Do I Call it a “Homestay?”

Steph doing a shot

Northern Vietnam, near Sapa: May 2014

Sitting in a Hmong living room in remote Northern Vietnam with ten other freshly showered tourists doing shots of rice wine while cellphones charged and Eminem blasted from iPod speakers on the shelf above a cooler containing multiple cans of Coca Cola, bottles of Aquafina and six packs of Tiger beer, I wasn’t sure I could call the scenario a “homestay.”

The idea of a homestay, of course, is to stay with locals to get an idea of their culture and lifestyle. In all fairness, the Hmong family who owned the home was with us. Sa and Hang sat with ramrod straight posture and their one-month-old baby in chairs a bit away from the dinner table, which had become the station for drinking games. Crouched in a fairly well lit corner of the large open room, their 10-year-old daughter did homework by using a plastic chair as a desk.

Her long ponytail flitted back and forth as she divided her attention between her workbook and her answer sheet. Meanwhile, two of the tourists, César, a twenty-something Frenchman who wore a jaunty fedora, and Londoner Richard, otherwise known as “Trini” since he was born in Trinidad, fashioned a plastic two-liter 7-up bottle into a makeshift bong. They resorted to smoking pot since our Li, our 4’ 8” no nonsense Hmong guide – or rather, her elderly mother — couldn’t hook them up with the opium they had requested earlier on the 15 kilometer trek we all took to get here.

water buffalo hub

First Impression: Homestay or Hostel?

I’m not going to lie. After emerging Deet and sweat soaked from the bamboo lined dirt path that wound around multiple coliseums of mountainous rice terraces and intersected with water buffalo hubs, I was surprised, yes, but ultimately, relieved when I first saw a tiled bathroom, complete with a flush toilet and shower near the entrance of the Hmong home we had finally reached.

front area with bathroom

The bathroom opened to a cement patio that extended in the front of the house with several plastic chairs and stools like the kind found on most sidewalks of Vietnam’s cities. The interior of the house offered a dorm-like setup with an open communal space and a ladder leading up to a loft full of wooden bunk beds. Several electrical outlets lined the walls and the fully stocked cooler featured a beer sticker, resembling Pabst Blue Ribbon, emblazoned on the side. Clearly the home had been modified to accommodate several guests who leaned toward Western tastes.

steph showing the mosquito netting

The welcoming Westernized abode, however, was not without Southeast Asian touches. A dirt floor with a small fire pit dominated the main cooking area. Two rows of dried corncobs, secured to poles attached to the house’s eaves, appeared to be festive adornments like Christmas lights. Laundry also hung from a line stretched from beams that marked a little alcove. Draped and flowing from the bunk beds, lightweight mosquito netting seemed somewhat charming at least as far as malarial prevention décor went.

Although we were in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam, near the Chinese border, my fellow tourists assembled primarily represented a chunk of Europe and Israel. They included Silvia, Richard’s finance and a very expressive reformed chain smoker from Barcelona; Naomi and Odelia, stunning twins from Israel; Lior, a fun yet loud and always hungry traveler also from Israel; Julian, a quiet engineering student from Germany; Omar and Helene, a reserved good looking couple from Iceland; and of course, César and Richard. My friend Debbie and I completed the group as the only Americans and tourists over 35.

With the party atmosphere, we could have been staying in any hostel digs in Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Mykonos or Bangkok. I even flashed back to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at my alma mater, Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Granted, the rice wine was distinct to Sapa, but it definitely could have given any vat of SAE Everclear infused party punch a run for the title in a homemade alternative jet fuel showdown.

Cultural Connections

The homestay situation, certainly, was festive, but by doing shots on the dining room table of the main living room on a school night, we weren’t exactly being respectful nor interacting with our hosts.

