Travel Story: Water Buffalo Riding in Hoi An

When I travel, I’m always looking for the unexpected: those magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences on offer to travelers willing to seek them out. 

So, when we came across the unique opportunity to experience water buffalo-riding through the idyllic and lush-green rice-fields of Hoi An, Vietnam, I jumped at the opportunity.

Our tour guide, Hue, arrived at our hotel, Vinh Hung Emerald Resort, in the late afternoon. Hue, a bubbly 22 year old local from the neighbouring village, was more than excited to see us; her eyes lit up with amusement as she shamelessly gawked at my blonde hair and Moe’s rather impressive and overgrown beard (a permanent fixture these days).

Despite the beautiful clear blue sky, the afternoon heat on the coast of Vietnam was intense– the kind that sticks to you and makes you feel slightly delirious. Our bus drove a short distance outside of the ancient city centre through cluttered side streets and a maze of moped riders to an area located smack-bang in the middle of the emerald-coloured rice fields. As we rounded a corner we saw the giant water buffalo waddling its way towards us, controlled by one of the local farmers, a slightly – well, eccentric – type of guy who liked to randomly yell and laugh at nothing in particular (as a rather eccentric person myself, I mean this as a compliment). Hue fondly refereed to him as the ‘crazy farmer’.  It was the first time I’d been up close to a water buffalo, and this one had the same friendly eyes as my Golden Retrievers back home. Its skin was rough and the creature had to weigh at least a tonne. In Vietnam, owning a water buffalo is the equivalent of owning a BMW in Australia, they cost anywhere up to $900 USD: a small fortune in Vietnam.

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We boarded the back of the cart and were lead through the surrounding farming villages by the water buffalo. The friendly (yet crazy) local farmer handed over the reins and let us take turns gently goading the friendly creature in a straight-forward direction; a task not as easy as it sounds, several times the crazy farmer had to grab my hands as I almost guided us off the side of the road. Locals gathered around us to harvest the rice fields and children ran outside their houses to get a glimpse of us. Apparently our ghostly pale skin, blonde hair and clear eyes were a novelty in the rural areas. Our guide Hue, was particularly fascinated by our life in Australia and the fact we weren’t married. She called me beautiful over and over again; a statement that was rather baffling to me in the sweaty, unkempt state the humidity had lead me to be in.

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Hue explained that having pale skin in Vietnam equaled beauty, and that herself and most local women wore long clothing, even in the incredibly hot conditions, to protect and maintain their skin.  Hue’s ex-boyfriend had recently told her she had lost her beauty from working outside in the sun as a tour guide and then, consequently, broke up with her. This was a disappointment to her family as in her village it was the role of women to get married, move in with their husbands and look after their in-laws. 22 was considered an age where a young woman should be married. Women, in her farming village, went to work, returned home and tended to their families. Her own father suffered badly from diabetes and her parents did not understand her lack of desire to get married and start a family.

We took a sharp and sudden right down a rocky path surrounded by rice fields and charismatic farm houses. A man with one foot greeted us with a toothy smile; Hue explained that the tour used this local farmer as he needed the support from tourism after losing his foot to a land mine left from the Vietnam war, a loss that greatly affected his ability to harvest the rice fields with his neighbours. The toothy farmer guided us to a small area where he gave us a demonstration of how to harvest rice and clean it, ready to be sold. Then it was time to get in the mud and ride the buffalo. I went first; nervously wrapping my hands around the crazy farmers waste and bracing myself to be thrown into the mud pit. The water buffalo was suprisingly graceful, swinging its hips and wading through the mud as my heart raced with exhilaration. The crazy farmer started yelling out all kinds of things in Vietnamese, asking me to repeat them and laughing wildly once I did. I too laughed wildly, with no idea of what I was saying, only that it was extremely entertaining. Moe then took his turn, holding on tightly to the crazy farmer but appearing to have enjoyed it as much as I did.

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Once we finished, the crazy farmer fed and watered the buffalo and then took it back home. He hugged Moe goodbye and muttered something in Vietnamese. I then threw my arms around him in my adrenaline-fueled state which resulted in an extremely wild reaction from the crazy farmer. Amongst laughter, Hue told me that it wasn’t common for women to hug men who weren’t their husbands and that the crazy farmer was worried that Moe would punch him in the eye. If he knew Moe, he’d realise that he couldn’t even hurt a fly, despite his size. I meekly apologised to him for crossing an inappropriate cultural barrier.

Afterwards, we finished the tour at the farmer’s house, feeding his chickens and enjoying the rice we had recently plucked from the rice field with a fine peanut sauce. It was amazing. Fluffy and fresh. Hue explained that her mum cooked rice every day and often her and her brothers would have 8 meals in the one day. This surprised me considering her slight figure. She became emotional when we talked of her father, explaining that she would like to live in a Western country like Australia where more opportunity was open to her, but that she could never afford to do such a thing with her fathers illness and society’s expectations for her to get married and start a family. I felt a strong sense of sympathy for her, knowing that escaping such a structured set of rules and expectations would be unlikely and at the cost of her family.

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As the sun set, we made our way back to the ancient village of Hoi An, admiring the crescent moon gleaming over the rice fields. We passed cows roaming restlessly on the side of the road and hard-working farmers toiling tirelessly to make the most of the soon-to-be-finished harvest season. When we arrived at the hotel we gave Hue a tip for a wonderful tour and providing us with unique insight into local life. She refused to take it before I insisted and then she burst into tears of gratitude. Hue, was one of the kindest and most vibrant people I’d met in the country.

The BMW Buffalo Cart Tour is definitely worthwhile if you find yourself in Vietnam and is part of the Hoi An Eco Tour.

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