One of the things we love to do whilst travelling is interacting with local people, hearing their stories and getting to know their way of life. Sometimes though it can feel hard to break down the barriers of culture, language and suspicion that can prevent us from really getting below the surface of a country or region. Taking a Hoi An Tour was the perfect way to gain access to people and stories otherwise unknown, to ask those burning questions and get to grips with local life from the very source whilst at the same time paying back to that very community.
A little about Jack Tran and his amazing Hoi An Tour
Jack Tran is a local guy who had an idea that would both allow visitors an intimate look into the lives of the locals within his village but also one that would vastly improve their lives too. Seeing inquisitive tourists occasionally wander into the village, intrigued by daily life, the markets, fishing boats and rice paddies but yet struggling to interact with the locals. Either language came in the way or they were often suspicious of why these travellers were so interested in something so mundane to them! Many people in the village laughed at Jack’s idea to run a Hoi An Tour for travellers to experience their everyday lives and work. But what he created was the perfect way to discover real life here.
Jack also looks after the people of the village and beyond. The people you meet on the tours, the animals you interact with and the stories you come across are all part of a community he has helped sustain. People here struggle during the low season and having to pay for school and health care puts a huge burden on them. Jack pays all his staff well, compensates those who he works with and ensures each villager gets equal opportunities to show off their ways of life. He goes above and beyond what is expected of an employer, even repair the roof of our guides parents house when it blew off in a storm and they were unable to afford the repairs, all this adds up to be more than just a regular Hoi An Tour.
Heading straight into the heart of the life of the Vietnamese fisher men and women
After enjoying some local street food for breakfast, delicious sticky rice and strong Vietnamese coffee we were ready for the long day ahead. Jumping on to bikes it was a short ride through a village and towards the docks of the river. Still early in the morning the market was in full swing with local produce being bought and sold at a frenetic pace. People jostled with each other to get the best catch, the freshest veg and the biggest cuts of meat. Already a side to this town most don’t see, a great way to start the Hoi An Tour!
Our guide told us that this was actually a quiet day due to the recent bad weather and also explained to us that produce like potatoes and apples, cheap stables of any British household, were often sold in small numbers at expensive prices! As with the markets we have experienced all over Asia hygiene is the least of anyones worries, raw meat is handled alongside money and sits out in the sun for hours!
No sooner had the markets finished and we were on the ferry over to a waiting traditional fishing boat. Watching the way the fisherman threw his net with such poise, grace and accuracy as his wife skilfully steered the boat was quite a sight. Now it was time for us to step aboard and test out our skills.
Each of us being taught by the master himself it was once again such a wonderful way to get a hands on experience and see just how difficult a skill throwing these nets are. The wrights dangling heavily off the end of the hand made netting made it hard work and steering the long vessel was just as difficult! We were told how these two would sit out for hours, throwing the net hundreds of times a day for a catch of one small bamboo tray of tiny fish.
Some what miraculously we actually ended up catch some fish. Initially my reaction was to want to throw it back in the water, having never actually though I would catch one I was unprepared for its wide eyes to be staring back at me, gulping for air and I was made to pose with it! I felt guilty I won’t lie. But seeing real life is all about having your eyes opened to that culture and this Hoi An Tour did that for sure.
I don’t eat any living creatures, but this was their way of life and not mind. They were whooping and clapping, over joyed that this modest catch would at least ensure that they would eat tonight, something not guaranteed around here.
Visiting the home of an injured war veteran and discovering his families way of life
After taking to the water once again and riding across the bay, where you can see the waves from the sea meeting the river, we pulled in for a short ride to a local families home. Here we were invited inside for a cup of traditional tea and to chat about their lives. Sitting here it was such an eye opening experience. Listening to this man’s heartbreaking story really told a different side to the war, this time it was without propaganda but just about the everyday people caught up in this terrible time.
The man we met was a fisherman, at 18 years old he was fighting for South Vietnam when a Viet Cong bullet hit him in the shoulder. American surgeons did what they could but ultimately he lost the use of his arm. Once the war was over he was forced to flea his home, hiding up in the mountains of the central highlands around Dalat. This area was heavily polluted with American dropped Agent Orange. Years later when he had a family his son was born with severe disabilities as a result, yet another cruel twist of fate that continues to haunt this country 40 years later. His eyes were welling up with tears as his described the scenes of destruction around his home, the people on both sides of the war that were lost and the families torn apart of the conflict.
