Yen Duc Village – and the secret to happiness through the eyes of a Vietnamese elder

I figured since I’m in a hotel room recovering from food poisoning, as well as a torn MPFL which resulted from a knee dislocation on a remote island so bad it made someone get ill (You’ll have to wait for future blogs to read more on this), that it’s time to play catch up. 

Vietnam will have been my favorite of the 4 countries I have experienced, and my 2 days in Yen Duc Village are probably the main reason for this.  Yen Duc village is in Dong Trieu town and 60km West of Halong city, so after a night on Halong Bay I decided to do a homestay here. What attracted me was that during the war this village was all but demolished, and I thought it would be interesting as an American to spend a night here and try to speak with some locals. 

Known as the “stone wall” during the war, the village is rich with history, and you can still feel the honor that the villagers have for the many locals who lost their lives trying to protect it. Riding around Yen Duc Village you would never think that it was all but demolished during the war, as it is endless streets of beautiful homes, rice paddy fields, and lush green Palm trees.  



When I arrived at Yen Duc Village I was greeted by Gi, who would be my tour guide for the homestay.  She was extremely kind, and so proud of her village. She said that most people her age (24) can’t wait to move to a big city like Hanoi, yet Gi assured me she will never leave Yen Duc. I was the only tourist there that day which was perfect for me. Gi introduced me to the owner of the house I’d stay at for the night, Mr. San. Mr. San speaks no English, but makes the most hilarious hand movements/sound effects I’ve ever witnessed. 



After dropping off my stuff Gi and I grabbed our bikes and went for a ride.  


The ride was absolutely beautiful, the weather perfect, and every single person was smiling and waving. As time went on I started to understand why Gi would never want to leave. 

First thing we did was learn how to make brown rice. They explained that white rice is prepared via machine now, however brown rice is still done the traditional way.  There is much more to it than I had thought, and even broke a little sweat during the process 


 After making the brown rice we head stopped by to visit some sweet old ladies where I would learn to make a broom. They have been doing it for decades and do it with ease, little did I know it’s a very long, very tedious process. Gi shared that the average salary for a broom maker is just around $60 a month.  


They kept repeating a certain word in Vietnamese, so I finally asked Gi and she said “handsome”. It seemed as if I made a good impression on the broom makers, though I didn’t know the extent of my impression until I said goodbye. Saying goodbye was up there as most awkward/flattering thing that’s ever happened. 


The sweet looking 85 year old is no saint, believe me. Moments before taking this photo she grabbed my ass as hard as she could, and with her being a broom maker you better believe she had a very strong grip. After a heartfelt goodbye it was time to do some fishing. 


Fishing to them is walking through mud that goes to your knee, and slamming a basket down into the muddy water with the hopes of feeling something trying to escape.  I guess I’m a natural because I was able to catch 4 with ease. 

When fishing was done it was time to go back home to prepare dinner, but not before getting destroyed in badminton.  While riding home I heard all this screaming and laughing and asked Gi if we could stop.  What I saw was some village locals playing an intense game of badminton.  I hadn’t played in a decade but it looked like so much fun that I had to ask to play. 


It was a humbling experience to say the very least, as I got absolutely destroyed!  What you can’t see in this photo is one of the people I was playing against was a 70+ year old woman. Badminton is serious business in Asia, and it is said that playing badminton will allow you to live until 100. After a solid hour long slaughter it was time to admit defeat and go have dinner. 


Dinner was a HUGE step up from Sapa, with clean kitchenware, and absolutely amazing food. We had pumpkin soup, fried noodles, crisp spring rolls, and the fish caught by yours truly. We sang some songs and Mr. San showed me photo albums of his children.  I even got to assist in making an authentic Vietnamese dessert. 


Going to bed that night I remember how happy I was that I decided to come here. Little did I know the best was yet to come. 

The next morning we woke up and had some breakfast, then hit the road. We stopped at a nearby Pagoda that was absolutely amazing. Gardens and statues surrounded the whole area, as well as a very old bell that is rung twice a day when the monks go to pray. The temple had 3 sections, one for happiness, one for wealth, and one for longevity. I decided to spend my time at the happiness section, and meditated for about 30 minutes. 