As a teacher, I was desperate for an “authentic” and meaningful cultural connection. Consequently, I went over to the little girl to see if I could perhaps help her with her homework. Glancing down at her workbook, I only saw Vietnamese words and questions. The girl turned her head a bit, and I said “hello,” to her. She did not make eye contact with me, and who can blame her? Fresh from doing shots, I, more than likely, smelled like a living, breathing bottle of hand sanitizer

Dejected, I returned to the party table, and looked over at Sa and Hang. They surveyed the scene with smiles, but I couldn’t imagine they were psyched about the scene. Maybe, we were entertainment at the very least.

I’d like to teach the world to roast marshmallows.

Marshmallows, graham crackers and quickly melting chocolate are stashed in my backpack.

Marshmallows, graham crackers and quickly melting chocolate are stashed in my backpack.

But truly, 30 minutes earlier, we had experienced a moment. Before my trip to Vietnam, I decided to bring marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate bars and graham crackers from the US, so I could share my culture with Hmong hosts in Sapa. And what’s more American than s’mores? Fortunately, the s’more making materials had survived in my overstuffed backpack on the mountainous trek.

Sa and her baby watch while I try and get the marshmallows ready.

Sa and her baby watch while I try and get the marshmallows ready.

After Sa and Hang served us a basic, no frills dinner of rice and vegetables, Deb and I showed the family, along with an older Hmong grandmother, and our new international tourist friends how to roast marshmallows with chopsticks and then assemble the gooey goodness with graham crackers and the already melted chocolate. The Hmong contingency was hesitant to try the sticky sensation. But after a few bites, even the grandmother gave a thumbs up.

Maybe because I had been planning it for so long and due to the fact that chopsticks made excellent marshmallow roasting utensils, the session went off without a hitch. But for some reason, that bothered me.  Why couldn’t I be satisfied with success? It’s not every day you can win hearts and minds with marshmallows. Somehow the s’more connection just seemed too perfect. It felt contrived, scripted and by me, no less.

Ultimately, however, hearts and minds were back to their normal roles as soon as the manufactured s’more moment ended: host family sitting quietly on the sidelines, putting up with obnoxious tourists and obnoxious tourists congratulating each other on our adventurous spirit while the daughter of the family practiced spelling drills to Rihanna exclaiming, “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed — get along with the voices inside of my head…”

partying shot

“Hey guys, maybe we should let everyone go to bed now.” I assumed the mom buzzkill roll. Deb, Silvia, Naomi, Odelia, Julian and the Icelandic couple showed growing discomfort as well.

“Yes, look at the daughter. She is trying to do her homework,” Silvia put her shot glass down and her hands in the air. She stomped over to Richard and Céasar. “Richard!” she hissed. “Stop this smoking and let the girl and the parents have their room back.”

Lior was not ready to stop. “Look they are enjoying it,” he insisted, flashing a toothy smile and giving a little wave to Sa.

“Smoking eez a normal part of ze life ere,” claimed César, who always exuded a superior know-it-all vibe. Look dude, just because your country occupied Vietnam for 67 years, doesn’t mean that you know how life is here. And they kicked you out, by the way.

Finally, the party broke up and we all headed to the bunk beds. When things settled down, Lior interrupted the silence slurring, “I need someone to spoon with!”

As I tried to maneuver in the mosquito netting, and make sure it actually covered me, I considered the day’s events and why the homestay was not so much a homestay.

Earlier in the day.

One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

But what did I expect? It was clearly set up to be a commercial enterprise, and there were more than enough travelers, including me, who wanted a “real” cultural experience so we could mingle with local ethnic Vietnamese. It was because of us that Sapa, once a military outpost and colonial getaway for the French and now known for its beautiful landscape of descending rice terraces and “colorful” hill tribes, had become a marketable entity. It seemed all about hawking “authentic” homestays, mountain treks and performance fleece. In fact, the stores in town now displayed more North Face jackets than the embroidered traditional goods. And since Sapa is so close to China, the knockoff copy capital of the world, you really couldn’t even be sure if the jackets were really North Face anyway.

Sapa street

Of course, we actually saw some of Sapa’s minority ethnic groups walking around town. I was especially excited to see a Red Dao woman. The absence of her eyebrows, along with the red turban that resembled a sack of grains atop her bald head, stood out even from afar as she chatted on her cellphone and walked along the street leading into town.

