101 year old Mrs Bui welcomes me in front of the old wooden house in Tan Lac District in mountains Northern Vietnam in a small Village called Ban where she has been living almost her entire life.
The rotten one-room house measures 42 Square meters and is home to her and several of her family members, 4 generations, 6 people.
Mrs. Bui’s son and grandson in front of their old house.
Mrs Bui, who’s full name is Bui Tho Gon aged 101 years is the oldest family member, the youngest is her great granddaughter, a baby girl called Bui tho Yen Vy, 4 months old.
She invites me into her home which has to be entered barefoot on a steep wooden latter. Quite an act of balance for me. Not for Mrs Bui who reaches the doorstep much faster and, to be honest, more elegantly than I do. 101 years old. Unbelievable.
We step inside and enter the room, which is a bedroom for 6 people, living room and kitchen all in one and warmed only by a heated stove. The unstable and bumpy floor is made of bamboo with holes in it, which lets the light shine through. The walls are made of woven bamboo, not thicker than cardboard.
She sits down on the floor by the window, her favourite place, and invites me to drink tea with her, served in a tiny little cup. Everything accompanied by a smile revealing her shiny black teeth which, as I learn later on, have been blackened by chewing betel nut and limepaste wrapped in a piece of betel pepper vine. It is chewed in a similar way to tobacco and this satinets the teeth and protects them from cavities. In fact, besides the strange colour, the teeth are strong and seemingly healthy!
Mrs. Bui and her grand children in front of their new home.
I tell her that I would like to ask her some questions and she is so excited about this fact that she starts talking before I can even start with the first question.
Mrs Bui: ‘You know, I have been travelling a lot in my life, I have even been in Hanoi. But now I am very old. I am older than 100 years, so I can’t travel anymore that’s why I am always sitting by this window. Unfortunately my ears and my eyes are not as good as they used to be.’
How have you been travelling?
Mrs Bui: ‘Oh, by foot! I walked everywhere when I was younger. There were no motorbikes back then, so I walked a lot and even very far. The furthest was Hanoi. I had to walk an entire day to reach the city!’
Can you tell me how life has changed within the last 100 years, what are the most significant differences?
Mrs Bui: ‘I lived in different villages. During feudalism we had to work very hard and didn’t earn a lot of money. We worked for landlords and got beaten by them. It was a very hard time for everybody!
During the war it was even worse. Because of the bombings in the daytime we had to hide in secret tunnels in the jungle, which we dug by our own bare hands, and to do our farming in the fields at night to avoid the bombs!
But nowadays there is much more freedom.
The government takes good care of us. The more one works, the more one owns. This gives people much more dignity.’
How have you earned a living?
Mrs Bui: ‘I have been a farmer my entire life. Working in the fields. Additionally I have been selling yeast to make rice wine in the different markets all over Hoa Binh province. This is also where I met my husband, a very long time ago. Unfortunately he has already died. I met him at the market where he sold opium, which was legal back then.’
When you look back at your life, the last 100 years, is there something you regret, something that you would do differently?
Mrs Bui: ‘No, I don’t regret anything! I had a hard but very happy life! I had 5 children, 4 boys, 1 girl.
I had to work hard, and nobody looked after my children, so I had to carry them on my back while working in the fields, that’s why my back hurts now.
This is why I can’t carry my great granddaughter in my arms today. Because my back hurts too much. That’s the only thing I regret these days. But there was no other way back then.’
What does home mean to you?
Mrs Bui: ‘My family is my home! As we are very poor our house is in bad conditions. I am so happy that we are being supported by Habitat for Humanity to build a new, safe home and that I can see my family move in before I die.’
What is the most precious thing you own?
Mrs Bui: ‘We are very poor besides our water buffalos we don’t have valuable belongings.
The most precious thing in my life is my family. I had my first child when I was 18 and the last one when I was almost 50.
I am very happy to have such a big family with children, grand children and great grandchildren; I am very lucky to be able to see them around me. Not many people have such happiness!’
What would your advice for a happy life be?
Mrs Bui: ‘I often tell my grand children that they should work hard and take good care of their family. I appreciate whatever they give to me once they look after their own family.
I tell them to take seriously their responsibility for their children.
For me the key to happiness is a healthy family. That makes me happy!’
Thank you very much, Mrs. Bui!
Credits to: Lydia Gries