IN AMONGST IT

Community-based tourism gives visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in local life and culture.

By Le Diem on March 06,2019 03:01 PM

IN AMONGST IT

PHOTOS:BA VI HOMESTEAD

Born and bred in Cua Van floating fishing village in Ha Long Bay, fishing has been part of 32-year-old Tran Ba’s life since he was a little boy. While his mind used to be focused on tides and spots where schools of fish could be found at certain times, he now has a new job ferrying around tourists keen to discover his village and surrounding sites. Bamboo boat trips have attracted many more tourists and also more fishermen like Ba, who now have a different means of livelihood. This is one of myriad community-based tourism (CBT) models that have been developed in Vietnam over recent years.

As an agriculture-based country, Vietnam’s farming areas are also attracting many tourists and have become a highlight of CBT.

CBT first appeared in Vietnam in the 1990s, primarily in the form of homestay services. One of first popular homestay spots was Mai Chau district in northern Hoa Binh province, near Hanoi. With beautiful landscapes of mountain ranges, forests, green fields, and ethnic minority stilt houses, Mai Chau welcomed a large number of tourists quite quickly. As few hotels were open at that time, local people began to offer homestays to visitors.

Homestays, though, took a long time to take off. Only in the last few years, when greater numbers of foreigners began coming to Vietnam and Vietnamese began to travel around their homeland, did homestays start to grow, primarily at famous sites but also in new destinations, where hotels and resorts were limited.

“Staying at a homestay is usually cheaper than a standard hotel room,” said Huong Giang, a local traveler. “I usually travel to discover places more so than just relaxing, so I’m out for most of the day and only return to sleep, so I don’t need a fancy room. Staying with local people is also more fun, as I can learn about their lives or ask them for recommendations on food or ‘hidden’ local destinations.”

One of the first to open up his house to guests on Co To Island, near Ha Long Bay, Vu Thanh Minh, owner of Co To Ecolodge, said the homestay model is suitable for small villages as it provides privacy for guests but also a public space for host and guest to meet. “My house is equipped with standard facilities and meets visitors’ requirements for modern accommodation with local character,” he said.

Noting demand among tourists not only for accommodation but also for discovering local culture, Minh also offers island specialties such as seafood and barbeques on the beach. Guests can also learn how to cook local dishes at cooking classes. He is also active in providing transport for them to visit other places on the island and other nearby islands as well as fishing trips for experiencing the work of local people.

Similar to Minh, local people have recognized the “treasure” right in their own backyard and turned it into a tourism service, making CBT more diverse around Vietnam.

As an agriculture-based country, Vietnam’s farming areas are also attracting many tourists and have become a highlight of CBT, known as “being a farmer” tours. Visitors plant seeds, plough, and harvest at Ba Vi, on Hanoi’s outskirts, Hoi An ancient town, and the “kingdom of cultivation”, the Mekong Delta. With an interlacing network of rivers, lakes and canals, the Mekong Delta has become a more interesting spot for travelers, with “one day being a fisherman” tours along with boat rowing. These new activities have been warmly received by tourists, especially foreigners.

IN AMONGST IT

When taking a “one day being a fisherman” tour in the Delta’s Vinh Long province, Vivian Ortner from Switzerland and her friends had a lot of fun. “We divided into two teams to compete to see who caught more fish,” she said. “But it was not as easy as I thought. I tried to chase them with my basket but they seemed to always know how to escape. Then I was taught not to move so much and keep the water still. It’s a totally new experience. I also learned more about the work of local people. It’s suitable for families, I think, so next time I’ll bring my kids along.”

Thanks to Vietnam’s diverse terrain and rich local culture and lifestyles, new and unique activities are being provided all the time, like picking tea leaves or feeding cows and goats at Ba Vi and on Moc Chau plateau in northern Son La province, learning about pottery making at pottery villages like Bat Trang in Hanoi and Phu Lang in northern Bac Ninh province, or learning brocade weaving at the well-known brocade weaving villages of Zo Ra in central Quang Nam province, Lung Tam in northern Ha Giang province, and Phan Hoa in south-central Binh Thuan province.

With dozens of ethnic minority groups around the country, another type of CBT focuses on local traditional arts. Traditional dance, singing, and other types of arts and folk games are presented for tourists to enjoy and gain a more thorough understanding of cultures while having fun.

For local people, such tourism services provide new jobs and better incomes. Ba said that fishing is much more strenuous and dangerous than taking visitors on trips around the islands and he now works less but earns more.

Minh recently offered English-speaking foreign tourists free accommodation at his homestay during the low season. In return for a one-month stay, they give free English lessons three or four times a week to local kids and also help to clean up the beaches. “I think it’s a good way to attract more foreign tourists and a good solution during the low season,” he said. “Kids have an easier time learning a new language than adults, and they can then help their parents and be the next generation approaching foreign visitors and marketing Co To. The kids can also learn about different cultures and protecting the environment from people from more developed countries. One month is a good amount of time for foreigners to experience local life and culture.”

Sharing a similar view, Tan Thi Shu, CEO of Sapa O’Chau, one of the first CBT models in the well-known tourist destination of Sapa, was the first to conduct corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities locally by opening classes for kids to study English and tourism service skills. Many went on to become members of her staff or work elsewhere in the tourism sector.

IN AMONGST IT

Developing quickly, most CBT models in Vietnam are provided either in cooperation with tour operators or spontaneously by residents. Many are both providing the service and learning at the same time, from investment in facilities in their home to service and foreign language skills.

Local authorities and non-profit organizations have given it more attention in recent years and worked together in implementing CBT projects, for example the EU-ESRT (Environmentally and Socially Responsible Tourism Capacity Development Program) supporting localities to develop responsible tourism, focusing on managing destinations in the Mekong Delta region, developing tourism products, training human resources for tourism, and building marketing plans, the HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation and CRED (the Center for Rural Economy Development) project on improving the livelihoods of poor ethnic minorities in northern Ha Giang and Cao Bang provinces through CBT, and the recent Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth, a pilot initiative of the British Council with a series of activities promoting cultural heritage in the central highlands’ Gia Lai province.

Vietnam has breathtaking landscapes and rich ethnic minority cultures in places like Ha Giang and Cao Bang, which have the potential to develop sustainable CBT tourism, according to Dai Hung, CRED project manager. Local communities can own and manage CBT activities, giving visitors the opportunity to experience their culture, working environment, and lifestyles.

However, as CBT is developing in a scattered manner and is mostly in established tourism sites, it requires a professional national planning strategy with major investment in developing appropriate models, training human resources, and an effective marketing channel to provide good quality services and attract more tourists for long-term development around the country, according to Minh.

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