We then went to a market to walk around and talk to some of the villagers. There was fresh fish being prepared, brooms being sold, you name it they had it. I was so blown away at how nice everybody was towards me. Even when they found out I was from the US they were nothing but smiles.  Walking through the market I met a lady by the name of Mrs. Huong, and she begged me to go sing karaoke with her (as well as find her a rich 95 year old American man).  I agreed, thinking it would be a karaoke bar or something like that, little did I know it was her living room. 


It started off pretty awkward, no really awkward. However when the song “I just want to dance with somebody” came on, things got wild. Mrs. Huong speaks no English, except for the numbers 1-2-3, so while I was singing she kept repeating 1-2-3       1-2-3, and we even danced a bit. 

My final experience at Yen Duc Village was undoubtedly the most important to me, meeting Mr. Te…
Mr. Te’s home is the oldest home in the village, built just over 180 years ago.  During the war the whole village was more or less destroyed, and Mr. Te’s house was the only house left standing. When I first saw Mr. Te he was sitting in his beautiful garden,  with a huge smile on his face. I knew nothing about his life at that point, just that his presence embodied happiness. He offered me some tea and we sat for a while. Mr. Te spoke no English, yet when talking to me he was always looking at me rather than Gi, which made it that much more personal. He asked where I was from and when I said America, he smiled and shook my hand. He then invited me inside his home because there was some things he would like to show me. 


Mr. Te looking with pride at his family tree


70%. of Mr. Te’s family tree (could not fit whole thing in one photo), notice Ho Chi Minh at the top


Mr. Te began going over his family tree, explaining that the reason it is so large is because his Grandfather had 3 wives!  The admiration and pride he has for his family was something I’ve never witnessed before.


The shrine is for all of his ancestors, and     Pictures of them were all over the wall. Every day he keeps up with the offerings, and makes sure it is perfect.  While looking at the wall of pictures I noticed that many of them had served in the war. I was so intrigued by Mr. Te that I couldn’t help but ask if he lost a lot of family during the war, “a lot” he responded in Vietnamese. 

He then walked me over to a very special photo, and the only one of its kind. 

Ho Chi Minh’s personal security team

The person at the top left was Mr. Te’s oldest brother, personal security to Ho Chi Minh. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the way the young men stood around Ho Chi Minh, the look in their eyes, the look in Mr. Te’s eyes looking at the picture… The love they had and still have for Ho Chi Minh in Northern Vietnam is indescribable.  Gi asked me if I wanted to leave, but while Mr. Te stood there with a smile on his face not knowing what Gi was saying, I felt like there was more I wanted to talk about, so I asked him if we could sit.  

After expressing my gratitude for teaching me about his family, I wanted to know if I could ask him something personal.  “As you know I am from America, what were your feelings towards me when you were showing me all the family you lost during the war?” I asked. While Gi began to translate a smile went across his face, “What’s in the past is in the past. I can’t blame somebody who was not even born during the war, nor do I blame the ones that fought in it. The soldiers had a job to do, and they did their job to the best of their ability. If we look in the past too much we can not prepare our children for the future, nor enjoy the present”. 

Before leaving I had to ask him one more question, as some of you know there are certain questions I wanted to ask wise elders on this trip, and it seemed like Mr. Te was a perfect candidate. I asked Mr. Te what the secret to happiness is, and again a smile went across his face. 

“That is easy, for there is only one key… To help other people.  If you help them they will smile with you, and if they don’t smile, your heart will still smile. That is the golden key to happiness”.  

It seemed so simple, but he said it with such conviction.  Obviously his answer isn’t a breakthrough of some sort, but looking at him you can see that he not only knows what to do to be happy, but puts it into action. 


Mr. Te

Mr. Te thanked me for the conversation, as did I. When I hopped on my bike I turned around, and there he was, sitting in the same chair, with the same smile, looking at his flowers. 


