Rat Porridge & Cotton Dresses
Vietnam is home to 54 minority groups. Kihn is the largest of these ethnic groups and accounts for 86 percent of the countries population. The remaining 14 percent is comprised of 53 separate minorities who collectively refer to Kihn as ‘city folk’. Kihn all speak the same dialect of Vietnamese and can converse easily with one another. The 53 other minorities each have their own language and cannot communicate with anyone outside their group. They live difficult & poor lives in rural villages tucked away in the hills and jungles, the high and low lands of Vietnam. Still reeling from the effects of the Vietnam civil war and particularly what transpired between these villages and American soldiers — some of these tribes are fearful of westerners. Anyone with light skin in their eyes is an American possibly come to do harm.
A westerner certainly wouldn’t be able to have any meaningful interaction with these people without the possibility of harm. But there are few who can visit these villages with relative safety and learn about their ancient cultures and simple lifestyle. There is a man who will guide you there, and although it was said by him to be illegal, he explained his unique situation. He called himself Soto.
A middle aged skinny Viet who wore a tan fedora and dressed well — Soto was doing alright for himself running these secret tours. He was a true showman. Campy and bright, always smiling and cracking jokes. Possibly some hidden buddha running around making people’s lives just a bit better with every step. A true soul of the world with intent to do good.
The reason Soto has been so successful with his tours is because he WAS one of these villagers — born and raised. When he was young, a family who owned a hotel in the city adopted him and put him through school. The family had political ties and their plan was for him to become a police officer. It was a smart play to have a former villager who spoke the dialect in the service. He could help navigate tense situations should they arise again. Over and over he repeated how lucky he was. With 14 siblings, he was the only one adopted and given a chance to live a better life. But Soto wasn’t cut out for the service life. He was always cracking jokes and had poor marks. Eventually his adopted parents gave up on their academy scheme and he went on to study tourism— which is quiet common in Vietnam.
In the highlands we were to visit that day there had been two rebellions for independence. One in 1975 and the other in 2005. It was illegal to run tours in this area because, in the past, it was believed that people were leading westerners through who were in turn funding the rebellions. Given his adopted families political status the government knew what he was doing ( or so he said ) and just kept their eyes open. If things went south it would be on him and his family.
The tour we were on was a full day and the first 5 hours were incredible. We had crickets for breakfast and saw how Vietnamese silk was produced. By mid-afternoon we were 2 hours out of the city center at a small fruit farm. Soto ran off for a moment and emerged fedora-less with a big basket of local fruit. With no hat it was revealed he was balding but kept his hair buzzed and neat. He was spritely now, in part for the upcoming fruit feast but mostly ready for the REAL action to begin. We had a big noodle lunch, tried all different kinds of local fruit, and learned more about Vietnamese culture— particularly surrounding relationships and marriage.
Afterwards, he pulled our group into the lot where the van was parked. Here he explained his life story— about hotel, the academy, the rebellions and the villagers general attitude towards westerners. He told us that he used a lot of the money from these tours to help his own village by building schools, providing medical attention, and purchasing food. For all we know we may have been funding the next rebellion.
We were instructed to take no photographs. That this was all for the memory. For the soul.
The sky was overcast with a bit of wind rustling through the coffee plants setting an ominous tone. When we entered the village there were a few men outside the first shack working with a tractor that seemed to have been manufactured in the fifties. When they saw us marching down the street they stopped and stared. Except for the one driving the tractor, I don’t think he noticed.
Soto stopped just before we approached them. Prancing into the yard he addressed them happily in their dialect. These villagers looked different from Soto. They were dressed in rags and much darker from all the farm work over the years. They seemed surprised when he spoke their language. Soto has this charisma about him that puts people at ease. Whimsically charming to the point where one couldn’t imagine him to cause harm. After a few exchanges he picked through a large plant in front yard and teared off a few cotton squares. These villages still used their own cotton plants to make clothes for themselves. Not all their clothes but fancy ones for special occasions.
We walked past the first house down the dirt roads with dogs and pigs of all sizes running about. The houses were fairly spread apart and there was trash everywhere. The trash situation is a huge problem in Vietnam anywhere you go. Soto was bouncing from shack to shack peeking through doors and asking if our group could visit with the families of each home. One house had three children fenced in and playing games as their parents worked the farms. Another house still under construction was modern and painted a bright sky blue. Out of place in every way you could imagine.
After bouncing from shack to shack for some time the group started wondering what we were doing there. Several families refused to speak to us looking genuinely afraid. We came to a house with a woman hacking up large tree branches with a giant machete. Soto walks up and starts talking as she slowly stands with the weapon at her side. She was not pleased but he didn’t seemed frighted. Eventually she tossed the blade down as the two continued to talk in what seemed to be a progressively hostile conversation. She started waving her arms shouting louder and slowly backed Soto off her land.
The group was uneasy. It was clear we weren’t welcomed here. A Dutch fellow said to Soto with a slight tinge of fear “If they don’t want us here we should just leave.” Soto shook his head and smiled. His charm on the group was wavering. The rest were whispering similar thoughts and we all started to grow a bit weary of the situation.
