FANTASTIC FEAST: A hotpot with horse meat, herb-flavoured alcohol, lots of fresh vegetables and signature black sticky rice bars. VNS Photos Mỹ Hà
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
After more than a year of social distancing, lockdown and devastating health issues, we got a chance to sneak away to the mountains and stay at So H'mong Homestay for a few days. Of course, we all had our obliged two-shot vaccination and declared on national COVID health apps on our phones. Even a 72-hour real-time PCR test would not be accepted.
At a health control post, we all had to get out of the bus to provide health certificates and get the backs of our palms stamped with blue ink. Only then were we allowed to get on the highway heading to Bắc Hà District in Lào Cai Province.
I still remember the good impression So H'mong Homestay left on my last visit. It's a stilt house overlooking a lawn with Sa Pa rose plants leading down to a guava orchard in the valley below. The lawn provides a makeshift centre stage for the local ethnic Mông men to pipe dance, and women to sing folk songs.
Lý Vần Sồ, the owner of the house graduated from the Agriculture University in Hà Nội, and has participated in workshops held with Australian aid via the Centre for Rural Economy Development, a leading Vietnamese NGO based in Hà Nội. The centre's declared mission is to help poor and marginalised groups to obtain economic autonomy from their livelihood. Sồ's home has the traditional function of a house on stilts with the comfort and sanity of more modern accommodation.
The first dinner we had at the homestay was a full meal on a round tray with steamed pork belly, lime leaf-wrapped pork grills, and intestines. The standard six-person full meal has lots of protein, an unlimited supply of newly harvested rice, home-distilled alcohol and burning hot potato soup with pork ribs and bones. It costs around VNĐ600,000, but could easily feed seven or eight people and a few children.
Over the past year, Sồ's homestay has received few guests, which would have been devastating if his wife Dí didn't have a regular monthly income from teaching at the local kindergarten.
As Sồ toasted the men's table next to ours, his wife and two children joined us at our table.
"They only have these," Dí said as she ladled dipping sauce into the children's bowls.
It was a simple dish of fresh plain paper-thin crepe rolls to be dipped in a sauce. The rolls didn't have any stuffing like their sister phở cuốn found in Hà Nội.
Bắc Hà pink noodle is made from the low-yield reddish rice grown in the province. The noodle's texture is surprisingly smooth and tender like no other we had before. I even bought a kilo of it from the market the next day to bring home to my family’s welcoming satisfaction.
There are a few dishes that can be made with this fresh noodle, say, a mixed noodle instead of a soup, stuffed with minced meat and wood-ear and fragrant mushrooms. I will try making those the next time we get to go up to Bắc Hà.
GETTING PICKLED: Much loved summer rolls. Bắc Hà style pink noodle rolls are dipped in a sauce of sour juice with local fresh herbs.
The dish was a full pork meal. There were also two pinkish bowls of what looked like porridge cooked from red rice, however, it doesn't actually have any rice in it. It's the notorious blood pudding that you may have heard of.
It may scare away some, but if you get over your fear and want to try something exotic, then it is a good choice, but remember to take a shot of alcohol afterwards to make sure you do not get a stomach ache. Those who had it bragged about the pleasant taste of umami in this jelly-like dish served with chewy chopped intestines scattered with crispy buttery roasted peanuts.
BLOODY LOVELY: A full tray of black village pork for six or seven people. The legendary blood pudding can be seen top left.
The food tray also came with fresh local aromatic herbs and a sour bamboo shoot stir-fry. Our table, which was full of women, loved the stir-fry and it was the first dish to be finished.
I must also mention the dipping sauce, which connects everyone and all the dishes on the table. It's a blend of salt, wild pepper, blistering spicy crushed chilli and a few tablespoons of pork stock.
I always ask for another spoon, or if permitted a bowl to dip my food in alone, which may look selfish at a communal meal but I consume more salt than necessary, so if I take a limited amount, it's easier to control my intake.
For our last meal there, the hostess was kind enough to venture out and get all of us a hot bowl of sweet sủi dìn, a ginger flavoured broth, for dessert. It was a perfect ending to a full meal after all the fibre and vitamins we had from the horse meat hot pot. The ginger soup kept us warm from the cold as the temperature quickly dropped as night fell.
The fresh air, the long walks during the day, and healthy food made us all sleep like logs despite the floor-shaking snoring of someone in our entourage. VNS
So H'mong Homestay
G7XJ+HPR, Bản Phố, Bắc Hà Town, Lào Cai Province
Tel: 096 323 65 64
Comment: Daily authentic local food cooked to order