Our First Week at HEPA

Just over a week ago I arrived in Vietnam with three of my daughters to work as a Volunteer for SPERI (The Social Policy Ecology Research Institute). SPERI have a number of properties where they have established Human Ecology Practice Areas (HEPA) which run Farmer Field Schools (FFS).

Upon arrival in Vietnam we spent a few days in Hanoi with an introductory workshop at SPERI’s office. The following day we took a nine hour bus ride to HEPA and arrived around 9pm to freezing temperatures and torrential rain. But even in the dark, cold and rain we fell in love with the place.

HEPA is south-west of Hanoi in the Ha Tinh province, about 15kms from the Laos border. According to Wikipedia, “Hà Tinh is among the poorest provinces of Vietnam with 2008 GDP 420 USD/person/year.” But the people here are rich in culture and have a great affinity with nature, so ‘richness’ is subjective and mostly measured against Western standards.

HEPA covers an area of over 400 hectares of beautiful forest and consists of a number of school farms which I will write about in future articles.

Upon arrival at HEPA, and after a meal and introductory celebrations, we settled in to our hut, which we share with nine other people. The morning brought a view of vegetable gardens, lush forest and a beautiful river less than a stone’s throw away.

We live in a community of about 60 people here (with more students on each of the farms that comprise the Farmer Field Schools). To deal with so many people there is a strict schedule for meals, we start the day at 6:30am for breakfast, 11:30 for lunch and 6:00pm for dinner. The food is rice, rice and more rice! But with locally grown vegetables, eggs, and meat as side dishes. I don’t eat meat but there are a few other vegetarians here too so we are catered for with non-meat dishes. The meals are all cooked over an open fire which tends to be a gathering place in this cold weather. The photo below shows my daughter warming up while our lunch rice is cooking.

Once meals are done everyone pitches in to wash up. The main meal ‘waste’ is fed to the pigs (which are bred to eat, much to my dismay). The grey water from the wash up bowls then flows into a banana circle to be ‘treated’.

We do community work every Saturday morning for a few hours doing such things as collecting and chopping firewood and general clean up, other days we might all go mulching, or swale digging – whatever is needed. Everyone pitches in.

After a few days of bitter cold and rain the sun broke through and we went to visit the student farms. These are superb examples of permaculture in action and I will be writing about these in the near future so stay tuned.

The weather here is now quite hot, so most of the work on the farms will start to happen early in the morning and later in the afternoons once the searing heat of the day has passed — giving plenty of time to enjoy the river. Although we are expecting more rain for the next week or so, I am told that in April things will dry up and start to get very hot.

It’s amazing coming from a Western lifestyle how quickly one adjusts to not having a washing machine, microwave oven or a TV in every room. For example, we wash our clothes by hand in cold water in a large bowl, wring them out by hand before hanging out to dry. And in this wet weather they take a long time to dry. This is much harder work than just throwing them in a washing machine and walking away. But the hard work comes with great camaraderie as it is usually not done alone, and no power bill!

It’s not all about work here either. We had a huge party on Saturday night with lots of food prepared by the various indigenous groups here. And lots of locally brewed rice wine drank through a bamboo straw. There were a few sore heads the next day!

Instead of vegging out in front of a TV, we instead sit around the fire and sing and laugh together. Throw in a few Cassava roots to cook for a snack, and who could ask for more?

The photo below is of a fire we built inside the hut. It may seem crazy to build a fire in a timber hut with no chimney, but they have very high roofs with lots of ventilation, so the room doesn’t smoke up like you might expect. It seems to be common practice here, and the huts haven’t burnt down yet, but I for one keep a close eye on the fire just to be sure.

Permaculture is a way of life here, not just a part time hobby. Everything is re-used, repaired, re-purposed, or recycled with very little going to landfill. We have worm farms scattered all over the place so any scraps can be turned to soil. The smaller worm farms are made from old tyres and are not only functional but look great too.

And forget about cling wrap here, we use banana leaves instead. A favourite sweet treat of mine here is called ‘Bungai’, which is a kind of sweet sticky rice with some other things in it (I’m not sure what!) wrapped in a banana leaf. Once finished you just toss the wrapping into the garden as mulch!

If anyone would like to contribute to the work we are doing here at HEPA we would greatly appreciate any organic seeds (vegetables and fruit trees). Anything suitable to the sub-tropics should grow here.

Also, any old (not too old) laptops would be appreciated as the students use these to write reports on their work on the farms, study English and learn computer skills.

These can be sent to the SPERI office in Hanoi. Just address them to me (Marty Miller-Crispe) and they will find their way here to HEPA. The address is:

12C Pham Huy Thong Street, Ba Dinh district, Hanoi City, Vietnam

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4 thoughts on “Our First Week at HEPA

  1. Hi Marty, it is awesome to see the place where you and the girls are calling home right now. It does look like a stunning yet rugged place. It sounds like you are doing some amazing things there and I look forward to hearing some more of your tales about life in Vietnam. I bet you will not want to come back into this wasteful Western society once you have finished your time there. Take care my friend. Enjoy! :-)

  2. Do you have enough greens? I’ve been growing three tropical greens here in GA (USA) in the hot summers for some years. They can all be cooked or eaten raw as salad. They are kangkong (Ipomoea aquatica), Indian or Malabar spinach (Basella) and Surinam spinach (Talinum triangulare) . The first two are native in that part of the world so seed should be available locally. The last is African in origin and is common in tropical America but I have not heard of it in Asia. Usually I propagate it from cuttings, though. And I’m moving to a cooler climate soon. But save the name….it might be useful some day.
    Also Chaya (Cnidoscolus chayamansa) is a shrubby plant native to tropical America. The raw plant is covered with stinging hairs, sort of like a nettle, but like nettle these disappear upon cooking. The advantage is that it can grow and not be bothered by goats and other animals in the landscape while still providing human food….

  3. Hi Bob
    The problem here isn’t so much in getting seeds, its finding organic seeds. Plus, we have very little funding so buying seeds is an issue for us. We encourage any visitors to bring some with them.

    The tools we use here are very primitive too. Most handles on shovels and picks etc. are made from branches of trees and modified locally to fit. So some very odd shaped handles which tend to snap regularly! Its all a bit of an eye opener for me who is used to a trip to the local hardware store to buy a tool with a nicely turned hardwood or polymer handle and a 10 year guarantee.

  4. Dear Marty,

    I have completed a PDC course. I am interested in voluntary work in Vietnam, I have emailed SPERI but no reply. Do you have any suggestions .. I’ll be visiting Vietnam in a couple of weeks and will try to get up to SPERI then.

    Betty

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