For the pre-arranged trek, Deb and I waited for our guide at a Sapa hotel that, ironically, made arrangements for the homestays. In the lobby, plastered with posters of smiling old Hmong and Dao women and children in traditional attire, I Skyped my kids with Wi-Fi far more efficient than that in the mountain town where I lived in Colorado.

Hmong women with umbrellas

Li, our Hmong guide, arrived and the Europeans, Israelis, Deb and I set out on the trek. A few friendly women and children with brightly colored pink and red parasols accompanied us, walking in what amounted to shower slip-ons. Naïvely, I thought perhaps they followed us because we had some kind of novelty celebrity status. However, eventually, when we sat down for a lunch break, they bombarded us with handicrafts for sale. Ultimately, because the parasol vendors would not stop with a sales pitch heavy on guilt, I ended up with four embroidered bracelets, a scarf, purse and belt.

During one of the few breaks on our trek, I struck up a conversation with Li, who wore ornate silver combs in her hair (an indication that she was married) and donned the traditional Hmong indigo and embroidered jacket and skirt, along with fancy leg warmers. She, too, whipped out her cell phone from time to time.

“Where are you from?” she asked me after I introduced myself.

“The United States.”

“I have friends in America. A friend in California and one in St. Paul.”

“Yes, in Minnesota!” I was excited she mentioned the capital of my homestate. “The largest Hmong population outside of Asia is there. I just visited Hmongtown last year.” I sensed an authentic cultural connection. I prepared for Li to be impressed.

“Those Hmong — they are from Laos,” Li maintained. “Come now. We must continue on our walk.”

House of Cards

mist in the morning better

The next morning, after one of Sa and Hang’s roosters woke me up, I grappled my way out of the mosquito netting and ambled out to the cement deck. A ribbon of mist hovered low over the horizon. It looked like a huge mass of cotton stuffing, similar to the kind revealed after you open an ibuprofen bottle, had been pulled apart lengthwise and stretched out over the valley. Just below the homestay compound, a wall of green sloped down, sprouting with the occasional palm tree and crop of houses with partially rusted corrugated roofs. A dog and two cats stretched out by one end of Sa and Hang’s cement patio. Puddles, clear enough to reflect the mist, had pooled in the dirt along the edge of the patio. Sa, Hang and their children went about their morning.

Hang Sa and Grandma

Hang, Sa, baby and grandma

Everyone else was still asleep. Hang asked if I would like coffee. For a moment, it felt like I had stumbled into a first encounter. Soon the three kids walked by sporting school uniforms and backpacks and headed off to class. I waved.

After Hang brought me coffee, I continued to take in the morning. A movement soon caught my eye over by the motorscooters propped up against a warped metal lean-to near the entrance of the house. A small black head bobbed along the path. Soon a little girl, grubby and barefoot with a baby strapped to her back, appeared.

She looked to be about six years old, the same age as my daughter, Kasey. Like so many of the other children we saw along the trek —especially the bracelet peddlers — she was disheveled and skinny. She wore a red Mickey Mouse T-shirt and ill-fitting mangy yellow velvet pants that stopped at her knees. Someone had sewn a pajama like fabric at the ends of the pant legs to perhaps extend the life of the clothing. Her hair, pulled back in an unkempt ponytail, revealed one golden earring dangling out of her left ear. The baby, his unsupported head lolling around occasionally, slept in a Hmong embroidered wrap tied around the girl’s shoulder and under her other arm.

Deb adjusting the little girl's wrap

© Debbie Bacharach

The quiet little urchin sat down on the edge of the cement patio as Deb, Odelia and Sylvia, emerged from the house and came over. We all said “hello” to the girl, but she only stared back at us in response. Deb, mother of three daughters, hurried over to re-adjust the shoulder wrap to secure the baby more tightly upon the girl. Holding the baby’s head up, Deb tied the wrap. Meanwhile the girl patiently waited.

