Once time to Chieng Yen

by Dwight Z.

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Once time to Chieng Yen

10 May, 2010 

An NGO the local authorities, two ethnic minorities and the travel companies have teamed up to create a new destination, Chieng Yen,. Nick Ross took a trip west of Hanoi to dicover a collection of tribal villages with great potential for sustainable tourism.

Ten years ago on a trip to Sumatra I was lured to a mystical island called Siberut. Here, I was told, were tribal people still living in loin cloths and grass skirts. Life remained basic, and the accounts and photos of past travellers painted it picture of the “noble savage” living in harmony with the jungle, and relying on the laws of nature rather than laws of man. Sold on this idea of a back-to-nature, ten-day trip, I parted with my Rupiah and together with a group of travellers crossed the Mentawai Strait from Padang on a tiny, motor-powered fishing boat, only to find ourselves trapped in a storm. Deposited on an untouched, deserted island for eight hours, with living white-sand beaches, coconut palms for shade and inland jungle, this was to be the best part of the journey. Siberut turned out to be a disappointment. . The jungles weren’t dense, the people dressed like every other indonesian in the archipelago, and those who still covered their private parts with the tribal accoutrements of the past, only did so for the benefit of the tourists. Such is the way of destinations that promote themselves on the simplicity and, for some, the romilntic beauty of the past. When first ‘discovered’, they are authentic, exactly as it says on the tin; Siberut in the 1980s was still genuinely inhabited by loin cloth toting tribes people. But the present transformations in fast developing countries like Indonesia and Vietnam give even the poorest people new found spending power. This changes aspirations, creating a desire to move into the modern world and bury the ways of the past. So, when I was told about Chieng Yen, a collection of hamlets close to Moc Chau targeted by SNV, Son La Tourism and Son La People’s Committee to become a new destination, I was excited. 150krn. west of Hanoi, inhabited by the White Thai and Muong ethnic minorities, and covering a mountainous area of enclosed undulating valleys, dense jungle, and paddy fields, here was a chance to experience an area before the onslaught of tourism. Even better, after the unfettered development of destinations like Halong Bay and Sapa, with the partnership of the authorities, tourism businesses and local stakeholders, here “vas an opportunity to make the development of tourism both planned and sustainable, and in doing so ensure that everyone benefited, not just a small few.

By Hook and by Crook
Our journey started at 8am at My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi where we boarded a luxury bus to Son La. So luxury was this vehicle, that to keep it clean we had to take off our shoes and put them in environmentally unfriendly blue plitstic bags. Even slippers were provided for our lunch stop just outside Mai Chau. A short distance on wc got off it t the KM81 crossroad in Dong Bang Here, clad in her ethnic garb, waited our White Thai guide, Phuong. Leading us along it red-earth path We descended into the heavily forested Chieng Yen valley. Without sounding crass, it was idyllic. Untouched was the wrong word human inhabitation could be seen around almost every bend. But only what wa, needed for daily survival had been removed from the land, leaving it fertile, lush and asil would have been 100 or even 500 years ago. This was the Siberut of the past, without the loin cloths and grass skirts, of course.
At the bottom of the valley we entered the picturesque Buot Village. Climbing up the steps of a stilt house we came to our first stop, the home of Mr Net and his family With hydro-powered electricity for lighting’ and basic appliances, and set aside as one two guesthouses for homestay in the village, it turned out we were the first tourists to come through the village.
“Two years ago a chef came from Hanoi to train us how to cook for tourists,” Net told us over an enormous lunch that mixed white Thai with Vietnamese cuisine. “But since then, nothing. Other people have ha! training as guides and we also have a grour who can do dancing and performance Some people have also been asked to sell souvenirs.”
giving all the villagers a role is a noble ideal and ensures that tourism benefits as many people as possible. However, the jact that we were the first here tells another story. In trying to create a new destination SNV have partnered up with the travel as companies. But the economic slowdown has caused the very same companies to take less d risks, and invest less in new ventures. So,  rather than promoting a new, more costly ed destination that requires development and it training to provide the correct facilities and service, the tendency over the last two years has been to focus on the well-worn, already set up cheaper trips to places like the Perfume Pagoda, Tam Coc, Mai Chau, Halong Bay and Sapa.

