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EarthTalk: Trekking for Change: Vietnam’s Hill Tribes Benefit from Ecotourism

High on a mountain in northern Vietnam, the fertile wealth of forests and paddies belies the poverty of the people who live among them. Most houses are thin screens of wood with mud floors and no doors. Chickens and pigs wander in and out of the kitchens, and outhouses—when they exist—are often positioned directly over the same streams villagers use for drinking and washing.

There are 54 distinct hill tribes in Vietnam, and their districts are ecotourism destinations for Handspan Adventure Travel. Credit: Christopher Johnson, FlickrCC

In the village of Lao Chai, near Sapa, a house stands out: It is sturdy, with concrete floors and an outhouse, and one can hear voices mingling in Vietnamese, French, English and German late into the night. Not long ago it looked like all of the rest, but the family took a big gamble with Handspan Adventure Travel. The family invested money to improve the living conditions and sanitation, and Handspan guides now bring trekkers from around the world to stay. These travelers come bearing laughter, medicine and more money than most families see in a year.

While neighboring Southeast Asian countries have long been open to tourism and the influx of Western eyesores, Vietnam only opened its borders to travelers in the late 1980s and, in many parts, village life continues as it has for centuries. The great cultural diversity and history are important draws for many travelers, but the lack of development also creates incredibly poor and unsanitary conditions in many of Vietnam’s remote regions.

Fifty-four distinct hill tribe cultures still exist in Vietnam, and many of them are still isolated without roads or access to modern medicine. Villagers die of malaria that could be prevented by drugs and mosquito nets; children suffer diarrhea and parasites caused by unsanitary drinking water.

Ecotourism With a Mission

Ecotourism has often been lauded for its role in preserving ecosystems, but Handspan Adventure Travel has a different focus, using tourism to improve quality of life as well as environmental conditions. Guides frequently come from the small villages where the company operates and return to teach families about hygiene; those families are offered the opportunity to host guests if they create a sanitary outhouse, house animals in a structure apart from the main dwelling, and provide mattresses with mosquito nets. The endeavor quickly pays off for most with a better home, a stipend from Handspan, and tourists who will spend money on water, beer and handicrafts.

Today, the difference between the villages and homes that host trekkers and those that don’t is astounding. As a group of three trekkers and a guide approach the village of Ban Hñ, a gaggle of unabashed young girls streams down from the huts and terraces, calling out in awkward English syllables, “You buy from me, you buy from me?” These girls sell pillowcases, bracelets and other talismans of hill tribe life. Here, the houses are built on stilts sunk into concrete foundations; some homes have generators and fans to stir the sultry air.

In villages across the river, reachable only by a rickety footbridge, the children stare shyly out from behind trees and walls, having rarely encountered Westerners. The school consists of a rough piece of wood leaning against a doorway, marked up with chalk.

Handspan Adventure Travel was started in 1997 by three college graduates from Hanoi who wanted to offer “unique and exciting tours while maintaining the natural and human resources of Vietnam.” All guides speak fluent English and have a college degree in tourism. While the company has grown significantly in the past eight years, the experience is still decidedly personal and sustainable, with group size limited to six on most treks to prevent damage to the ecosystems and to respect village culture.

The company offers a range of adventures, from sea kayaking or cruising Ha Long Bay to mountain biking in the Mekong Delta, trekking in Sapa to single-day excursions to cultural sites. Prices generally include meals, lodging and transportation, and start at around $200 for a couple on a single day trip ranging up to $3,000+ per couple for a multi-day trip.

While these trips are a bit pricier than typical stays in Vietnam, tourist dollars are sorely needed by these remote villages and contribute to important improvements in health and environmental conditions. And, as you follow water buffalo down muddy trails and walk across paddies in a thousand shades of green, you will know that it is well worth the price to take the less-traveled path.

The number of tour companies in Vietnam is increasing exponentially, and it is now possible to find an ecotourism outfitter for nearly every type of adventure—from lounging on remote islands on the coast to paddling some of Vietnam’s wildest rivers. In most cases, tours do not need to be booked very far in advance, if at all, and rates are often cheaper when booked in-country. Conservation organization Fauna and Flora International released Vietnam’s first ecotourism map in 2005, detailing the country’s many national parks and nature reserves.

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