It wasn’t clear who this urchin was since she hadn’t been at the homestay the night before. Sylvia tried engaging with her, but the girl was shy and despondent. We wondered where her parents were and why she wasn’t at school.

Then I remembered the cards — playing cards, a combo pack that doubled as the game “Go Fish” and the remember-where-you-last-placed-the-upside-down-card game, “Concentration.” I had initially packed the cards in my travel gear, because I thought the homestay would be just a family, Deb and I. A game of cards, I surmised, would help fill potentially awkward silences. In reality, however, I brought the cards because I had read a touching article by a woman who, while staying with a family in Thailand, broke the ice by instigating a game of “Go Fish.” In the story, the woman also had broken down a language barrier and experienced a true connection.

Steph dealing cards

© Debbie Bacharach

Retrieving the cards, I showed the urchin the cartoon sea creatures depicted on the front of them. After I motioned for her to come and play, she slowly scooted over closer to me. I laid the cards face down in four rows of five. Then I lifted a card and tried to find the match. Of course, I didn’t find the right card, so after setting it back face down, I feigned frustration. It was the urchin’s turn and she did not uncover a match either. Aside from her wanting to move the unmatched cards from their original spots, which defeats the purpose of Concentration, since players are supposed to remember the exact spot of each card they overturn, it didn’t take long for her to get a match. As we cheered for her, she looked up with a slight smile.

“Let her win,” Sylvia told me. I gave the urchin victories the first two times. However, the girl caught on so quickly — soon she legitimately won on her own. At one point, Deb called my name for a photo. I turned, and while I wasn’t watching, the urchin turned a card up, peeked at it and then turned it back over. I caught the last moment of the action. “She cheated!” Sylvia looked at me and we grinned.

girl playing cards

© Debbie Bacharach

girl playing cards 2

© Debbie Bacharach

However, we shook our heads and gently told the urchin “no, no,” and she looked at us sheepishly. After a few more games, she turned into a bona fide card shark.

Soon the girl got up and turned to leave. I gave her the cards and she smiled, revealing her teeth. She had the awkward, endearing grin of a child whose permanent two front teeth had arrived although they still looked overly large next to the remaining baby teeth. Surprised how much her smile touched me, I didn’t know if I missed my own daughter or if I had just experienced the connection I so badly wanted and attempted to manufacture with Sa and Hang’s family.

My conclusion: it’s okay to try and foster a connection. You can set the stage, but what transpires is up to the universe, and it can be perfect and you can call it a “homestay.”

© Debbie Bacharach

© Debbie Bacharach

Endnotes: While I want to address that there were awkward moments during the homestay and definitely times during which I thought we should have respected the fact that Sa and Hang’s family might want some peace, I don’t want to portray my fellow travelers as unfeeling or insensitive. Silvia, Richard, Naomi, Odelia, Lior, Julian, Omar, Helene, Deb and César are all wonderful people, and I enjoyed trekking with them and getting to know them. Generally, everyone was considerate, helpful and kind. I think when you get several travelers and rice wine together, a party will ensue, and I was definitely a part of that.

Plus, there was a rabid dog on the loose in the village (apparently, four people in the village had already died), and Li sternly warned us not to leave Sa and Hang’s house. Consequently, we stayed in for the evening and the festivities began.

200 thoughts on “Do I Call it a “Homestay?”

  1. Somehow it feels that the moment there is a bit more tourism it gets mainstream: everybody is taken on the same route and has exactly the same experience. Love the post!

  2. Um, why did you call her urchin? Just “girl” would be good.

    “The homestay situation, certainly, was festive, but by doing shots on the dining room table of the main living room on a school night, we weren’t exactly being respectful nor interacting with our hosts.

    As a teacher, I was desperate for an “authentic” and meaningful cultural connection. Consequently, I went over to the little girl to see if I could perhaps help her with her homework. Glancing down at her workbook, I only saw Vietnamese words and questions. The girl turned her head a bit, and I said “hello,” to her. She did not make eye contact with me, and who can blame her? Fresh from doing shots, I, more than likely, smelled like a living, breathing bottle of hand sanitizer.”

