New sedans are parked on the slope leading to Trieu Mui Mui’s house, which stands beside beautiful golden terraced paddy fields in Hoang Su Phi.
It is early in the afternoon. We’ve just finished a long, ardous climb up and down Chieu Lau Thi Mountain at 2400m above sea level, now accessible only by motorbike or on foot.
The road on the mountain used to be good but recent landslides and floods all but destroyed it. We are in Ha Giang Province’s Hoang Su Phi District.
Mui’s home in Hoang Su Phi
Mui’s home is one of eight houses selected to be part of a community-based homestay project co-ordinated by Swiss Intercooperation, a development organisation based in Switzerland, and Helvetas, a well known non-governmental organisation that has been working in Viet Nam since 1994.
The project is being implemented with the support of the Hoang Su Phi and Trung Khanh (Cao Bang Province) district administrations.
“We are in the final stage of the first phase, where the households have started to take in visitors since June,” said Pham Chi Nhan, a district official involved since the early days of the project.
The northernmost province of Ha Giang is famous for its beautiful mountains and slopes which host terraced fields of rice that are an eternal delight for photographers with their changing colours. The terraced fields are located mostly in Hoang Su Phi District.
Ha Giang is also home to Lung Cu, the massive flag tower that marks Vietnamese territory and is virtually a pilgrimage spot for Vietnamese at home and abroad.
Despite the magnificent grandeur that has been captured in jaw-dropping photographs, people’s lives are still hard and the local government is looking to improve it in inclusive ways, local officials told us.
“We want sustainable development so that everyone in the community benefits,” Nhan said.
The chosen host families have received training on how to interact with tourists, learnt some common English phrases and words.
“Tourists who come here have their guides and translators, but they still want to talk to local people, no matter how broken their (locals’) English might be,” Nhan said.
The project has taught the hosts to keep clean bedsheets, blankets and pillows, and they need to invest in new restrooms.
Something for everyone
“If a family can’t afford new beds and rooms, they can cook food,” Nhan said. “If a family is too poor to be providing either service, they can still grow vegetables to sell to the households that cook food. So we want to get everyone involved and the community to benefit as a whole.
“Some families say they can provide accommodation and food and porter services on their own,” Nhan said, “but the programme officer must co-ordinate in such a way that everyone gets something to do.”
Over a dinner of typical local dishes like the Mong black chicken (which has black skin and sleep on the trees instead of coops) and carps raised in the rice fields, Nhan told us the long story of how it all happened.
“There was a project by Helvetas to grow green tea here in Hoang Su Phi.
“But we wanted to steer the local economy in another direction because it was getting very difficult to raise incomes from farming. Industry was out of question because of the mountainous terrain.
“Then we thought of tourism.”
After considerable to and fro, including visits by district officials to Ha Noi, a tourism conference to present the project, and tourism companies visiting the district, Helvetas decided in September 2015 to provide 500,000 Swiss francs (US$500,000) to be disbursed over the next five years.
Nhan said the new project would transform locals’ lives.
In his office in Hanoi, Cao Dai Hung, Helvetas project director for community-based tourism, told Sunday Viet Nam News: “We would like to connect tour companies and the communities to work out a new community-based programme that draws on the failures of other community tours.
“The biggest setback of community-based tourism is weak market connections, and this is true worldwide.”
It seemed to us that the project had succeeded so far in covering most bases.