Initially intent on building her career in HCMC, Kieu Maily had to leave the city in the end. However, it was her time spent in this city that gave rise to her current endeavor whereby she tries to make her own Cham Pa culture known to visitors. Maily is running a homestay service in Hoi An ancient city in Quang Nam Province. Although the income remains humble now, Maily hopes what she is doing may help visitors get closer to the vast space of the Cham Pa culture.
The house leased by Kieu Maily, a woman of the Cham ethnic minority origin, to provide homestays is in the north of Cua Dai Bridge. Foreign guests have yet to return to Hoi An because of the still effective Covid-19 pandemic. Yet Maily is preparing dinner for a group of local guests who arrive in Hoi An from Danang.
Maily does many things at the house herself. She cooks Cham dishes. She briefs the guests on the Cham Pa culture, and sings folk songs and performs Cham Pa dances much to their thrills. She even plays local drums, says Maily while mixing the ingredients with a kind of black salt distinctive of her own Cham village.
The house is not big. But it gives a cosy lived-in air as Maily has intentionally arranged and decorated furniture and fittings in a way to represent Cham styles. Here and there in the house are products typical of the Cham Pa culture, such as Bau Truc pottery and My Nghiep brocade. Also present here are traditional costumes, musical instruments, bas-reliefs and paintings which create an ambience of the Cham Pa culture.
“Cham people would sit on a mat rolled out on the floor to have meals, even when they receive visitors,” says Maily. However, Maily does not force her guests to sit flat on the floor. Instead, she has had low fabric stools made looking like a pomelo. The dinner table is a flank of timber resting on the base about one foot and a half high. During the dinner which will last for about two hours and a half, the dishes as well as cultural stories and musical performances will give a feeling of warmth and closeness.
Maily’s homestay facility has no signboard, half-hidden in the garden. Her guests are mostly brought in by several travel services. “However, some arrive on their own, recommended by their friends,” says Maily. “Some learn of my service on the Internet.” Maily also has a Facebook account via which many have known about the service of a woman who is setting up her career in Hoi An, some 600 kilometers from her home province of Ninh Thuan.
In fact, what Maily is doing is perhaps more about the Cham Pa culture than about economic purposes. Some have likened Maily to a “gypsy” woman who is bold and unusual. Each time answering guests’ questions, Maily tells herself that she is doing something for the place where she was born and belongs to. “I then think I’m doing this job for the sake of my own community and my birthplace,” she says. “And I don’t feel lonesome any more. The interest and affection from the local communities [in Hoi An] and from my guests encourage me a lot.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of Maily’s customers were foreign travelers. Maily says she has been given tight handshakes or embraces by some of these guests. They thanked Maily for helping them enjoy Cham culinary delights and be in touch with the profoundness of the Cham Pa civilization symbolized by architectural structures and cultural values such as traditional dances and songs.
“That’s what I dream of,” says Maily while sipping a cup of Cham herbal tea. At this moment, the Cham woman, who has experienced many hardships in her life, seems to be younger than her age of 35.
Maily says when a school girl, she nurtured a dream of preserving the essence of the Cham cuisine she had learnt form the elderly. She wanted to become a TV anchor who could introduce those traditional dishes.
In 2011, Maily graduated from a college in HCMC training radio and television. However, she failed to become a TV host in this city. Maily remained in the city, though, trekking every of its corners. She did piecework, and wrote newspaper articles and books. She taught herself many things by experiencing them.
When a college students, realizing that the Cham Pa culture was sinking into oblivion among young communities, Maily wanted to contribute her part to the preservation of that culture by joining cultural groups in HCMC. “These activities help me tremendously in my singing and dancing performances to entertain my guests here at my homestay service,” says Maily.
Just as what she has done with the culinary part, Maily’s presentation of Cham costumes at her homestay facility originates from Saigon. Maily says in 2014, she noticed that Cham women, especially those in HCMC, rarely donned their traditional clothes. She then gathered about a dozen of young Cham women living in HCMC to introduce Cham traditional costumes to foreign visitors in the Bui Vien backpackers’ quarter in District 1.
Much to her happiness, her group’s performances were warmly accepted. The good news traveled back to her home province of Ninh Thuan. It next became a strong motive for young Cham women to wear traditional clothes in new styles some of which were designed by Maily.
“I was so happy,” says Maily when she talks about the effect of the campaign for reviving traditional Cham costumes launched by herself.
Maily always recalls the affection her guests have given her. Among the recollections is the time she spent with a group of young friends who accompanied her to sell sakaya, a traditional Cham cake.
The young friends shouted out their wares. “Have a sakaya cake,” they told passers-by. “Have a delicious cake made by Cham people!”
In another occasion, an Italian visitor asked Maily to help her visit My Son temple complex after tasting sakaya cakes.
A young woman from Israel once embraced Maily, saying, “I love you. Women must be as strong as you are, who are bold enough to do what they want to.”
Maily’s homestay service has been seriously affected because the coronavirus has banned most international flights to Vietnam. However, the current hardships do not discourage Maily.
These days, domestic travelers are resuming their trips to Hoi An. Maily believes once things become normal again, travelers from afar who love to explore new cultures and traditions will visit her homestay service.
“I will do many things more,” she says.
By Huynh Van My