove construction is done by hand.
The area in and around Hûe has a higher proportion of Catholics than in the rest of the country. Hûe had its first Vietnamese Catholic congregation in the late 1600s, and today about 10% of the population is considered Catholic. Small churches like this one stand at the edge of many villages.
A river is always close by. An older man, probably too old to work in the fields, squats on the river’s edge and watches over a flock of flightless ducks. Close by is his son, and they are duck farmers. After the rice is harvested, these two will herd their ducks into the rice farmer’s field where the ducks will prepare the fields for the next crop by eating any remaining kernels of rice and depositing some fertilizer as they do so. The ducks are fattened in this way, then taken to market and sold.
If there is such a thing as “the real Việt Nam”, this is it. You won’t find it by looking through the windows of a tour bus, but is a place worth seeking.