Book a Trip to Vietnam, Quadruple a Family’s Income

Locals are learning how to run homestays, manage guided tours, and become entrepreneurs in the tourism industry.

Women from small Vietnamese villages are learning business skills to interact with tourists. (Photo: CBT Vietnam/YouTube)

Oct 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Ly Man May is busy plucking a chicken. In the pot it goes, boiled whole, bones intact. In 20 minutes lunch will be served: rice, vegetables, chicken, and of course, homemade rice wine.

For breakfast, however, May made pancakes to suit the Western palate. She runs a homestay for visitors trekking through the beautiful but rugged Sapa region of Vietnam.

It’s January, and cold, rainy, and foggy outside—not peak season for tourism. But May's beds are still occupied: Six French travelers are sipping tea, huddled around the fire to keep warm.

May is part of CBT Vietnam, a community-based tourism program run by Capilano University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Vietnam’s Hanoi Open University. The two universities partnered more than a decade ago to find a solution for the hill-tribe communities of Sapa, consisting of ethnic minorities trying to sell their handicrafts and trinkets to tourists but struggling to do so effectively.

Chris Bottrill, director of the CBT program and dean of global and community studies at Capilano, says it was “quite disheartening to watch women and children follow tourists around” in hopes of selling something. “It’s not pleasant for the sellers themselves.” Nor was it fruitful; most tourists found the hard sell to be a turnoff.

With funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, Capilano and Hanoi Open University were able to pilot a program in these mountainous villages where locals were trained to manage tourism, run homestays, and be entrepreneurs, not just sellers. The five-year project ran from 2002 to 2007 and was successful. In 2007, the Pacific Asia Travel Association Foundation adopted it and continues to support it.

Villages dominated by ethnic minorities such as Black Hmong and Red Dao surround Sapa. While they reside within Vietnam’s borders, their heritage stems beyond Vietnam to China, Thailand, and Laos. They speak different languages, eat varied cuisines, and have unique customs. Most are farmers, growing rice and corn in the stepped valleys of Sapa, which are frequented by trekkers and tourists from around the world.

Chris Carnovale of Capilano, who manages the program, describes the locals as “incredibly charismatic, with a cheeky sense of humor.” Most important, they make good tour guides, he says.

“They understand tourists. They understand customer service. They actually make excellent candidates to become entrepreneurs.”

In the CBT program, each homestay entrepreneur is sent for training to either the capital, Hanoi, or locally in Sapa, where they learn about hygiene, food preparation, customer relations, and managing finances.

To date, CBT Vietnam has trained 400 people, including 60 tour guides who offer scenic walks through the mountains, and helped create 30 homestays in three villages (Tavan, Taphin, and Lao Chai). CBT estimates that with these new opportunities, a family previously earning $500 a year now earns almost $2,400 a year.

May is one of these success stories. She started the homestay seven years ago, but in the past three years, after undergoing training, she’s seen an upsurge of customers. On average, she has four guests staying at her place, but that can catapult to up to 20 individuals during peak season.

She’s invested in beds and mosquito nets, and when I visit her, she tells me her husband is off to the city to get materials for their new “Western-style” bathroom for guests.

Though it’s not a luxurious stay by any means, the basics are covered. Also there’s the thrill of experiencing a new culture and its traditions, she says.

“When you walk into their homes, it’s like walking into a museum, a living piece of history,” says Bottrill.

It’s that mix of trekking and camping, cultural immersion, and creating a positive social impact, says Carnovale. It’s not only about profit but also about social goals: giving the next generation of Sapa’s ethnic minorities greater opportunities.

Sapa O’Chau, a trekking company based in Sapa, claims to be the first ethnic- minority-owned and -run tour operator in Vietnam. Founder Shu Tan, a single mother from the Black Hmong tribe, hires young locals from the various tribes to serve as guides. Her aim is to create jobs and career paths for the children of these tribal communities who have been limited to agricultural work and manual labor at home. Many don’t even go to school.

My guide, a 21-year-old Hmong, tells me that she would be at home tending to the farm and doing chores if she didn’t have this job. She speaks exquisite English, especially for someone who was forced to drop out of school in the eighth grade. Speaking to Canadians, Americans, and British people regularly has been an asset, she says. “I learn on the job.”

She asks me to clarify what “ramifications” means and then uses it in a sentence to ensure she understands.

She’s one of 30 such guides, offering tourists an insight into the culture of tribal people. Excursions include not just hiking and trekking through the valley but also hands-on art lessons with the locals who specialize in batik, hemp and bamboo weaving, and indigo dyeing—all natural handicrafts indigenous to the area. Back in the town center, at the Sapa O’Chau shop, these items are available for sale.

Fusing together the homestay, the handicrafts, and the trekking is a “far more sustainable form of tourism,” Carnovale says.

At the shop, a sign on the wall reads, “Come to Sapa and leave more than just footprints”—an apt tagline for this trekking hot spot.