    I’m not so sure I would want to be on a homestay in Asia unless it was just a chance situation on meeting through others.

    At a home style restaurant, but no homestay. How can I explain myself: I know how tough it is to be poor and want privacy…6 children raised by immigrant, poor parents in Canada.

    • Thank you for your comment, Jean. I debated about “urchin” because I thought it may be misconstrued in a negative way, and I do not have anything negative to say about the girl with whom I played cards. She was endearing and no-nonsense. She reminded me of a saavy, street-smart kid, like an Oliver Twist — an urchin who survives. Consequently, I used the term “urchin.” It was also a style choice because I needed another term. Using “girl” over and over became too repetitive.

      I would not do another homestay unless — as you pointed out, it was a chance situation or a meeting through others. It was awkward invading the family’s life. It’s a tough situation in Sapa, because tourism brings in money, but it also brings this voyeuristic aspect that the ethnic minorities who live there are forced to deal with. However, I’m still glad I was able to meet Sa, Hang and their family.

  3. That’s awesome that you did a home stay in Vietnam. I visited there almost 10 years ago with another ESL teacher. We didn’t do the home stay thing. It looks like you got to see a lot more of the real Vietnamese culture than we did. And that’s awesome that you showed them and other foreigners how to make s’mores.

    • Thank you so much for reading and your comment! Yes, it was fun showing everyone how to make s’mores. It’s also interesting, because you don’t realize how weird it might look or how strange the process is until you see someone’s expression when you put the s’more together. How cool that you visited Sapa 10 years ago! I’m sure it was very different and I’m guessing not as commercial. Thanks again for checking out the post.

      • I taught in South Korea before I left and was visiting southeast Asia. I remember my kids were so grossed out when I was telling them that at Thanksgiving we eat pumpkin pie. Also that we eat carrot cake and zucchini bread. They thought it was so weird and yucky.

      • I love this! It does sound kind of gross to eat sweets and breads made with vegetables. I love how food can be entertainment. Thanks so much for the comment. 🙂 Cheers Steph

  4. I’m not a huge fan of giving stuff away, especially to children. I think it sends a wrong message, as they eventually come to expect gifts from every foreigner. And that goes for marshmallows and chocolate bars especially. Unless you’re also bringing dental care, I don’t think it is responsible to carry sweets to people who wouldn’t consume them otherwise.

    The card game is a good trick, and I’ll try to remember it for the future. I’ll try and bargain for something in exchange for the cards though.

    • Hi Michael. Yes, indeed, you have a good point about the dental care. In fact, I was planning another trip to Vietnam and another s’more making session at a village in the Central Highlands, and I realized that, really, I needed to bring toothbrushes and floss to make sure that if people do indulge in sweets, they need to take care of their teeth. I even found an organization that donates “dental kits.”

      I understand your theory of not giving items away, but it’s hard when you see a child who clearly has nothing not even anything to barter with (except a baby on her back!) and she’s not in school. I had no problem giving her the cards.

      Thanks for reading and your comment.

    • Thank you, Jillian! I definitely had a few missteps in creating a connection, but I gave it a go. To me, that is the best thing about travel. I hope you get to see Vietnam some day. It’s stunning and the Vietnamese are wonderful — so welcoming.

      • I’ve had some mis-steps myself, especially when I stayed with a family in Costa Rica in college and was so shy about trying the language. I know better now! Vietnam needs to happen someday.

  5. Thank you for the authenticish travel story!
    I like to read these much, MUCH more than writeups and photo albums of guided tours through Machupichu.
    Keep the stories coming!

  6. I do not know why, but I always liked southeast Asian beer. We have a place here in Vancouver where you can get freshly brewed one, and it is amazing.
    In the post, I enjoyed your message. I know how it feels when you travel to some distant place and expect it to be somehow unpolluted by the Westerners, but upon an arrival, you realize that it is a very different experience. It is already too late. I had a very similar thought when we went to Nicaragua. There we sometimes stayed with the local families, but it was a hospitality based on our ability to pay, not on mutual interest. And I don’t blame them. The inequality is so big that it is impossible that they perceive us as equal to them. I felt more like a spoiled kid when I was there.

