As Vietnam reopens, villagers seek more sustainable tourism | Tourism

Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam – A remote mountainous province in northwest Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu is famous for the climactic 1954 eponymous battle in which the Viet Minh resistance army defeated superior French forces to help end a century of domination. colonial.

Today, the province is known for something far less glorious: crushing poverty. Although Vietnam’s economy has grown at an average annual rate of 6.17 percent over the past two decades, 45 percent of Dien Bien Phu’s population remains mired in poverty, according to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office, which which makes it the second poorest province in the country.

For ethnic minorities, poverty rates are even higher, a symptom of the province’s rugged landscape and cyclical flooding combined with limited access to education, transportation, finance and health care.

Tourism has long been seen as a way to alleviate poverty in Vietnam. In 2019 alone, the country welcomed 18 million visitors, which represents 9.2% of gross domestic product. But tourism has also been accused of straining infrastructure and precipitating environmental and cultural degradation.

The Vietnamese province of Dien Bien Phu is renowned for its spectacular landscapes [Ian Neubaur/Al Jazeera]

Sapa, in the neighboring province of Lao Cai, is a typical example. Surrounded by photogenic rice terraces and jagged mountain peaks, the city first gained global attention as a trekking destination in the 1990s. Then investors swooped in and built bigger and bigger hotels and more generic, turning Sapa into a perpetual construction site buried in dust.

“Sapa was so, so beautiful the first time I went there in 1995,” Tuan Nguyen, director of Hanoi-based Moto Tours Asia, told Al Jazeera.

“Now that’s awful. I no longer take my clients there. Instead, we go to villages in Dien Bien Phu where the traditional culture and architecture of the minority hill tribes have been preserved.

Now, as Vietnam welcomes foreigners back after two years of pandemic-related border closures, Nguyen and his partners are spearheading an initiative to promote ecotourism, fight poverty and to preserve indigenous culture in Dien Bien Phu: a network of host families in traditional villages. houses on stilts where 100% of the profits will go to the inhabitants who own and operate them.

The initiative was inspired by Phuan Doc Homestay, a 40-bed property in Che Can, a Hmong ethnic minority village half an hour northeast of Dien Bien Phu town.

Phuan Doc Homestay, a 40-bed accommodation property in Che Can Village
Phuan Doc Homestay welcomes tourists to experience the landscape and local culture of Dien Bien Phu [Ian Neubaur/Al Jazeera]

With dreamy rice terraces and misty mountain views, creeks and winding country roads, a nearby lake teeming with birds, and all village structures adhering to traditional designs, Che Can seems straight out of an oil painting.

In addition to color, locals still wear traditional Hmong dress: colorful skirts, blouses and leggings made from natural fibers like silk and hemp, shirts with batik patterns, and elaborate headdresses.

“Besides being super handsome, Che Can is just a truly unique experience [that involves] to be able to live with the Hmong people and see their way of life,” Catherine Ryba, a traditional healer from the United States who lives in Hanoi, told Al Jazeera. “It gives you a different view of Vietnam and allows you to get out of the tourist bubble.”

Phuan Doc Homestay, one of two in the village, was established in 2018 by Lovan Duc with the help of the Center for Community Development (CCD), a local affiliate of the charity Care International.

“At first I didn’t know anything about tourism,” Duc told Al Jazeera. “But CCD taught me about foreigners and took me to see many different host families. It gave me ideas and with the $13,000 they gave me in loans and grants, I was able to build my own guest house.

Before the pandemic, Duc and his family welcomed around 300 guests a month, a third of them foreigners. Today, they welcome only half of them, all national tourists. They charge people $5 a night and $12 more for meals – feasts of spring rolls, grilled chicken, fish stew, roast duck, rice, sauces, tropical fruits and rice wine that everyone eats together.

They also rent bikes for $3 and offer guided tours of the nearby former underground hideout of Vo Nguyen Giap, aka Red Napoleon, the resourceful Vietnamese general who orchestrated the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu.

“The income is much better than working in a rice field,” Duc said. “We now have enough money to pay our children to go to high school and even college if they get good grades.”

Tuan Nguyen
Tuan Nguyen, right, plans to build traditional homestays in up to 10 villages [Ian Neubaur/Al Jazeera]

Nguyen’s plan is to select eight to 10 scenic villages and direct capital from the provincial government and NGOs to build two or three traditional homestays in each.

It also plans to train locals on how to work with tourists and organize nature-based activities like trekking, biking, kayaking and tours of historical sites, and bringing in volunteers from the foreigner to give English lessons to the locals. Once the network is established, he envisions tourists staying two or three nights in each village, and spending an average of 10 days in Dien Bien Phu, immersed in village life.

“We don’t see it as a way to make a profit,” Nguyen said. “This is a five-year plan to give local communities jobs and long-term economic opportunities that will help preserve ethnic culture and architecture instead of wiping it out.”

“We want the local people to benefit instead of the wealthy from Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi showing up to build big hotels like what happened in Sapa,” he added. “I have a friend there who sold her family’s land 10 years ago to an investor for $20,000. Now it’s worth $1 million and she really regrets selling it. The money is gone now and she has nothing to show for it.

What prevents a landowner in a scenic area like Che Can, once it marks the tourist trail, from doing the same?

Duc said that although he had never considered the downsides of tourism before, he was confident that his village would not suffer the same fate as Sapa.

“Everyone in my village has signed a contract that says they are only allowed to build traditional wooden houses and they can only be two stories high,” he said. “The community in our village is very strong. People cannot decide what to do on their own.

Duc said he was also not worried about competition from his neighbors and supported Nguyen’s efforts to build on his village’s success.

“I want them to experience the success my family has had so they can have a better income and a better life.”

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