The Rice Paper Makers of Thuận Hưng
Part of the six-hour boat tour we’d taken in Can Tho had been a visit to a tourist-oriented rice paper “factory”. That was fine, but we wanted to see the real thing. About forty kilometers north of Can Tho lies Thuận Hưng, which is locally known as a rice paper village. We took the bus there, to hunt down a few of the factories.
If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a celebrity without the hassle of “getting famous”, then climb on a local Vietnamese bus and visit a far-flung village like Thuận Hưng. Within minutes of boarding, we had shaken the hand of every passenger, and taken selfies with half of them. And by displaying passable Vietnamese while paying the fare, we nearly sent the bus into a state of hysteria.
And if our reception in Thuận Hưng was any indication, it’s safe to say that not many tourists find their way here. Every person we passed broke into a smile and most greeted us with a hearty “Hello”. We walked by a dozen mesmerized schoolgirls in a cafe, and by simply waving at them, unleashed a Beatlemania-worthy torrent of squealing. Kids on bikes followed us for blocks, not wanting anything other than the chance to stare.
(The attention is fun, but it might be going to our heads. At least a couple times, we heard someone say “Hello”, and spun around to dazzle them with our beaming smiles… only to realize that they don’t even know we’re there. It turns out, “Hello” is a standard telephone greeting in Vietnam, as well.)
There’s a reason that not many tourists make it to Thuận Hưng: it’s really difficult to reach. The bus ride was about an hour and a half, and then we had to slog our way down four kilometers of asphalt, under the burning sun. And we weren’t even sure that we’d find rice paper makers. Maybe it wasn’t the right time of year, or perhaps they take a break during the day. This was a shot in the dark.
But after passing through the main square of town, we started to see the house-factories, unmistakable for the dozens of tall bamboo racks upon which the rice paper dries. At each of the homes, the same process was unfolding: one person pouring and spreading a thin layer of dough onto a flat pan, and another lifting the dough with a type of wand and placing it onto the drying racks.
We stopped at three houses, each in a slightly different area: in town, along the river, and deeper into a forest. And at each one, we were encouraged to try the goods… these rice papers look thin, but they’re surprisingly hearty, especially when eaten steaming hot, right off the pan. We were stuffed by the time we reached the last house but, as fate would have it, this family was the most generous of them all. It would have been impossible to say no, so we crammed sheet after sheet into our mouths, protesting in vain as they peeled yet another off the wand for us.
It’s hard to recommend a visit to Thuận Hưng as an absolute must-do. The village is small and difficult to reach without independent transport. And while the paper-making families are cool and welcoming, they’re not set up to receive visitors, and you won’t need to spend more than a couple minutes watching them work. But we still enjoyed this excursion a lot, because of the chance to see regular life in a small Vietnamese town. Or maybe we just liked being celebrities for a day.