Soto was determined and immediately crossed the dirt track to another home that was surround by large trees with a door size break in the perimeter. There were gray smoke puffs floating out from the opening in the trees. Soto disappeared and the group kept a safe distance. Peaking through the opening you could see a dark wood shack with an old tin roof and a small fire inside. He pleaded with the family to let us in. They bickered but after a bit Soto said. “Ok, ok. They said to come in. Don’t worry.” No one was convinced. They didn’t seem very welcoming. The first half of the group started to enter the small shack. More shouting commenced and people were worried.
“They obviously don’t want us here.” Said one of the girls.
“We should leave.” some said while other nodded in agreement.
The rest of us continued shuffling in and eventually everyone packed into this dusty dirt floor shack. The only light was coming in from the doorway, some holes in the wood siding, and some gaps where the tin roof met the walls. Our group was twelve large and jammed shoulder to shoulder against one side of the shack. On the opposite side were two kettles raised off the floor by cement blocks with a fire under each. The daughter that lived in the house was stirring the pots. Above the pots was a rope strung up with rags to dry and three baskets that held various tools. The mother who owned the house sat quietly in the corner smoking a cigarette.
Soto arranged small benches around the room and now we were all sitting down very low and level with the family. Soto would speak softly to them and they would shout back and then he would turn and translate to us and assure us everything was ok.
The machete wielding wild woman from across the way popped her head in the door and started screaming and waving her hand. More women started clamoring around the door. Soto kept talking calmly as the growing villager group kept shouting at him. This went on for what seemed like an hour but must have been 5 minutes. The group sat silent, hunched over on our benches looking around the room. Our escape options were limited. All the while, the mother smoking her cigarette in the corner didn’t say a word and simply surveyed us.
Slowly the conversation became less hostile and Soto was able to speak to us quietly, telling us about the villagers customs and daily lives. About how he grew up in a shack just like the one we sat in. He explained how their marital system worked— which was very different from Kihn Vietnamese. In these villages the woman’s family purchased a husband and that man became their property, destined to work the family farm for the rest of his days. The marriages were mostly arranged. The purchases were made with antiques. Old flint-stone necklaces, clay pots, and centuries old china. The rarer and older the item— the better a husband one could purchase. In the event that a couple fell in love outside of an arrangement— the man’s family would demand a higher price for him.
More women started to crowd around the door, peaking their heads in with interest. The group asked Soto questions that he would in turn translate. All at once the women would erupt and shout furiously over one another. Soto would quietly start addressing the group as they settled down. The daughter extinguished the flames beneath the pots to join the circle.
Both groups tensions reduced and the conversation came easier. We were even smiling with them at points. Soto looked to the eldest woman and pointed at her necklace. She removed it placing it in his hands. It was made of pearl sized red and white flint-stones strung together with bits of teal between. He leaned into the circle and struck two of the stones together repeatedly causing sparks to fly from his hands. A girl asked how the woman came to own the necklace. She had sold her son for it. The woman had another son— he was now a clay pot.
“What are they cooking?” another girl asked.
Soto searched the perimeters of the shack and found a hardened jug-shaped gourd along with a thin mashing cylinder. In the gourd was rice porridge which they let sit for two or three days to thicken. They mixed it with a ginger-chili mash that was in the cylinder. He jammed the wooden stick into the cylinder and scooped out a bit of the mash. Passing it around he pleaded with us to have a taste. Eventually someone stepped up and we all followed suite. It looked a bit like orange dirt cake and you could see the ginger roots mixed with chili seeds. It was tasty, warranting a second helping.
One of the guys in the group was a vegan. The whole day, every time we tasted something he would ask. “No animal products?” or “No egg, RIGHT?” or some other version of the same question. He sat out parts of the day where animals were used in the creation of food or other materials. By this time the whole group including Soto knew full well this guys stance on animals. He was the first to taste some of the mash— described by Soto as just ginger with other spices. Once again he asked.
“No meat right?” as he was chewing.
He had trusted Soto all day without fail. About to help himself to another serving, Soto turns to one of the woman asking her a question. He quickly turns back shaking his head and pulling the stick away from the man.
“No, No! I am so sorry. There is meat in this.”
The man was vegan for moral reasons so he seemed more pissed off than anything.
“Well, What’s in it?” he asked, annoyed.
Turning to the older woman for the answer Soto stood up, reached into one of the baskets, and pulled out a big chargrilled rat carcass mostly intact aside from the meat that was stripped from the ribs. This guys face turned green as a turtle. A few peoples did. My stomach churned a bit. But the damage was done. We had all just eaten some lovely ginger-chili-rat.
All the women laughed as everyone came to grips with what just happened. One of them quickly grabbed the gourd, popped the top, and dumped a ton of porridge into her mouth. She then jammed the stick into the cylinder and ate the mash off the stick like chicken from the bone. The whole tip of the stick was in her mouth. She repeated this several times like she hadn’t eaten in months and the stick was wet from being mixed with porridge and saliva.
