Today we met a guide at 8 am to spend a morning learning about rice farming. Our guide was working for Jack Tran Hoi An Ecotour , a company founded by a local fisherman and specializing in showing people how people in rural Vietnam live and work.
Normally our guide would have picked us up by bike but since some of the kids were too young to ride on the busy streets and since our beach house doesn’t have an address, we arranged to meet her at the nearest intersection.
We didn’t get off to an auspicious start – Tempers were flaring for a variety of reasons and Onlyboy stormed off ahead. Paris reported that he had turned right towards the beach. Parents differed on what to do. Fahbio was of the opinion that Onlyboy should be left behind. SWMBO concurred but couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving a boy alone on a foreign continent on a beach with a strong undertow and a few feral dogs. In the end, the decision was to drive back to the beach house to see if he was there (against Fahbio’s wishes) and then, since he wasn’t there, to continue on without him.
I think our lovely guide, Tien, thought we were nuts. She told us that Vietnamese parents always keep their children close, even if they are 13 and that we should all go to the beach to look for him. Despite the fact that I was frustrated that Onlyboy would miss out on the activity and not thrilled to be paying for him not to participate, I did think it was for the best to leave without him. Maybe a little space would do everyone good.
We began with a trip to the market to look at 3 “super modern” machines. The first removed the hull from the rice, the second cleaned the rice and the third separated the long grains (for human consumption) from the small grains (for chickens). Farmers can have 50 kilograms of their rice processed for 15 000 Dong (less than $1). But most farmers don’t have that kind of money so they do this work manually.
Then we went to the rice paddies to meet two rice farmers. We were under the impression that we would be shown how the rice was farmed and then would have a chance to plant a few rice plants. No, no, no, my friend, we were mistaken.
We were going to participate in every step of the rice production beginning with riding a water buffalo in a flooded paddy. And from that was born SWMBO’s new business venture – The Amazing Rice Farming Workout – soon to be available on the Shopping Channel. Guaranteed to give you the beautiful svelte physique of a Vietnamese farmer. Throw away those Pilates Reformers, Ab Rollers, and Nordictracks. Clear your car out of the garage. You are going to need that space for one large water buffalo. Order now and we’ll throw in the plough and harrowing attachments, as well as the bailing bucket and grinding stone for free!!
Firstborn and SWMBO agreed that Fahbio needs to start doing yoga.
The second step was to plough the field with the water buffalo (builds biceps, triceps and shoulders). We were told that the rice farmer has many enemies. Snails. Egrets. Insects.
The third step was to harrow. For this, Tien showed us a piece of wood mounted on a harrowing tool behind the water buffalo. She instructed us to place one foot on the wood, grab the water buffalo’s tale with both hands, hold on tight and mount the second foot. Lean back. Firstborn was up. We giggled nervously and looked to see if Tien was joking. Surely she must be. But then she proceeded to demonstrate. Waterskiing behind a buffalo in a muddy field. Okaaaay. More core work but this time with a focus on the obliques.
The fourth step was to partner up and remove the water from the flooded field. This step works on coordination and upper body strength. Throw in some communication work to improve your interpersonal skills. And Onlyboy was missing all this! Zut alors! Our family had a hard time with this step but I like to think it was because of the large differences in size between partners rather than the fact that we are unable to work together. Tien and the two farmers had to finish draining the field with the bucket for us.
Now with the area mostly mud, we continued on to the fifth step which was to use a wide hoe to fill in any holes and footprints and to create a trench around the field. This canal is important during harvest when the field needs to be drained. It also gives a place to walk without making more footprints in the field. This step mainly works the upper body but also improves balance and posture.
The sixth step was broadcasting the rice seeds. This is the method used for fields that are muddy but not flooded. The rice seeds are soaked for 3 days (rinsed each day), then wrapped in banana leaves for one day to keep them warm and help them germinate. Then the seeds are ready for broadcasting. This step seems really easy but it will humble you, thus making you a better person.
Because we were keeners, we also tried the flooded field method of rice farming by which you get right into the mud and transplant rice seedlings that you have started and tended in your home. Paris had the task of using a yoke to transport the seedlings to the field. Just before getting there, she dropped the rear basket. Hmm. With that and Onlyboy’s absence, I would say that Team Hanoi had this one in the bag.
This sowing method works your coordination and if you do it long enough (we didn’t) every single other muscle you have.
Yay! The rice was planted! But wait. How would we get the rice to our table? Lucky for us, the farmers had planted a bit of rice off season so they had some over-ripened useless rice that was available for us at that very moment. In Hoi An, they plant two rice crops per year and the current crop wouldn’t be ready for 2 more months. In Sapa, it is so cold they can only grow 1 crop per year. In Ho Chi Min, they get 3 crops in one year.
So we took our overgrown rice and manually did the work of the 3 “super machines”. First we smashed the grains (major upper body workout and if working with a partner, also a rhythm challenge). Then we threw them in the air to winnow them. Very humbling (see broadcasting, above). Fahbio and I were told we must love our chickens since we were scattering so much rice on the ground. Then we swirled the pan to move the rice grains to one side and the hulls to the other. Pretty near impossible for a beginner.
Next? Off to the grinder. Firstborn says, “Before we move on may I just point out that little four year old Lastborn was still with us and enthusiastic – what a trooper!” Now back to the grinder. Pour in the rice and some water and turn the wheel. More upper body and core strength needed.
Take the sludge and mix it with saffron and onion. Add in one egg and some sautéed shrimp. Make a charcoal fire, heat some oil in a pan and add in the batter. Top with bean sprouts. Cover with a lid and wait a few minutes. Fold in half and remove to plate. Cut in two. Yes, we were suddenly in a cooking class.
For lunch we had the fruits of our labour. We were instructed how to eat. No variations allowed! Take a piece of rice paper, unfold the 1/2 rice pancake and put it on the rice paper. Top with cucumber, lettuce, basil and mint. Roll and dip in fish sauce. Delicious. We had a big lunch of wilted morning glory leaves (one of the most popular greens in Vietnam), mackerel steak with tomato, rice (of course!!!), rice noodles, eggplant with soy and garlic, and french fries. Everything was absolutely delectable.
We let our lunch settle while trying on a traditional rain coat. After that we reluctantly said good-bye and returned home. And Onlyboy? He was there waiting for us with his own stories of adventures – his involving a beach and a barking feral dog.