The Colour of Money
Then came the next surprise. Lunch finished of and we were given our bill -VND350.000.  We had been told our meals would be around to VND50.000 each. While not a problem, unless this is dealt with quickly, future tourists may feel ripped off. Much attention “is paid to lip service and word of mouth, and Vietnam already has a bad reputation for its It somtimes dubious pricing policies. It didn’t bode well. And, as we started our 3km trek to the next village, up a pass along a semi finished dirt road, through paddy fields, along enclosed valleys and then in and out of jungle, it was the topic of conversation. For tourism to work, people must feel they are getting value. Arriving in Phu Mau we went to our homestay, once again a Thai-style stilt house. For a second time that day we experienced problems with money. Our guide, Phuong, had decided to cash in on the arrival of ‘rich’ foreigners, and asked for VND100.000 per person. There were three of us. We had been told VND70.000 for the day. Once again we kept quiet. But it was a concern.
We were then taken to the nearby hot springs to clean up. Both men and women were sitting in the springs, many of them washing with soap in the same water in which we bathed. But the hot water quickly soothed our weary limbs and the bizarreness of an outdoor communal bath made it a surprisingly pleasant experience. Not for everyone, especially for those who take bodily functions and personal hygiene seriously. But a great tonic for tired legs.

Culture is Us
Dried, changed and fed, as evening descended so the preparations for the main event of the day got into full flow -the cultural performance. Not one for ‘fake’ culture, I had at first been opposed to watching a show put on for the benefit of tourists. But two villages and two ethical minorities had come together here for the performance, and an audience of well over 200 people had arrived to watch tlwir young women sing and dance on stage. This was to be big. As guests of honour and “journalists” from England and New Zealand, a lllat had been placed in front of the stage Ivith three chairs for us to sit on while the rest of the audience formed a ring behind us It was embarrassing. So, we moved the chairs to the makeshift stalls area on the side, and instead took in the festivities from a more anonymous location.
It was a fun event, the girls la ughiJlg at their on-stage mistakes and occasionally looking self-conscious in front of the large, appreciative crowd. But for such a show, which often descends into a fickle attempt to show the beauty of a people’s culture, this was the best I’d seen. It was raw and strangely we had been treated like royalty. And for once, the price we’d been quoted was what we paid.

Up the Mountain
The next morning having once again paid the correct price for our accommodation and food, we headed up the moun tain past” waterfall to Na Bai, an ethnic Muong vlllage. Set above padddy fields that from a higher vantage poult looked like an infinity pool falling off the side of the mounnt, here the air was fresh and cool, and the mist-veiled views futl of atmosphere. At an elevation of 1,400m it felt like we were on top of the world, and as we took tea (and of course rice wine) in the house of Mr Tuoi, the head of the village, we started talking about the potential of Chieng Yen for tourism. Yes, there was an issue with prices. And yes, bathing in communal hot springs and a lack of 0 proper shower (we had washed by Indonesian-style mandi) were certain to Pllt many people off. But the toilets were good, the sleeping accommodation relative v comfortable and here was a viable mountain alternative to both Sapa and Mai Chall Draw a mop marking out the hikes, the springs and the waterfatls, pu t in a calc, a 1)1/1 /wi or a small wooden hut-style restauranl with great views, and suddenly you had an area that could pull ul the tourists.
When Sapa and lVIai Chau first became destinations, they, too would have started off like Chieng Yen Natural, basic but fuU of charm and very raw. Here, though, is nn opportunity to do sometl1ing where everyol benefits. Whether it will turn out that war though, we will have to wait and see. But one thing is clear, this is certainly not Siberut.

To set up a trip 10 Chieng Yen, please contact Cao Dai Hung at SNV by email on hungcd@snvworld.org or snvworld.org mobile 0/1 0913 S99388. independent traveller,; should toke Highway 6 past Mai Chau to KM150. From here here a dirt roa;i Imds to No Bai Village. Footprint  Vietnam Travel. Tel 3933 2844,(www.footprintsvietnam.com) till” Active Travel Vietnam Tel 3.573 8.569, activetravel.com) do lours to Chieng Yen that on the itinerary include the tea farms of Mrr C/UlU and other activities like kayaking all Hoa Binh Reservoir. Call or go to their website fur details.

(Source: the word Hanoi- Responsible travel)

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