Sapa – A beyond authentic experience

When I caught the night bus to Sapa, I had no clue where I would be staying the next day, however fellow backpackers from the hostel I was staying at assured me I would find a homestay easily.  The 6 hour ride to Sa Pa was my first taste of a “sleeper bus”, and was tremendously awkward to say the least.  When I jumped on the bus, they handed me a blanket, told me to put my shoes in a bag, and pointed to the very back of the bus where there were seats to accommodate taller people.  The bus was full of solo mini beds, except for where they put me of course.  I had to snuggle up next to a nice couple from Germany since the back of the bus was a combo of 3 mini beds side by side.  I shoved myself as close as I could to the corner and got some Z’s. 

woman from one of the 5 villages trying to offer homestay’s to tourists

Just as my fellow backpackers assured me, the second I got off of the bus woman dressed in pretty authentic clothes started rushing up to me “homestay?, homestay?, homestay?”  I declined all offers for a few minutes to try to scout out which lady seemed like she would be the best fit. After scouting for a bit I finally came across a woman with whom I accepted her offer. She started by saying that for trekking, lunch, dinner, “happy water”, a place to stay, breakfast the next day, more trekking, and then a bike ride back to town would run me $30. After a bit of negotiating I was able to get the number down to $20 (not bad considering all included), and off we went. 

Our first stop was to grab some coffee and water before the 8 mile trek to her house. There I met 2 girls from the Netherlands who were staying at the same house that night. We had our coffee and a small breakfast and off we went. 


Fem, with her son strapped to her back, taking in the view

The 8 mile trek back to Fem’s village was more challenging than I had anticipated. There were very steep areas, sketchy cliffs, and rocks that I thought were going to break off and take me with them at any moment. Thankfully, along the way we took several breaks, not only to catch our breath, but to also take in the amazing scenery. 




The mountains surrounding Sapa are endless rolling fields of rice terraces farther than the eye can see.  Being up there all you can here is whatever noise the wind may make, as well as the occasional woman or young child hauling something back to town. Sitting up on those mountains I sat there, closed my eyes, and thought about how similar it was to when my father and I trekked the mountains in Macedonia just a year and a half ago. 

My father and I in the mountains surrounding the village of Ladorisht, Macedonia. (This was after his first 5 month round of chemotherapy)

When we finally made it to Fem’s house I was shocked, there was no running water, no electricity, absolutely nothing.  Kids were playing outside, the men were drinking and singing songs to celebrate Tet (Vietnamese New Year), and the view… absolutely breathtaking. 

After making my rounds and introducing myself to everybody, they invited me to sit down and eat. After trekking 8 miles informed quite a big appetite, so the fact that the food looked like it wouldn’t come close to passing health standards didn’t phase me. 


Once lunch was done the woman got to work preparing for dinner. I walked around and just took in the amazing landscape for a few hours, and just took it all in.  It was so quite, so calm, so away from it all.  However the longer I was there the more I started to catch the gaze of the children from the village as I think they were starting to warm up to me. 

Smiling and laughing is the universal word for happiness, so after a few laughs and smiles we became best friends. We kicked around a makeshift soccer ball for a while, and played with different filters on my phone that changed their faces. It’s amazing how much joy they get from the smallest things. 


After observing and being enveloped in their culture for the day something dawned on me.  I kept asking myself how these people could be so happy without having much, and I came up with a conclusion that I hadn’t thought of before. My first thought was that they know nothing else, but they do. A walk down to the center of Sapa and they can see a completely different life. I believe what provides them with such contentedness is the mere fact that tasks like cooking, cleaning, and other necessities literally take all day.  Back home if I want to cook, clean my clothes, and shower I can have it done in 30 minutes, and then a sort of void sets in.  I have to look for the next task to do, or something to make the day seem as if it were productive. 

Fem uses a helmet flashlight so to help her cook


This sticky rice is the staple dessert of Tet (Vietnamese New Year)

Dinner was served later in the evening, and the “happy water” was flowing. I was lucky enough to be there during Tet, so the guys were really partying. They sang songs for hours on end, and even though I had no clue what they were saying I would mimick their verses and sing along. The whole family thought it was hysterical, and personally I thought my singing was spot on. 

