The purpose of our Vietnam trip was to visit this rural, very small village in Vietnam. With a little more than 10 people living there, it was a completely different experience from what we were used to – Singapore. HEPA (human ecology practice area) was founded in 2002 as part of an organization called Chesh. The 284,4 hectares that belong to HEPA were completely deforested and it was their mission to not only plant a new forest but also protect that forest and the mountain water surrounding it. That includes producing the least amount of waste possible and giving up an easy life, such as buying shampoo or dish soap from a grocery store, since it’s not organic.
When we first arrived at HEPA, we had to pass through a big gate, that separates HEPA from the rest of the world and protects the area from unwanted trespassers. This way, only members of the HEPA community or trekkers can enter the protected area. We got out of the taxi and the first thing I noticed was, that I could only see two houses. The first one was next to the gate and the second one would be our home for the next 4 days.
The houses were completely made out of wood and the house itself was on stilts, as they are modelled after the houses of the ethnic minority. We had to take our shoes off and then walk up the stairs, where we entered the porch. On the porch, there was a small kitchen and a lot of big jars, where the house owner Mr. Binh explained later on, that he made his own alcohol in these jars. The inside of the house reminded me of a tree house. It consists of one big, almost empty common room, where Mr. Binh prepared mosquito nets and mattresses for us, and a small room where Mr. Binh slept. The bathroom was about 100m away from Mr. Binh’s house or also called House Number 1. The first thing we did, was to meet Linh (our translator), the head of the village and Mr. Bọ Bính, where we introduced ourselves and they talked a bit about HEPA’s purpose.
After that, we went swimming. A river called Rao An river flows through the village, and the people built their houses directly next to it. Mr. Binh asked us if we can swim and Shuen and I confidently said yes. What we didn’t expect was how strong the current of the river was. Even though we chose to swim where the water was shallow, we almost got washed away. The water was quite refreshing because in HEPA the weather was almost the same as in Singapore, but I wasn’t sure if I’d make it out of the water again instead of getting washed away. But we made it, and after a short shower, we got rewarded with dinner. The dining hall was about two minutes away from house Nr. 1 and home to two dogs. The dining hall was very big with almost 50 chairs for people to sit on, but our group was very small, so we never needed that much space. The kitchen was next to the dining hall and it was quite unexpected that they didn’t use any electricity in the kitchen, except for the fridge. They cooked above a fireplace and washed the dishes outside. Of course, we helped wash the dishes, so we instantly noticed the weird jar sitting next to the water tap. Instead of normal dish soap, they put lime and pomelo peel in a jar and let that ferment. Then they use those juices to clean their dishes. It smelled a bit funny, but it worked pretty well.
The next day we trekked to Huyen Vy farm, which is located about 45 minutes away from house Nr. 1. Even though it was really hot, we had to wear long clothes to prevent getting bitten by mosquitos and getting sunburnt. The two dogs from the dining hall joined us and on the way Mr. Binh explained many different plants and their usage to us. Huyen Vy farm is run by Huy, a 18-year-old boy who is living in HEPA for two years to learn about agriculture and bring his knowledge back to his hometown. They showed us their map of the model as well as their watering system. The model also has its own library and memorial, where they honor people who died in the war there. Soon after we headed back we heard, that some of the water taps weren’t working anymore, so the plan for the next morning was to fix the pipes.
What we weren’t prepared for was, that there was no path to the pipes. With two machetes and four dogs to protect us, we climbed our way up the mountain in the jungle. We had to step on branches with thorns, so they wouldn’t harm us, walked through tons of spiderwebs, and had to hold onto leaves as if they were our climbing ropes. After some sweating and slipping, we finally made it to their primary water source. They built a water pit made of stones and covered it with stones so that leaves and animals can’t enter the pipes. We removed the stones that covered the pit and began to start to dig all of the mud out of the pit, which must have been collecting there for quite some time. After doing so, we covered the pit and walked through the jungle once again, just to come back and notice, that the water still wasn’t working. So the head of the village went there personally to fix the problem. And we felt bad because we weren’t able to help.
That day we also went to visit a model run by an older woman, that wasn’t as far away from house Nr. 1 as Huyen Vy Model. Her house is higher up on the mountain and they explained that in case of a flood the forest above her property will protect the house. Also, that way she has a beautiful view of her huge farm. Her model is also home to many cows, so we gave them some water. She also harvested a jackfruit for us to try. On our way back we harvested limes, to make lemonade later that day.
But there was still a lot to do, for example, we had a big dinner to prepare since our host was doing a 4-day trekking trip to Laos and his friends would come to HEPA to join us for dinner and stay over for the night. So we helped prepare everything and even got introduced to their drinking culture later that night. They put one of those big jars on a chair and had two thin branches with holes in them that they used as straws. They explained, that you first have to try one sip and approve the alcohol. After you approved the alcohol you have to drink so much alcohol, that you can fill the jar up with one glass of water without it overflowing. That way, there was always a fermenting process and you’re practically never out of alcohol.
After that fun night, our overall trip coordinator came to HEPA, Mrs. Thu, who couldn’t join us earlier because she caught covid. We harvested some pomelos and then went to house Nr. 3, the house of a pharmacist, her husband, and their almost 1-year-old son. They own 8 dogs and two cats I believe, so when we arrived there we were greeted with a lot of barking. She invited us to her house and offered us persimmon. I was very surprised since I only knew orange persimmon my whole life, but the one she offered us was deep red, so I first thought that she was offering us tomatoes. They were very sweet and soft and especially her son was a huge fan of them. Then we proceeded to take a look at her workspace, where she extracts different essential oils from plants in her surrounding to make shampoo or mosquito repellant for example. She gave us different probes to smell on and also showed us some of her packagings. Then we headed back and started to pack our things, to head to Phochau town for three nights.
Our weekend there was quite fun, we got to explore the area and meet Mrs. Thu’s kids and their friends. Shuen and I were pretty surprised by how good their English was. Their age was around 7-11 and they spoke English fluently, better than any other children that I have met, who speak English as their second language. So if we asked their parents for something they would help translate. That was very impressive. Shuen also went to the market very early in the morning and she told me that she was very surprised at how vibrant the market was. Overall I really enjoyed being in Phochau town, since it has a very different vibe than the big cities, such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but also a different vibe as HEPA.
The next three days we spent at Khe Soong Model, where we learned how time-consuming it is, to harvest rice. We also went trekking where we had to cross the river three times and almost got washed away. Shuen wrote a whole blog about our experience there, so I recommend checking that one out if you are interested to hear about our trip there in more detail.
We ended our HEPA stay with a big dinner, where we ate, laughed, took pictures, and sang karaoke. All in all, I had a great and also very humbling time at HEPA, and I know for certain, that I will never forget the memories I gained there. The people were so nice to us and the nature was just stunning. If anyone is interested to have similar experiences, you can reach out to us, since Terraformers is starting a partnership with HEPA. So feel free to let us know if you are interested in the comments!