  7. vThank you for this touching level of detail. It made me remember my own experience when I, too, went to Sapa. I didn’t do a homestay, but I trekked through some villages with local guides. Making a connection and gaining a new perspective is also what travel is all about for me. I had a wonderful experience in Sapa, and I still write Hmong friends I met there on Facebook. But I also was disturbed by my experience. Travel is such a double-edged sword. You often ask yourself, “Are they better off without us [travelers]?” And it’s always hard to know how to make the most positive impact. I think you did a great job. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    • Hi, Becca. Thanks so much for reading and for your lovely comment! I would love to trek through Sapa with a local guide. I agree — connections and new perspectives are what travel is about. That’s awesome that you made Hmong friends with whom you still keep in touch. And you are so spot on with travel being a double-edged sword. “Are people better off without us?” I wonder the same thing, too.
      Thanks again. Cheers and Happy Travels! 🙂

  8. Wow, just stumbled across this piece. Beautiful writing. I was just thinking of using a homestay website if i ever travel to Vietnam. Your piece really painted the picture of how it would be. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much for reading and for your lovely comment! As you can tell, I’m sure, I have mixed feelings about the homestay. It was not what I thought it would be. However, it was still worthwhile, and I experienced cultural connections that I won’t forget! Hope you get the chance to travel to Vietnam! Thanks again and happy travels 🙂

  9. I was disgusted with the lack of repect some uoung travellers showed the local people when i was in vietnam and thailand. Your post was very honest and did not romanticise things, well done xx

    • Thank you for reading and for you comment. I’m glad the honesty came through in the Homestay post. It definitely was a balance of trying to be respectful and having a cultural experience and succumbing to a commercial enterprise. Cheers and happy travels! 🙂

  10. once i started reading about how many shots hadvbeen drunk etc i stopped reading. these people ( and inhave lived in Vambodia for 6 Years, will never understand your way of life. you all come and go from their lives and they have to strggle on to make a livivg or just to live. a donation or gift for the village would be 100 times better than dogoodv

    • It’s too bad you did not continue reading the post, because I agree with you. My point was to show that I was part of the problem with invading this family’s life. I wanted a cultural connection. The homestay was a very commercial setup and it wasn’t a good feeling to know that the family needed to be part of the system for survival and that tourists, like myself, perpetuate the cycle. However, this isn’t evident to a visitor until you are committed to the homestay. If I was in Sapa again, I would take your suggestion and volunteer or bring supplies to the village. I appreciate your comment, but in the future, I recommend you read something in its entirety before you make a judgement.

      • point taken and no offence meant, its just that here in cambodia it is big business by foreig ngos who claim to have the poor of Cambodia at heart but drive around in suvs and pay themselves bags of money

      • Thanks for the clarification. I can easily see how people in developing regions who are struggling to feed their families and survive could be exploited by groups that ultimately want to make money off them.

    • Thank you so much, Andrew! It’s hard not to take a good photo in Sapa — the surroundings are absolutely stunning. I wasn’t even there for the season when the terraces are incredibly vibrant and electric green.

  11. Reblogged this on amrutasomalwar1 and commented:
    I think its a great idea to do a home stay .. Its d best way to explore people, communities , cultures but along with that what one would also develop are some very necessary qualities i find getting extint in this age of 21st century amongst people are tolerance, cooperation, adjustments and humbleness…

    • Thanks so much for reblogging my post. I definitely think a homestay is worthwhile. It’s so important to try and learn the customs of different cultures when traveling. Although my experience was awkward at times, it was definitely enlightening and I learned about Hmong culture. Cheers and happy travels!

  12. Thanks for the post. I blog about languages and connecting with others, so how to foster those connections while abroad is an important subject to me. Thank you!

