A landscape of cascading hills and shimmering waterways, Da Bac District in Vietnam’s Hoa Binh Province – located about 100 kilometres from Hanoi – seems to embody the word ‘pristine’.
In villages nestled in Da Bac’s valleys, an alternative approach to sustainable tourism is taking off as a way to benefit entire communities. Back in 2014, three villages in Da Bac joined forces with Australian NGO Action On Poverty to form an alliance. Da Bac Community-Based Tourism is a social enterprise that offers homestays, trekking, and a program of cultural and outdoor activities for tourists. Intrepid has been coming to Da Bac as part of four tour itineraries since June 2017. For visitors, a trip to Da Bac promises the kind of authentic cultural experience that’s becoming more and more difficult to find in Vietnam.
What is community-based tourism?
Community-based tourism (CBT) is a model of responsible tourism that’s quickly gaining traction in Vietnam. In the past, rural communities have often been left out of decision-making processes and are less likely to benefit from the proceeds of tourism. The CBT model, by contrast, promotes local ownership and profit sharing while emphasising environmental conservation and the safeguarding of culture.
In Da Bac, the move to start welcoming tourists to the area was a community decision. Everyone is encouraged to play a role in planning and implementation, chipping in however they can. Different families run their own businesses within the CBT, ranging from homestays and catering services to fish farms, kayak rentals and motorbike transportation. Half the homestays in Da Bac are owned by women, and all come from ethnic minorities.
Action On Poverty assists to set up the homestays so they meet guest standards. When a family joins the CBT, they receive a loan to make repairs to their home and construct new bathrooms, plus training and mentoring in hospitality and food preparation. They also get a chance to visit a homestay in another area, often their first experience of ‘being a tourist’.
Part of the profits raised from tourism in Da Bac go into a community fund, which is used for infrastructure projects. Homestay owners typically invest the extra income into their children’s education. Being part of the tourism industry is a big change from agriculture, which is most people’s background. It’s not without its challenges, but so far, CBT is proving to be a success in Da Bac.
Sung village is located high in the mountains and has a year-round temperate climate. It’s located in tea and corn country, and the village is famous for its green Shan tea. Home to 73 families from the Dao Tien ethnic group, Sung offers outdoor activities such as trekking to the nearby Sung Cave. One thing that immediately strikes you when arriving in Sung is just how clean the village and the surrounding countryside is.
“Before tourists came to the village, there was garbage everywhere,” Mr. Dang Van Nhat told me. Born and raised in Sung, he has seen many positive changes since he and a handful of other families started hosting guests. “Now people here have a higher awareness to keep our village clean. This area is so beautiful; we want to protect the environment and plant more trees around the village.”
Another big change, Mr. Nhat told me, is that the streets of Sung are once again alive with Dao song and dance. “In the past there were no performances here, except for important events like weddings and funerals,” he said. “We had to travel 12 kilometres to the community centre. Now, when visitors come to enjoy the traditional performances, the local people can enjoy with them. All people from the village gather together. It’s a lot of fun.”
A new community centre was recently built in Sung using money from the CBT community fund. It’s now being used for elders to teach young people how to read and write the Dao language, which is still widely spoken.
“In this community, they really try to keep their culture and customs as they were in the past,” Ms. Hien Le, Sales Executive at Da Bac CBT, explained to me. “Performing for visitors helps keep the language and traditional clothing alive. Local people really like seeing strangers from another culture here. I can feel that they are so proud when they talk about their language and the way they dye the materials for their clothes. Especially the old people, who can write in Dao language.”
Trekking from Sung to Da Bia
Visitors can reach Da Bac’s second village, Da Bia, from Sung village by trekking. There are two options: a 6 kilometre walk starting from Sung down to Mong Stream followed by a short boat ride across the river to Da Bia, or walk roughly double the distance to arrive at Da Bia on foot. Both trails lead from the top of the mountain down to the valley floor. Apart from a slight incline at the very start, it’s a gradual downhill walk all the way. The route follows well-worn dirt roads and pathways that are relatively even and easy to manage. Some areas are shaded by large trees.
If you prefer not to walk, there are taxis and motorbikes available — but I highly recommend the trek as an opportunity to see more of the stunning Da Bac landscape. Along the way, you’ll pass through towering cassava fields and see rice terraces cut into the mountainside divided by meandering streams.
Da Bia Village
The 39 households that make up Da Bia are all members of the Muong Ao Ta ethnic group. Their village has an idyllic location, overlooking the Da River – perfect for water activities such as fishing and kayaking. Four houses in Da Bia have been converted and now operate as homestays. Like many others, the arrival of tourism has transformed Mrs. Dinh Thi Nhieu’s life and her hopes for the future.
“When I was a little girl, my family was very poor,” Mrs. Nhieu told me through an interpreter. “I couldn’t have imagined that one day tourists would come to visit my village or my house. Since I joined the CBT and started welcoming tourists, our economic situation has improved a lot. Although we cannot speak English, everyone in my family feels more confident when they meet strangers. Sometimes the visitors and I can understand each other without speaking. I’m proud of my house and I hope that with this homestay, my son and daughter won’t have to go so far away to find work.”
What to expect from your stay in Da Bac with Intrepid
As well as cultural and outdoor activities, Da Bac is a great place to unwind. Take a stroll through the village or just relax with a good book.
A highlight of Da Bac are the homestays themselves, many of them traditional lodgings constructed completely by hand – including magnificent Muong stilted houses, with their colourfully painted rafters. Impeccably clean and comfortable, all homestays feature open dorm-style accommodation with curtains for privacy, power outlets, hot-water showers, and clean linens and towels. Guests are in for a treat come mealtime – a generous spread of food made from local, seasonal vegetables and meat. Vegetarian options are available, and all hosts have undergone training to be able to cater to different dietary requirements.
The innovative CBT model, paired with old-fashioned hospitably, makes the Da Bac region a rising star of tourism in Vietnam. Building on their successes in Sung and Da Bia, CBT is now spreading to more provinces, helping ensure everyone gets to share in the benefits of the country’s tourism boom.
All photos by Emily Lush.