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Hospitality has a long tradition for the Red Dao in the northern highlands of Vietnam. Thanks to sustainable tourism, it should now also give rural communities an income.
TEXT: Jacqueline Hefti Widmer – PHOTOS / VIDEOS: Jonathan Widmer
© Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer

"Come, let's have some tea first," says Quyên, as soon as we have stowed our luggage away in our sleeping area, which is screened off by gold curtains. We sit down around a low wooden table in a cosy alcove of this modest traditional house, which consists of a single living room. This is where our host family lives, and also where they provide accommodation for us, their guests. Quyên rinses the teacups out with hot water and pours a clear yellowish liquid out of a small ceramic jug. The tea here grows on trees located just a little further up the hillside.

Most families in the village harvest tea for local production, Quyên explains to us. As we sit relaxedly sampling the mild, slightly sweet Shan Tuyet tea, bustling activity emanates from the kitchen, which is housed in a separate building behind the house. Quyên's wife Liêu is preparing the evening meal. Relatives and neighbours bring drinks and nibbles, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. A special dinner is being held today, and everyone is contributing. "We are preparing for our daughter Trà My's birthday party," explains Quyên. "She turned eight today."

Guests enjoy the delicious local cuisine in the home of Liêu and Quyên together with family and neighbours.

Family business in the truest sense

28-year-old Mênh Quyên and his wife Mùi Liêu, who is one year older, have recently renovated their house. The couple have been opening their home to guests from the city and around the world since August 2017. Like other families in the village, which belongs to the Tong Nguyen community in the northern highlands of Vietnam, they have previously hosted trekking tourists. These group tours were all organised by foreign tour operators, who were raking in huge profits and fobbing the local hosts off with tips. They had always enjoyed taking in guests, says Quyên. "Hospitality is an inherent part of Red Dao culture."

However, they had no idea why the tourists were visiting their region, or what their expectations and needs were. Their house was modest. The guests stayed under the roof, where rice, seeds and utensils were also kept. The cooking was done on an open fire inside the house. The visitors had to make do with an outhouse latrine and cold water. The Red Dao barely even knew of the concept of "tourism", much less that they could make a living from sustainable tourism without having to leave their villages, while at the same time preserving their cultural heritage.

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That changed when Helvetas and the Vietnamese partner organisation CRED launched a community tourism project in 2016, which built on the positive experiences gained from a similar Helvetas project in Kyrgyzstan. Here, hundreds of families developed their own tourism services and became small-scale entrepreneurs. They joined forces to form a strong association, which is now independent and self-sustaining. Overnight accommodation, horse-riding excursions and yurt camping can be booked directly via an online platform – and provide rural families with vital additional income.

In Vietnam, Helvetas is helping seven village communities to set up tourist services which will benefit the entire population. The mountain province of Ha Giang, located on the border with China, is one of the poorest in the country. Most of the people who live here are members of ethnic minorities. They subsist on what they cultivate themselves. They generate a modest income from selling surpluses and craft products, as well as doing odd jobs. Sustainable, eco-friendly and socially responsible tourism enables rural communities to determine the course of their own development.

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Hosts with heart and knowledge

Quyên was sceptical initially. He had doubts as to whether enough tourists would come, and whether renovating the house and buying mattresses, bedding, curtains and mosquito nets would pay off. When he saw that his neighbour Kinh was making a success of his homestay, he became curious. More and more small tour groups were coming to the village, and Kinh was able to offer them not only a place to stay, but meals and his services as a hiking guide. It was then that Quyên and Liêu decided to take the next step. The project was preceded by careful evaluations. The project team invited tourism professionals and tour operators from Hanoi and other parts of the country to assess the potential of the region.

They assessed whether the houses of the families were suitable as accommodation, and developed proposals for tours and activities together with delegates from the different villages. "They were immediately confident that our region was an attractive prospect," recounts Quyên, proudly. "Not just because of the beautiful landscape, but first and foremost because of our culture." His house was deemed to be particularly suitable because it is easily accessible and built in the traditional Dao style – and because it offers a wonderful view of the region's famous rice terraces.

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© Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer
Mùi Liêu and Mênh Quyên, with daughter Trà My, welcome guests from all over the world to their traditional home. © Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer
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The positive experiences of a village already with an active tourism industry in the neighbouring province finally clinched the decision for Quyên and Liêu. A delegation of residents from their village met with residents of the village in the neighbouring province and learned that they could make a good income from tourism. They also discussed the potential adverse effects of irresponsible tourism, and how to protect their village. The communal organisation of tourism services is important.

The traditional legal system would also enable them to react immediately in the event of problems. On the homestay management course, Quyên and Liêu learned what facilities and services tour operators and guests expected. They also learned how to calculate investments and their amortisation, how to calculate revenue, and how to draw up a business plan, our host explains to us.

The trailblazer leads the way

Quyên stands up; he wants to help with the preparations for his daughter's birthday party. "Our neighbour is going to catch fish for the evening meal. You can join him, if you want," he suggests. Mênh Kinh and his helpers set up a net in Kinh's family's fish pond. Two men use bamboo canes to herd the fish in their direction. The carp are kept in the flooded rice fields until just before the harvest, when the water is drained and they are taken to ponds close to the houses. Guests are welcome to join in with catching fish, rice cultivation, harvesting or picking tea, or to help with community building projects.

© Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer
Liêu and Quyên harvest tea leaves from ancient Shan Tuyet tea trees. Tea is an important part of everyday life and one of the few sources of income. © Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer

"This allows them to immerse themselves in our way of life," explains Kinh. The 31-year-old is an example to many here; he is regarded as the tourism trailblazer in the village. Kinh used to work as an assistant cook and porter on trekking tours. He subsequently completed a short tourism course, and was determined to eventually host guests himself. When Kinh learned about the community tourism project, he was eager to get involved. He proposed hiking routes and activities, and helped to find other host families. Meanwhile, he and his wife Mùi Coi used an interest-free loan from the project fund and money borrowed from relatives and friends to renovate their house for guests and extend it with another building and a veranda, which serves as a restaurant.

Protecting the environment and culture

Things are going well for Kinh and Coi. 300 travellers stayed with them in the first year, and the numbers are rising. The dedicated host, who also advertises on social media, looks to the future with optimism. He is conscious, however, that it takes more than just a guest house to attract travellers. "Visitors come here because it's beautiful. That's why we all have to do our utmost to keep it that way. We must take care of our environment, and preserve the rice terraces, our traditional buildings, way of life and customs." In order to ensure this, he plays an active role in the community tourism board and chairs the local tourism cooperative. The cooperative also ensures that there is a fair distribution of custom across all of the participating families. 

© Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer
At the market in Tong Nguyen, the family buys food which they cannot grow in their garden. This means that rural families and tradespeople also benefit from sustainable tourism. © Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer
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Like their neighbour Kinh, our hosts Liêu and Quyên have also converted their house. They increased their living area by raising the timber supports of the house onto pedestals and reinforcing the outer walls. Thanks to their new solid flooring, it is now much easier to keep everything clean, they say. They themselves now also sleep on comfortable mattresses with blankets – and of course they also use the new toilets and showers with electric boilers. "I feel really happy in my home now," says Liêu. Now that she understands travellers' needs and how to run a homestay, the uncertainty of dealing with guests has gone. 

Liêu and Quyên work hand in hand in every aspect of their business. Liêu normally makes up the beds and welcomes the guests, while her husband does the shopping and cooking. The families in the village often prepare meals together. In a cookery course, they learned how to put together varied menus and to work out quantities correctly. 

A future for the next generation

In addition to foreign guests, many natives from urban areas also make their way to the villages to find out about life in the countryside and about the culture of the minorities who live there. Often these are as foreign to guests from Vietnamese cities as they are to travellers from abroad. The project is therefore also strengthening relationships between the cities and countryside. Quyên is happy to share his knowledge with visitors – and thanks to an English course, he can now also do so with foreign travellers.

"It is a bit like travelling yourself," he says. It has enabled him to learn a great deal about his own country, as well as about countries he will likely never visit. It was only by doing this that he came to realise, for example, how highly people valued natural, pesticide-free food production, which for them is a way of life. He also realised that others were interested in their culture: "This made us aware of our identity again, and of the value of our tradition. We must not neglect it." 

© Helvetas / Jonathan Widmer
«It would be good for us if our daughter went to study in the city and learnt foreign languages. But she would then hopefully have a future at home to come back to.»

Mùi Liêu, homestay operator, Vietnam

The project is therefore also linked with people's hopes for the future. Hopes that the younger generation will develop other services: guided hikes and village tours; motorcycle taxis and porter services; or selling local honey and handmade textiles. "Then young people wouldn't have to leave the village to find work," says Quyên. The local community also benefits from sustainable tourism: a percentage of the collectively set accommodation prices flows into a fund for village development and social projects. Quyên sees another advantage: if the demand for food in the villages grows, rural families will no longer have to take their produce to far-off markets.

Instead they can supply local homestays and restaurants. It would also mean that no factories would be needed here in the future and the population would not have to migrate. He hopes that his own parents, who work as labourers on a plantation some distance away, will soon be able to return home and work with them. "It would be good for us if our daughter went to study in the city and learnt foreign languages. But she would then hopefully have a future at home to come back to," his wife adds.

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Sharing celebrations and everyday life

The house has now filled with neighbours and relatives who have come to join the celebrations for Trà My's birthday. The tables and chairs are closely packed together. Countless dishes and bowls are being filled with soup, rice and vegetables, duck, chicken and fish. The children gather on a blanket on the floor. Snacks and soft drinks are also provided for them to celebrate the day. They then sing "Happy Birthday", in English, for the birthday girl. We, the homestay guests, sit at the host couple's table, right in the heart of the family and village life.

Liêu, Quyên and our table companions eagerly pick out particularly delicious morsels and put them in our bowls. After the meal, the guests move to different tables and engage in jovial conversation. They come to our table several times and try to exchange a few words with us. As is tradition for the Red Dao, we clink our glasses of rice wine with everyone. "Chúc sức khoẻ" – to our health!

Vietnam Responsible Tourism

You can book the offers of the host families here.

How Helvetas Supports People in Vietnam

Helvetas promotes sustainable tourism in the mountainous regions of Vietnam and advocates for the protection of medicinal plants.