    Not to mention I live right outside of St Paul 🙂

    Learning languages is difficult–and Hmong is up there in difficulty–but languages are so important for connecting with people different from us. I feel that the way that we can connect with others is with effort, true effort and hard work. I lived in Ukraine for 11 months, and when I claimed how much I loved it there, I got the response, “Yes, but you can leave whenever you want.” Even though I went to a class with all Ukrainians and spoke Russian and Ukrainian fluently, they were still suspicious that I hadn’t put in my time.

    I wonder how these Hmong folks socialize normally. Did you get any sense of that? I can only imagine how difficult it would be for clear outsiders like you would be able to break into that world. But I wonder what it might further reveal?

    • Thank you so much for reading and for the lovely comment! I am a “Language Arts”/English teacher so I share your feelings about languages. I can stumble around in Spanish, and I wish I could speak more. That’s interesting about your experience in Ukraine. I wonder if the Ukrainians were suspicious about “putting in your time” because they’ve had such a hard history??

      I wasn’t in Sapa long, but the Hmong village where I stayed was very communal (I’m thinking the small girl whom I played cards with was related to my Hmong “family” in some way.) Definitely, the women who sold handicrafts were friends or possibly colleagues with Li, our guide, because she also “emphasized” how we should buy goods from specific women, telling us that some of the other Hmong women who were selling items were more well off and didn’t need the money.

      Definitely, I agree with your thoughts on connecting with cultures through language. I always try to learn “thank you” and basic pleasantries when I travel to other countries. Also, I’ve found that “do you speak English?” in the native language of the country is useful, because it indicates that you don’t assume or expect people to know English. I will admit that it took me nearly 10 days to correctly pronounce “cảm ơn bạn” (thank you in Vietnamese) with the right tone. I felt so inept. I basically had to make my mouth wide and speak in an exaggerated way to imitate the correct sound.

      Thanks again for your comment and yay, St. Paul! 🙂

  13. I really enjoyed reading your post. I think it’s cool that you were considerate and respectful of the culture/hosts. From my travels I find a lot of tourists tend to be the opposite.

    • Hi Nemi! Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. I tried to be considerate and respectful (it wasn’t necessarily always achieved.) However, it’s definitely a goal of mine to always respect locals, especially since I’m visiting their country. Plus, you can’t achieve a cultural connection by being ethnocentric or inconsiderate. Thanks again for stopping by! Cheers

  14. Steph, what a marvelous experience – in all its weird and wonderful ways! I love your s’mores diplomacy. I used a similar approach when we lived in Sudan – marshmallow always seem to amaze and amuse. 🙂 As always, your writing is beautiful and you storytelling is a joy. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed – richly deserved. ~Terri

    • Hi Terri — thanks so much for the lovely comment. 🙂 I LOVE that you roasted marshmallows when you lived in Sudan. It’s funny, because I didn’t realize, until I saw the reaction of my Hmong “family,” how strange the concept of roasting marshmallows and making a sandwich with them really is. Glad you liked the post and thanks for all the encouragement and support!

  15. Very enjoyable article. It sounded more like a hostel than a homestay. I homestay whenever possible in Mexico, making arrangement through non-profits where I volunteer, but travel solo. A solo homestay might feel more ‘authentic’ and less touristic. Sadly, tourism (what Edward Abbey referred to as ‘industrial tourism’) so often gives travelers a ‘sanitized’ and false picture of the culture they have come to see or learn from; and the vendors of ‘crafts’ are reduced to piece-workers who rarely if ever get an honest return on their investment of time, and talent.
    Would you ever think of returning on your own?
    BTW – I’m a Minnesotan, too.

    • Hi R. Newell! Thank you so much for reading and for the lovely comment. Indeed, the homestay felt much more like a hostel. I can definitely see how a solo homestay would be more “authentic” than “industrial tourism” (love that term)

      You must have wonderful experiences in Mexico. I would love to go back and do a solo homestay in Vietnam. I absolutely loved the country and the Vietnamese. I have traveled solo before and it definitely creates different, perhaps more eye-opening opportunities.

      Happy Travels and yeah for Minnesota! 🙂

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