A typical house in Dong Van, the mesmerizing ancient town of Ha Giang Province, must have a dark grey tiled roof, moss-green walls and a blossoming peach tree at its front.
But let me be the first to say this: nothing defines a Dong Van home better than sausages and slabs of smoked ham hanging in the kitchen.
I remember the first time I visited the town and came to the house of a H’mong family. I was greeted by a woman in her 80s. She was healthy and sharp. She was drying her hands above flaming charcoal while it was drizzling outside.
As I glanced at the many pieces of pork hanging on the iron bars above the firewood, she smiled.
“We always have this special smoked ham in our house,” she said.
The fire was always burning. The ham turned dark yellow, and the smoke seemed to have made them dry.
According to the gran, the pork was brined in rice wine, salt and a variety of herbs from the mountains before being cured with smoke on top of the fire.
The pork will absorb the smoke until the skin looks burned and the fat layer turns transparent.
Dong Van people will take it down and roughly boil it in hot water before cooking it into different dishes.
It is the heat from firewood and its smoke that give the pork the fragrance and the excellent taste.
The lean meat is rough on the outside but juicy and soft inside, while the fat is less fatty.
Beside smoked ham, H’mong people also make sausages at home. They stuff chopped lean meat and fat and spices into the pig’s intestine, tie up and put the sausage on top of the cooking fire.
The sausage can then be used to make different dishes. It can be fried as a whole or sliced and fried with spices and vegetables.
I remember a February evening in Dong Van when it was extremely cold.
I entered an eatery and the woman who owned the small shop put a tray of steaming hot food in front of me.
There were one plate of boiled green vegetables, one of boiled chicken, cut into pieces with the shiny yellow skin, and another plate of deep-fried smoked sausages.
The skin of the sausages was crispy, while the inside meat was hot, smoke-fragrant and delicious. I dipped the sausages in fish sauce with some hot chili, and ate with hot steamed rice.
It tasted so good that I forgot all the cold outside.
H’mong people came up with the idea of smoking ham and sausages in the old days when they did not know about modern methods of preserving meat.
They usually slaughtered pigs before the Lunar New Year holiday. Three or four families would gather and eat the heads, legs and internal organs. They kept the best parts and cured them for longer use.
Now many families make smoked ham almost all year round.
If you happen to cross the mountains to come to a H’mong house in a cold evening, you may be lucky to be treated with a glass of corn wine, steamed cakes made from corn starch, smoked ham or sausages cooked with forest vegetables.
You will never want to leave.