The Wood-Fired Stove at our Homestay in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

blankI blinked with disbelief. A wood-fired stove?!

For a brief moment, the anxiety that my brain was staging in my head about our homestay in the Mekong Delta curtsied abruptly and walked off stage. The lizard that had skittered away across the cobwebbed hooks of our room was no longer the protagonist of my thoughts. Nor was I was thinking about our bed, a barebones frame with two flimsy sheets that were a laughable protection from the cold draft slicing about the island air. Thoughts of blood-dripping mosquitoes lurking about the Mekong receded into backstage, as did the angst of sharing one tiny bathroom with the entire household. The dark drama in my head was temporarily muted – here was a mother and daughter, in the 21st century, cooking with 100% local ingredients on a wood-fired stove. Of the two-faced character called authenticity, the face that stared back at me from the kitchen was the face I preferred to see.

Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam

That first night of our homestay, mum and I pattered around our exceedingly shy hostess as she cooked up a feast in the kitchen. I watched in fascination as her daughter propped up more firewood under the boiling water, readying it to steam the red snapper that had been caught from the water lapping about island.

Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam - wood-fired stove

The mother was a picture of silent calm, multi-tasking with practised ease between bowls of beef, macaroni, prawns, snapper, local vegetables and fruits that were likely sourced from her own backyard or the floating markets we had witnessed along the river that morning. It was like watching a slow meditative dance where moments of reflection were frequent through the process, from judging the thickness of the crimped cucumbers to gauging the strength of the diluted fish sauce to evaluating the consistency of the rice flour and duck egg batter for our Banh Xeo demo.

Making Banh Xeo - Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam

The sink was outside the kitchen in a separate enclave for washing dishes and clothes. If this were my kitchen set-up, a guest would have to be content with nothing fancier than salted cucumbers for dinner. But the two ladies in the family extracted a feast from this skeletal kitchen, a feast that was the most memorable meal through my 5-day stay in Vietnam.

Feast - Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam

The mother and daughter brought out dish after dish after dish, blowing us away with their hospitality, and touching our palettes with flavours that lovingly combined to create an unforgettably heart-warming meal. The ladies did not sit down for an instant, refusing to eat with us because they were busy curating our meal. In retrospect, I feel terribly gluttonous for tucking into the multi-course dinner while the ladies of the house were silently toiling away in the kitchen.

Banh Xeo - Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam

Banh Xeo - Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - VietnamBut at the time, all decorum was forgotten. If I slapped my hands from reaching out for fifths of those milky soft Banh Xeo pancakes with crunchy sprouts and pink baby prawns knitted into the centre, it was less because of decorum and more because I knew what dishes were still waiting to make it to the table. My restraint was rewarded with bowls of baby macaroni soup bursting with pepper and the earthy stock of farm-fresh vegetables, creamy chunks of snapper coated in garlic and bedded with fleshy tomatoes, curly strips of beef with wholesome cauliflower florets, sweet potato chips with malt trickling down their wavy edges – and then of course, the customary plate of fruit. By the time I dipped my last slice of crisp water apple into the dipping bowl of chilli sugar, I was so drugged that my initially uninviting bed suddenly felt like the only place my body wanted to be.

Feast - Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam

Feast - Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam

Contrary to the cold and mosquito-filled drama my brains had played out earlier, I slept like a baby, didn’t have one mosquito bite to whine about over twitter, and had a wonderfully hot shower the next morning before stepping out into the lush greenery hedging the island. There was a feeling of freedom and zen in the air. There was a connection with nature and an appreciation for simplicity that booed at the spoilt Dubai brat drama staged in my head.

There are definitely more luxurious options in the Mekong, but I cannot recommend a homestay enough. You don’t connect with culture in a hotel, you connect with it in a home, with a family, in a real-life setting that plays out every day for the people living in a place. It took me that one night to realize where the drama was really playing out – not in the reality of my homestay, but in the plush Saigon hotel that I had left behind (which I still loved nevertheless!)

The scene of the mother and daughter silently weaving their way about the stove is one that I will always treasure when I think back to my Vietnam trip. This is a country whose wealth is its simplicity of local ingredients and of self-sustaining life, and you cannot appreciate the paradoxical reality of it all without peering over the shoulder of a Vietnamese mother.

Homestay - Backyard Travels - Mekong Delta - Vietnam

We booked our homestay through Backyard Travel, upon the wise recommendation of Lara Dunston at GranTourismo Travels. Read about my other favourite eats in Vietnam on a previous post here.

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

4 thoughts on “The Wood-Fired Stove at our Homestay in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

  1. MyCustardPie says:

    You lay out all the privations in great detail but your amazing prose and nose for tracking down only the most down-to-earth authentic experiences make me long to sleep under that thin sheet (bring on the mozzies).

  2. IshitaUnblogged says:

    Ahh… the kind of experience that I am always lusting for. Your photographs are good enough to bring out the aroma of the food.

  3. Katherine says:

    A wonderful story and fantastic photographs. It reminds me of visiting my husband’s paternal grandparent’s home. They cooked banh xeo in a lean-to over an open fire in the heat of the day even though they have a kitchen inside. The women and men certainly have their roles, but they’re very welcoming. It’s nice to read your experience.


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