Here in Hoi An and all around central Vietnam the fighting was at its most intense. The borderlands between the north and south also meant that freinds and families there split between their allegiances and entire towns and villages were constantly under suspicion. The river we crossed and fished in was controlled by the Americans to stop the flow of Viet Cong, the villages around the area even belonging to South Vietnam would ultimately become victims simply through association. Hearing these stories was yet another reason to take a Jack Tran Hoi An Tour and see another side to this conflict.
Touring the thick marshes where the Viet Cong hid on traditional coracles
One of the most interesting elements of the tour was discovering just how much the war tore this region apart. An example of this way Lily, our guide. Here grandfather was the same generation as the man whose house we had visited and was from a village just across the water, he was Viet Cong. She, again with tears in her eyes, told us of the struggle her Grandad had with coming to terms with his actions during that time. How he told her of hiding for days in the thick mangroves, covered in mud and using leaves as camouflage. Luring the American soldiers into the maze like canals to be hunted down, their young lives lost in a place they neither wanted to be or understood.
We were able to take one of the traditional coracle boats, made intentionally small to avoid taxes on large shipping vessels, to see just how intimidating this landscape would have been. Lily’s Grandfather turned to drink in the years after the war, unable to get those images of horror out of his mind and consumed by hate for the American invaders. However it was meeting up with an American Vietnam war veteran that changed his life and outlook. Realising that many of the soldiers who came over had no choice or in fact desire to be here, hearing of the protests throughout the country and their shared experience of fear brought closure to both.
However it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Whilst here we had the opportunity to try out these traditionally Vietnamese boats ourselves. It turns out they are pretty hard to paddle and steer and are quite an acquired skill! The guides where there to show us just how much they had mastered these little boats!
Heading over to the rice paddies to see the story behind this iconic way of life in Vietnam
Now it was time for what I had really been looking forward to all day, rice farming! As soon as we began our journey through Vietnam I became fascinated with the rice paddies. From the terraces of the north to the flat planes of the south they are everywhere over here, its a way of life for the Vietnamese as old as the country itself. Not much has changed over hundreds of years and its it common sight to see women plucking rice in their traditional triangular hats and men ploughing their fields with their trusty buffalos.
So donning our own hats and traditional shirts, getting our feet in the mud and having a go ourselves was a real treat. We were shown the entire process from start to finish. First flooding the field and preparing the thick mud, using the buffalo to plough and attempting to direct it around the paddy! These animals are the most highly regarded in Vietnamese culture and one of the only ones they don’t eat. People here see their buffalo as a working member of the family and treat this gentle animal with respect and warmth.
Next it was time to sew the seeds in this area, using a special throwing technique that non of us quite managed to master! After this the rice would be allowed to grow for a few weeks, once shoots start to pop up above the mud the famers must undergo the painstaking process of replanting them in evenly spread lines in order to increase viability for each plant. Picking again is another back breaking task as is caning the shoots and separating the rice from the shells. Even today many of the traditional methods are used and very little machinery has been introduced to this process, mainly due to cost.
After all is said an done, with wastage and food for the family one harvest, there are two are year around here, yields around $200 worth of sellable produce. This must pay for the entire family, their schooling, health bills, food and living costs. Here pensions also don’t exist and ageing family members must be taken care of by the younger members, often people here marry young and have many children. Women move into their husbands family home and take on traditional house wife roles as well as working on the farms. It is a hard life and slowly many of the younger generations are looking beyond and seeing opportunities for a different life.
Tucking into a well deserved local meal and reflecting
Taking part in this tour has to be one of the most interesting and rewarding things we have ever done. Usually we are not fans of tours, it has to be something really quite special and something we couldn’t do on our own for us to want to take part in it.
Sitting back to a huge come cooked meal, as well as traditional pancakes we made ourselves, we reflected on just how much this day allowed to to see the real Vietnam. How much it allowed us to have access to the culture here, ask the questions we really wanted and experiences aspects of life in Vietnam we never knew about. Truly a day we will never forget!
How to experience this amazing Hoi An Tour for yourself.
We went on the full day ” CULTURAL COUNTRY LIFE EXPERIENCE” tour which costs 2.900.000 Dong/ £102 / £127
This includes a full 10 hour day, all the experiences mentioned here as well as food and transport.
You can read about this tour here: Cultural Country Life tour
They also have many other tours on offer at different price levels, including food classes, half days and full day adventures.
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Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Jack Tran Tours. As always, all opinions are our own!