people of the Dao, an ethnic group in Vietnam, rushed forward, with some offering brocade and others selling medicinal plants to the visitors.

Some days, they could not sell anything.

When visitors are nearing Ta Phin bamboo forest, a tourist hotspot in Ta Phin Hamlet, Sa Pa Town in northern Lao Cai Province, a cool breeze comes up as a welcome relief to them especially after they have had to cross a bumpy trail with rocky mountains on one side and a deep abyss on the other.

The sounds of forest birds twittering and leaves rustling mingle with admiring voices of the young visitors.

Looking at Hanh’s smiling face when she tells her stories about the bamboo forest and the culture of the Dao people in Ta Phin, little does one know that this 22-year-old woman used to be a tour guide and interpreter for owners of fruit shops in Lao Cai City, the provincial capital.

By interpreting the number of goods, converting Chinese yuan to Vietnamese dong, or concluding contracts, Hanh could earn a handsome sum of money.

Talking the locals around

“I received VND500,000 [US$22] for each hour of working as a Chinese interpreter in Lao Cai City,” Hanh said.

“I worked three to four hours a day.

“My main job was helping fruit shop owners interpret the quantity and prices of commodities, or contracts.

“By 2019, I had to go home to get married.

“Around half a year later, although I had a baby, financial woes plus leading a confined life at home prompted me to go to Lai Chau and Lao Cai to work as an interpreter and get paid VND600,000 [$26] per day.”

During the half-year period at home, Hanh kept thinking that if people in her place kept doing farm work, selling brocade items and medicinal products, the local economy could not grow further.

Having chances to travel to many places and meet many people, Hanh thinks that tourism will help the locals reduce poverty and no longer be afraid of suffering poor harvests.

However, when she introduced her plan, the people there laughed, saying, “May Hanh, you’re thinking too far. We already can earn good money through the sale of medicinal plants and brocade, there is no need to work as tour guides.”

“Getting rich by doing sustainable tourism sounds great, but not everyone understands how to jointly grow,” Hanh said.

“When joining training classes, I know that not everything being sold at a high price is good.

“Developing tourism while making sure to preserve our identity and culture values is definitely sustainable in the long run.”

In 2018, Hanh said that every time a passenger coach dropped by, around 20-30 Dao people dashed forward, some offering brocade and others selling medicinal plants to the visitors.

Some days, they were scolded and driven away by visitors.

“I have to chat with each person to persuade them to do tourism with me,” Hanh continued.

“In my spare time, I help young people learn about Confucian culture and patterns on Dao costumes to introduce them to visitors.”

Spreading sense of community for tourism development

As shared by Ly Ta May, head of the Ta Phin Community Tourism Cooperative, people now have a common voice and have begun working in tourism together so they no longer have to compete on prices and services after the cooperative was founded in 2019.

Instead of hiking the price of the traditional Dao herbal baths and lowering that of homestay services, they have common rules to follow when offering tourism services.

After joining hands to do tourism, the sense of community among the local people is enhanced, May said, adding they have changed awareness about environmental sanitation and improved their service quality to attract more visitors.

Being endowed with beautiful landscapes, Ta Phinh is also known as the kingdom of herbs. Local kids aged 7-8 join their parents or grandparents in picking herbs on farms.

The locals have incorporated these precious herbal remedies into the tourism development model.

“There are herbal remedies for bathing, treating diseases, relaxing, and restoring health such as keng pi diang,” Hanh said.

“This is a precious medicine so we want to share it with domestic and foreign visitors.”

Besides being home to a wide array of herbs, Ta Phin has attracted more and more visitors, especially after Vietnam reopened its doors to international visitors post-pandemic.

Thanks to the locals’ efforts in preserving the beautiful landscapes and ancient houses, incomes are more stable, with some managing to build new houses.

“I work as a secretary and tour guide concurrently so it was hard at first,” Hanh shared.

“Some young guides in the hamlet are charming and skillful but they are not confident. 

“They don’t prefer Vietnamese tour groups, explaining that Vietnamese visitors are demanding.

“There was a time when a group of tourists were visiting the bamboo forest, it rained suddenly. Many people blamed me for not updating the weather forecast news.”

Such difficulties are now over. Hanh just hopes to welcome more visitors so that people can have better income.

Many young people are trying to finish their study at junior high school level to pursue a tourism career, as they all know that the career will help them have a stable income and preserve the culture of the Dao people, Hanh said, with a radiant smile.

Founded in 2019, the Ta Phin Community Tourism Cooperative was struggling to maintain operations when COVID-19 broke out and left the tourism sector in Sa Pa in hibernation, as this mountainous tourist hotspot became deserted.

However, this is also an opportunity for the cooperative to perfect its tourism services and make preparations for a strong comeback in this year’s travel season.

By doing wholehearted tourism, incomes have gradually stabilized.

The cooperative now has 38 members, mainly women, and is divided into five groups in terms of homestay services, local guides, Dao herbal bathing services, the traditional craft village, and mountain trekking.

Each household has a person aged over 18 as a core member.

Some households even have two to three young members.

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