Homestays are a common accommodation option throughout much of the world, especially in Southeast Asia. As a traveller, it’s a great way to have a more authentic and local experience; to see the local way of life and to meet some friendly people. Usually, I love homestays, and after a good recommendation from a friend, I was excited for this one. But as every traveller knows, sometimes shit hits the fan and it all goes wrong. Unfortunately for us, this was one of those times.
This particular nightmare took place in Ninh Binh, the so called in land Halong Bay. I was on my last few days in Vietnam, and was meeting up with two other girls, Lauren and Cara, who I’d met earlier on. Another friend, Amy, who travelled a little ahead of us suggested that we take a couple days to visit Ninh Binh. She also suggested staying with the same local family a she did; a kind Vietnamese couple who spoke no English. Excited about this opportunity for a more cultural experience in a new part of Vietnam, the three of us jumped at the idea and booked two nights at the recommended homestay.
It started out fine. David, the man we booked with who was (we think) the home owner’s brother, met us at the train station and helped us get a taxi to the house. It wasn’t located in Ninh Binh town, but a small local village about 15 minutes away. That suited us perfectly; we liked the idea of being in a local community. We met the home owners; a kind couple with two funny little boys, and were given noodles for breakfast. After breakfast David kindly offered to take us to Tam Coc, similar to Ninh Binh, but much less touristy.
I hopped on the back of his motorbike while Lauren and Cara took the other. We made our way through the small town, stopping quickly to see a wedding procession where we took a little bit of attention away from the bride (oops!). Speeding down the highway, David tried to tell me a bit about the area. His limited English, difficult to understand at the best of times, was scattered by the wind. It didn’t matter because the scenery, despite the cool and cloudy weather, was enough to keep me interested. All I could think of at the time was that Amy was right, this place was awesome.
David dropped us off at the gate to Tam Coc, promising to pick us up later. We paid for our tickets, climbed in a boat, and spent the next couple of hours being rowed around the beautiful bays. Limestone cliffs, water lilies, and beautiful greenery make for spectacular scenery. We ducked through caves, hopped out to explore lakeside temples, and took an endless amount of photos. I’m still thankful that we had such a great time there, because it was the only good experience of our visit.
Things started to go downhill when David picked us up. We asked to go somewhere for lunch, but it turns out he had his own ideas. He started by pulling an old man over on the road in an attempt to teach us about the local life. The man was a fisherman, didn’t speak any English, and stood looking as confused as we felt as David jabbered away in his mangled English. We didn’t understand much, but the bits that I could understand were not very kind.
When David finally let the fisherman go, he veered off down the road to take us somewhere ‘special’. That special spot was an old, forlorn house covered in dirt and grime. An elderly man lived there and David ushered us inside to have tea. The home looked like it had once been a beautiful place; there was elegantly carved wooden cabinets and furniture, but everything was now in a state of disrepair. Still, he poured us lukewarm tea and smiled at the prospect of having three young western women in his company. While somewhat awkward, it did seem to make the elderly man’s day. So the three of us sucked it up and sipped out tea. Upon leaving we reminded David that is was now nearing 3pm and we hadn’t had anything to eat since our 7am noodles. He agreed again to take us somewhere for food.
We figured he would take us somewhere local, a small restaurant or street vendor. Instead, we ended up at his friend’s house. David snapped something in Vietnamese at his friend’s wife and she left for the store, coming back about fifteen minutes later with the ingredients for pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup. We sat awkwardly, in their bedroom of all places, waiting for this stranger to cook our meal. The entire time we were completely aware that she was not happy with the situation, and neither was her husband; David’s so called ‘friend’. David, on the other hand, chatted away at us rather than to us, yelling louder and louder when we didn’t understand. It was by far one of the most uncomfortable situations I have been in.
After the food (which we did make sure to pay for) we literally begged David to take us back. We were cold, tired, and just needed some time to ourselves and away from him. He grudgingly agreed, though did pull over at an elementary school along the way. He basically pushed us into the schoolyard with the local children who stared confused at the three white girls and older Vietnamese man lurking by the gate. Despite the fact that we had no bad intentions, I felt like a creep, knowing full well that if this happened at home the police would have been called.
When he finally dropped us off we all but raced to our room. Too exhausted to say anything we lay on our beds, hoping that things would just get better and David would leave so we could just have dinner with the family. Of course, he didn’t. Instead, things just got worse.
Dinner started off well. The homeowners were there along with some extended family, all who were kind and welcoming. We managed to communicate in mangled English and Vietnamese over hot pot, laughing as we passed around the food. But David, unable to not be the centre of attention, butted in at every chance he could get. He yelled to speak over us, pushed his way into conversations, and literally started hitting Lauren on the arm while yelling her name to get her attention.
Of course, with dinner came the rice wine, which just made things worse. While the rest of us drank it in moderation, David was tossing his back like it was water. With every shot he became louder, angrier, and more aggressive towards everyone. By the end it was not only uncomfortable for us, but I think also for the family.
As soon as we could escape, we did. Claiming exhaustion from our 5:30am train ride, we headed to our room. Finally, alone we tried to figure out what to do. Lauren, who had originally made the booking, was the most frustrated, and fairly so. Hers seemed to be the only name David could remember so she was forced to bear the brunt of his attention throughout the day. But while she may have had to deal with him the most, all three of us were in agreement that we needed to leave.
We had originally booked two nights but, as kind as the actual family was, we couldn’t deal with David anymore. In the end we decided that we would lie and say we booked our return tickets a day early. We didn’t care about losing the money on the room (less than $10 each), we just needed out.
Of course, we still had to deal with David and his plans in the morning. By 6am he was banging on our door to make sure we were awake. He had plans to take us to visit the local market. Cold, tired, and frustrated we made our way out in the rain to the town. We browsed piles of fruit and vegetables, tables of meat and buckets of fresh, flopping fish. It was a very local and traditional market that, in other circumstances, I may have enjoyed exploring. But with David at our side, it was all I could do to not check my watch every two minutes.
When the time finally came, we basically ran to the taxi. I felt awful for the family, clearly confused as to why we booked two nights but were leaving after just one. David was confused as well, questioning us over and over again why, why, why? I’m sure none of them believed our story about booking tickets for the wrong day, but at that point, we couldn’t have cared less.
I can honestly say that driving in the taxi away from David, we all breathed a massive sigh of relief. While nothing majorly terrible happened, it was one of the most unnerving and uncomfortable experiences I have had to date. I am so incredibly grateful that I didn’t have to go through it alone.
Have you ever had a horrible homestay experience? Feel free to vent in the comments below!
*I usually call out bad experiences, in the hopes that any readers will avoid them, but I am hesitant to name this establishment because David is not the owner, and nor is he usually around (also, I think my mind erased it in the hopes of forgetting this whole thing). The family itself is incredibly kind and welcoming, and our friend who had the experience with just them loved it. However, should you decide to book a homestay in Ninh Binh area, and see the name David- it is worth your time to ask some further questions before booking.