Soto asked if anyone cared to try the porridge. Most of us starred in horror but one brave girl from New York City volunteered. The woman shuffled over to her titled her head back and let the porridge flow. So much so it poured out the sides of the girls mouth. The woman then handed a stick of rat mash to the girl. As the girl began to mix the cocktail she bowed her head. After a few seemingly eternal seconds of dead silence she looked up.
“Not that bad!” she said with bright eyes.
“Anyone else!?” Soto looked around. “Come on, you’ll never be able to try this again in your lives!”
Everyone was just fine with the amount of rat they had eaten that day so the woman snatched the gourd and shuffled back by the door. Soto made his final plea to the group. The next part happened so fast I don’t remember if someone volunteered me or if it was because I was sitting directly next the the woman with the gourd. All I know is the entire group of villagers looked at me and started pointing. At this moment, as I always knew it would. The time had come for me to eat rat porridge.
Of course I could have said no, but where’s the fun in that?
“Sure, why not. I’ll have some.”
The women titled my head back dumping the viscous mess down my throat. Half way through my porridge chug the girl next to me says “Looking at this makes me want to gag!” Which in turn made me want to gag as the slight sour taste started sinking in.
Shifting my eyes towards hers in anger I thought— No! You cannot give in! As I repeated to myself on of mankind’s greatest quotes… “Rule number 76. No excuses. Play like a champion.”
I waved the woman off as porridge started spilling down my cheek. Not more then one moment later she jammed a stick full of rat mash right between my lips. I mixed it around, chewed it up, and before I knew it I had just eaten a good ol’ fashioned helping of rat porridge.
Afterwards I turned to the girl on my right, looked her in the eyes shaking my head with a smirk and said three words.
“What. A. Dick.” She howled laughing knowing full well what I meant.
I can’t say I wasn’t a bit nauseous for the next 10 minutes or so but all said and done I didn’t get sick or die. Would I eat it again? Hell no!
After ‘dinner’ Soto continued chatting with the villagers who at this point had taken a liking to us. He asked us if we’d like to see how they make their dresses from the cotton. Everyone was on board with that. He passed along the request and a woman stepped out to return with a cotton de-sedeer. it was a small wooden machine, built by hand, either very old or battered to hell. She fed the raw cotton between two wooden cylinders as she turned a crank with her left hand. She did this several times until the cotton was flat and seedless. A thin rod was used to fluff the cotton before rolling it by hand into a thick rope.
She passed the de-seeder out the door as another woman passed her a device that was essentially a wide and hollow bicycle gear made of branches and sticks. Strands from the cotton rope were fed by hand onto a spool.
“The only place you’ll see one of these machines is in a museum.” Soto explained. “The younger generations aren’t doing it this way. Soon the art will be lost.”
Afterwards the woman unfolded a big piece paper that had all different colors of processed cotton threads. Soto went one by one and told us what each of the colors were made from. Curry, mango, strawberry, all types of things. The hardest color to make was Indigo.
“My sister tried for years to make indigo cotton but it always turned out black.” Soto laughed.
The woman then reached behind her to unfold a one person manual cotton loom. It had two large rods on each side and a few smaller ones in between to weave patterns and pull the fabric tightly together. The rod at her feet had two rope straps that she placed around each foot. She stretched her legs out then tied a piece of rope around her back securing the the rod that was sitting on her stomach. When she leaned back with her legs out stretched the loom became taught as she masterfully weaved the rods through strands of cotton and forcefully packed them together after a row was complete. She was blazing fast! Once the cotton was processed the dresses only took a day to weave, which amazed me. The finished product was a beautiful stripped rectangle that was meant to be draped around the waist. When unfolded it looked like a tiny knit blanket. I imagine they sold them to markets although they said that wasn’t the case.
I asked if I could buy one and if so how much. When Soto relayed the message one of the women started throwing them at us happily. She said there was no charge, that we could have them. After seeing all the hard work that went into making these none of us would take one for free. We pleaded with them to take our money as they refused over and over. Eventually Soto collected the money and spoke with the mother of the house pressing it in her hands. She reluctantly accepted.
It was almost dark now and the shack had one light bulb in the center of the roof. Where the electricity came from is anyone’s guess. I didn’t hear a generator. Soto told us how to say thank you and good bye in their dialect which we repeated and I immediately forgot. We couldn’t understand what each other were saying but we all had genuinely enjoyed each others company.
Once we made it outside even the machete wielding wild woman was smiling. We noticed how many people had gathered around the house to witness this unfamiliar event. There were no men, only women. The men where still working in the fields. Soto explained how lucky we were to have not only had such a unique experience but to have had so many people in the village at that time. Most days it was just two or three villagers he visited with. Soto wrapped up his last conversation with the family. Laughing he turned to the group and said.
“They want you to spend the night with them!” Half the group looked at one another wishing we could.
“You do this everyday?” I asked, in shock.
Pausing to relax, he replied. “I only run the tour twice a week, depending on how I feel.” He started to laugh.
“Next time I think I’ll take them to my village.”