Singing and eating, with POSSIBLY some liquor involved

After all was said and done I went to bed, which was in a shed style room next to a machine to help make rice.  The wind was howling at night, and dirt (plus God only knows how many insects, kept blowing in my face). Thankfully I survived the night and the next morning it was time to say goodbye. I tried my best at expressing my deepest gratitude and we made our way back to town. I saw some amazing waterfalls and scenery, but it was extremely hot so when an offer to take a bike the rest of the way presented itself I was all over it!


Arriving back in Hanoi was an interesting feeling.  There’s such freedom in knowing that I literally caught a bus last second and had  this amazing 2 day experience, and now I am back where I started with no clue what tomorrow will bring. My dorm that night was filled with new faces who had just arrived in Hanoi.  They asked me about my day and were enthralled by the experience I had just had.  They pulled out their phones and took notes so they too could experience Sapa for themselves.  I thought to myself “I am now the one giving advice on things to do in Southeast Asia”, and when I went to bed that night I really felt like a true backpacker. 


Hanoi – My first few days backpacking

It is my first day in Bangkok and have been in bed all day as I believe I havefood poisoning, so I figured I’d post a few blogs about my experiences so far on what has been nothing short of an epic journey.  

I will be posting a blog “5 Things to Expect Your First Week Backpacking”, however I wanted to also break apart my experiences as it has been rich and full of excitement. This blog I will talk about my experiences in Hanoi, as well as the overall experience of beginning my travels. I will also be posting a blog on my awesome trips to Sa pa, Halong Bay, and Yen Dux Village. 

Day One


Backpackers hanging out at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown


 I literally had no idea what to expect when the cab driver dropped me off in front of Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown. The first thing that went through my mind was “holy shit, I’m actually backpacking Asia, I’m actually arriving at a hostel, this is for real!”  

Walking into the hostel I felt like a kid on his first day at a new school. The place was packed with backpackers, all conversating and having a good time. I’d like to think I did my best to look like I was a seasoned veteran, however I am certain my “new to backpacking” look was written on my face. 

After checking in, the receptionist brought me to my dorm, a room with 6 bunk beds (that’s 12 beds total for those not mathematically inclined). There were 3 people in the room getting ready to go downstairs for happy hour, and they all looked over and greeted me with a smile and hello. To our surprise we were all from America (not very common I have come to realize), and we quickly began talking. Backpackers are some of the friendliest people you can ever meet, it is like a brotherhood of likeminded people who accept everyone. 


A girl strumming her guitar in the dorm

After talking for bit and hearing the incredible places they had been to, we all went downstairs to the bar to enjoy happy hour. The special was buy one get one free beers, and after doing a quick conversion in my head I realized each beer was going to run me $.50! (HELL YES).  I explained my itinerary to them, and they began to laugh saying I will change my plans so many times before my trip is over, and to just go with the flow. 

I was absolutely amazed by all of the places these people had been, and the incredible experiences they have had. . After spending a whopping $2 on some beers, we headed out to dinner.  Unfortunately they had been craving Dominos for weeks, so my first authentic Vietnamese meal would have to wait. 

The streets of Hanoi can only be explained with one phrase “fucking insane!”  My cousin Sherif and his wife Jen tried prepping me for how to cross the road, saying “just walk slowly, and don’t stop”. Imagine 50 bikes and a few cars coming straight at you, no stop lights, and no right of ways. Every time you cross the road is literally a leap of faith. They couldn’t have been more accurate.  I just walked slowly, and everyone veered around me. The best way to explain crossing the road in Hanoi is like mini shots of adrenaline at every street crossing, there is the fear of getting hit, followed by the reward of making it across in one piece. 

