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.