Urban youth try out farming at work-based homestays

By Thanh Nga   March 9, 2024 | 08:00 pm PT
It had been two days of cooking, cleaning and doing farm work, but Thien Nga still hadn’t been able to adapt to the many rules of “sustainable” living.

The 24-year-old girl said the homestay's rules include not using any products that contain unnatural chemicals.

The host provides powdered toothpaste made from coconut oil and salt, shampoo made from soapberry, and bath water infused with lemon, lemongrass, and holy basil. Guests can harvest vegetables and fruits in the garden for food.

Despite the inconvenience, Thien Nga still feels that spending more than VND1 million ($40.56) per night at this homestay in the Central Highlands mountainous province of Dak Nong is "very worth it."

"Thanks to the rules, I’ve learned more about how to protect the environment and how to engage in self-sufficient agriculture," she said.

As a content creator, Nga often feels lonely and stressed from work pressure, negative online comments, and a lack of friends to talk to. So she decided to see what the farming community is like.

When she arrived, she found herself enchanted by the birds chirping and flying in flocks around the house. The sight of guests and homeowners cooking and chatting together was a charming one. Nga’s feeling of loneliness gradually disappeared.

Over the past year, there's been a growing trend among young people opting for eco-friendly homestays or farmstays. These accommodations are appealing for their opportunity to immerse in a self-sufficient farming lifestyle.

The administrator of the "Green Agriculture Volunteers" group, which has more than 80,000 members, said the group was initially established in 2020 as a place for homestay owners to share information about farming-focused homestay services that are eco-friendly. At first, customers were those who wanted to experience farming so they could start their own agriculture-based business.

But over the past year, this style of homestay has become increasingly popular among young people.

"Every month the group receives dozens of articles sharing their experiences," the group moderator said.

Homestays operating under this model are popping up throughout the country but so far are mainly concentrated around Hanoi and the rural mountainous provinces of Hoa Binh, Dak Nong, Dak Lak, or Lam Dong. In Central Highlands town of Da Lat, there are more than 50 homestays and farmstays that combine accommodation and farming, along with rules that are meant to keep the environment green.

Ngoc Trang, 25 years old, chose to experience a homestay located on the back of a hill in Quoc Oai, more than 20 km from Hanoi.

As soon as she put down her backpack, the homeowner took her along with other guests to forage for chestnuts and pick up trash in the forest 7 km from the house.

Here, Trang and everyone else have to follow the rule of going to bed at 9 pm and waking up at 5 am, completely different from her "night owl" lifestyle at home. Trang, an office worker, said that only when she was in a place away from the hustle and bustle of city life did she feel calm, eat well, and sleep on time.

Huyen Nhan volunteered at a homestay in Central Highlands town of Da Lat for more than a month in December 2023. Photo courtesy of Huyen Nhan

Huyen Nhan volunteered at a homestay in Central Highlands town of Da Lat for more than a month in December 2023. Photo courtesy of Huyen Nhan

Reality check

As the owner of a 7,000m2 fruit garden in Da Lat, Dinh Le Thao Nguyen, 28 years old, said that her business has been receiving 30 guests a month so far this year, double the figure from 2023.

She said that more than 70% have been young people from 18-29 years old. The accommodation fee is VND100,000 per day, and guests need to register for a stay of at least 5 days.

Guests are typically drawn to her farmstay because they want to enjoy the green atmosphere in Da Lat in a genuine and authentic way, rather than at an exclusive and removed luxury resort. They wake up early in the morning to mow the grass, water the plants, and cook rice together at lunch. They gain a lot of harvesting experience, too, by picking jackfruit, avocado, mango and star apple every day.

Thao Nguyen said that many young people, instead of taking holidays and vacations for only a few days rest, people nowadays are choosing to volunteer for a few weeks or even a few months here. Others plan to stay a long time, but give up after only a few days of work.

"This experience also helps guests realize the reality of farm life, and how it’s not as peaceful and comfortable as many would imagine," Nguyen said.

Dung, the 44-year-old owner of the Moc An Nhien Homestay in Central Highlands town of Pleiku, said he has welcomed nearly 50 guests each month since the beginning of the year, more than 80% of whom are young people 18-24 years old.

They enjoy picking kale for smoothies, harvesting bananas and papayas, and cooking for themselves, according to Dung.

And the number of volunteers registering for homestays is increasing day by day, he added.

Each of Dung’s recruitment posts attracts hundreds of comments from interested young people. They often register for jobs like baking, mixing drinks, decorating, taking care of plants, welcoming foreign guests, and teaching English to local children.

"In 2021, I tried to recruit volunteers but there was none to be found," Dung said. "Now, many are willing to wait three or four months to have the opportunity to live here for a while."

Having been a volunteer for more than a month at a Da Lat homestay with a garden growing coffee and herbs, Huyen Nhan, 33 years old, from HCMC, said that at first, she was not used to manual labor, so her "arms and legs were covered with scratches," leaving her sore all day. And she felt tired from waking up early and the busy schedule.

But for her, it was a good kind of exhaustion that she enjoyed and felt was healthy.

"I feel like I can become a real farmer, focusing on taking care of my crops and not having time to be sad or think about random things," Nhan said.

Young people harvest fruit trees at Dinh Le Thao Nguyens garden in Da Lat, February 2024. Photo courtesy of Nguyen

Young people harvest fruit trees at Dinh Le Thao Nguyen's garden in Da Lat, February 2024. Photo courtesy of Nguyen

When asked about this new trend, Ho Chi Minh City psychologist Tran Huong Thao said that the younger generations today, especially Gen Z, are more likely to take care of their mental health than their elders.

Farmstay experiences are a way for them to educate themselves about protecting the environment, meditation, yoga, or simply to heal and escape from the present for a short time.

But, she warned, even though working as a volunteer for a month or two may make one feel comfortable at first, over time one may get bored, confused, and possibly forget your purpose in life.

"Many people still leave early when they are not used to manual labor because that is only a temporary experience that they do not want to pursue long-term," the expert said.

Spending nearly VND2 million for a night at a homestay in Mang Den, Kon Tum, Nhu Thao, 22 years old from Ho Chi Minh City, said it was too expensive.

The homestay is meant to be self-sufficient, located far from the city, but Thao said there wasn’t sufficient food, water, or electricity.

She didn’t like that everyone had to go to bed on time and stay quiet, and she found the early morning yoga classes difficult.

"I was expecting a therapeutic experience, but all I felt was anger and frustration, I couldn’t get used to this slow pace of life," Thao said. "I learned that leaving the city life behind is not easy. I should have done more research about this lifestyle before coming here."

According to psychologist Tran Huong Thao, the sudden change in lifestyle from the city to rural areas can be difficult for the body to adapt to, which can lead to fatigue and frustration. "Even turning off the Internet or electronic devices is temporary. If you want to be sustainable, you must understand this lifestyle and persevere in pursuing it," Thao said.

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