 After our not-so-authentic Vietnamese cuisine we headed back to the hostel, where the place was bumping. Music was playing, people were dancing, and there were several free shots being passed around.  It was beyond easy to start meeting people, and by nights end I had met a ton of new people. 
Laying down in bed that night I was overwhelmed with a feeling of peace and comfort “wow, it’s really happening, and it’s awesome”.

Day 2

As I had literally no plans that day, I just laid in bed a while and soaked it all in.  The streets were buzzing with noise, and a few people I had met the night prior were heading ou to their next destination.  As with life, there is a beginning and an end to things. While backpacking, that is raised to the 10th power. It’s amazing to meet so many people in such a short amount of time, however it seems as if every few hours I am saying goodbye to a new friend. 

After a lazy day in bed it was time for my first authentic Vietnamese meal, or so I thought….    I walked a bit through the Old Quarter until I found a place serving up some street food BBQ. I was sat next to a group of backpackers and we began to chat for a bit. As we were all waiting for our food to come out one of the most insane experiences of my entire life unfolded in front of my very eyes…


Rumble in Hanoi – notice several locals weilding weapons

While trying to learn more about my new friends, we were distracted by screaming coming from the middle of the road.  Seconds later the owner of the place we were eating at ran full speed into the middle of the street and cracked another guy in the face. From our observation it looked like it was the owner of another restaurant right across the street. To my surprise a man came out of nowhere and entered the fight.  Hailing from Vietnam, coming in at 5 feet 2 inches and 120 pounds soaking wet, carrying a…. bamboo bong?!  This tiny little dude cracked the man who threw the first punch right across the back of his head, and pieces of bamboo and bong water went flying. 

Me and my new buddies thought it was pretty funny given the size of the guy and his weapon of choice, however things got much more interesting, and dangerous. The man who had just got hit ran into the kitchen, and ran back into the ring full speed with a gigantic meat cleaver in his hand!  I have seen fights in my life where weapons were involved, however it is usually just used as a scare tactic. But this man had only one thing on his mind, “decapitate”. He chased the other man full speed, with the meat cleaver cocked back ready to deliver the death shot. 
Things started to happen fast, but the next thing I know there were 5 other guys standing in the street with sticks that had blades attached to the end of them. 


These were the same types of weapons used at the fight

Thankfully dozens of people jumped in, and from what I saw everybody walked away in one piece.  My new friends and I decided that maybe we should dine elsewhere, as there was enough tension lingering on the street that it could be cut with a meat cleaver. 

Day 3 

The rooftop terrace at the hostel I was staying at was probably the best part of the hostel for me. At any time of the day there are several people soaking up some sun rays, listening to music, and occasionally puffing on the devils lettuce. I spent a good amount of my day just lounging on the rooftop, listening to music, and really just staying to myself. I am very good at listening to others, however I am trying to make an effort on this trip to spend time listening to myself. 

A few girls on the rooftop relaxing in the sun

After a few solid hours on the rooftop I decided to go do some touristy things. I hit up a few museums, and ended my tour with “The Hanoi Hilton”. The Hanoi Hilton, or the Hỏa Lò Prison, was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War.  

Vietnamese political prisoners displayed at the Hanoi Hilton

The tour is really split into 2 parts. The first is a depiction of the horrible torture inflicted by the French colonist on the Vietnamese political prisoners.  The second part, was about the U.S. POWs during the Vietnam war. Being from the U.S. I found this fascinating.  There are several old propaganda videos showing the prisoners eating the finest foods, playing volleyball, smoking cigarettes, and playing cards. The old videos continuously reassure the viewer that the prisoners were treated on par with Geneva standards. Obviously us from the states grew up hearing a different story, so it was great to see how the other side views things. 

When I got back to the hostel that night I met a few dudes who had just returned from a place called Sa Pa. They couldn’t say enough about it, and encouraged me to hop on a night bus, take the 6 hour drive to Sa Pa, and find one of the local villagers to allow me to spend the night (homestay), so that’s exactly what I did. The beauty about traveling solo is you can do however much, or however little you would like to. Within a half hour of our conversation I checked out of the hostel, grabbed my backpack, and headed to the nearest bus station.