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As the sunshine of a late summer afternoon waned, Lo Thi Hoa and her sister, looking fresh in traditional Thai costumes, prepared food to welcome guests to their stilt house in Nua Village.
Inside the kitchen, three women from Hoa’s group were cooking food in several big pots on firewood while others were busy boiling water, cleaning vegetables and marinating meat. A dozen traditional dishes had to be served in just an hour.
Hoa knew everything should be prepared well at her Hoa Thu (Thu Flower) home-stay in the village in the central province of Nghe An’s Yen Khe Commune. She would help host 40 guests for dinner and about 20 would stay overnight.
As the guests arrived, Hoa and other women welcomed them with cheerful salutes in Thai language and the soft and loud rhythm of the gongs. Guests were invited to wash their hands and face with the cool weather from the stream and relax in the old stilt house.
Dinner was served right on time. All dishes were local specialties that come from the forest and the river.
Dishes included com lam (sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes), moc (a special mixture of meat, vegetables and sticky rice which is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed), stir-fried don (fern) vegetables, banana flower salad, boiled bamboo shoots, charcoal grilled chicken marinated in honey and a whole grilled mat fish. All were eye-catching and skilfully displayed on bamboo-woven trays lined with banana leaves.
“We have restored traditional Thai dishes and serve them in the old way, like our ancestors did. For example, they ate healthy so we also learned to use less fat when cooking by steaming or grilling,” Hoa said.
“The mat fish are caught in the nearby stream, while banana flowers and vegetables are picked from the garden. Free range chickens and pigs are also raised at home, so whenever we have guests, we can serve local dishes, right away,” she added.
As the guests enjoy traditional Thai cuisine, Hoa and her village sisters prepare for an art performance with folk songs and dances. Guests were also invited to join the bamboo dance, drink jar wine through pipes and have a cotton cord ties around their wrists for luck and happiness.
The night ended with the tipsy feeling after the wine and the joyous sounds of singing and dancing, that helped the guests fall into a deep sleep on the wooden floor of the house.
Hoa’s house is one of three home-stays in Nua Village that are part of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s project for livelihood diversification through heritage tourism in remote agriculture and fisheries villages.
Her house actually started to receive guests in 2011, when a group of tourists came to the village in need of accommodation. Hoa opened her door for them and let them stay with her family and enjoy the local dishes and learn about the culture of Thai people.
Hoa said before this, villagers only offered what visitors asked for. But with the help from JICA’s expert, she learned the first lessons about community-based tourism, that natural landscapes and community are key.
Under JICA’s project, Hoa and other villagers were sent to learn from other Thai villages in the northern province of Hoa Binh’s Mai Chau District. They were taught for the first time what tourism is, who tourists are, what the relationship between the host and the guests can be and how to maintain tradition along with promoting tourism.
“We started to think about our potential and developed ideas to apply in our Nua Village,” Hoa said.
Taking advantage of local landscapes, the farmers-turned-tour organizers started to put other attractions in place for guests to enjoy, such as swimming in the nearby Moc Stream, enjoying Khe Kem Waterfall, riding on carriages pulled by buffalo or cow, catching fish with traditional tools, experiencing Thai people’s farming through planting and weeding, and taking part in a wedding ceremony.
The community-based tourism group in Nua Village were trained to cook and decorate Thai dishes traditionally, but still elegantly. A group of song and dance performers was also set up, attracting more local women to join in.
Vuong Thi Thuan, head of the Thai Folk Song Club in the village, said that many members of her club were hesitant to sing before.
“They were afraid that no one could understand the lyrics of Thai songs so they refused to sing,” Thuan said, “But now they understand that the guests like the performance and by singing the songs, they also help preserve the traditional culture.”
“Singing at night helps us forget all hardships of the day’s work,” Thuan said.
Japanese student Raito Hotta said that he loved the friendly and welcoming people in Nua Village and would definitely come back in future.
“I love the afternoon in the fields. The dark mountains cover the rice fields, and smoke from the kitchens spreads out in the village,” he said.
“The food is excellent with materials easy to find around the village that I’ve never seen and tasted before,” he said, adding that he loved the purple sticky rice the most.
In September last year, with the help a JICA expert, Hoa and other partner home-stays built clean toilets next to their houses to better serve guests.
“In order not to break the natural landscape, the sub-structure has only the inner core of concrete and standard sanitary equipment, the roof is covered with palm leaves and roads are paved with pebbles taken from the local Giang River,” Hoa said, adding that the toilets helped guests feel more comfortable when staying.
The toilets also have built-in bathrooms with water pumped directly from the nearby stream.
“We are keeping the surroundings as natural as we can follow advice from the JICA expert as we know that is important to community-based tourism,” she said.
Last year, three home-stays in Nua Village welcomed more than 900 visitors, and since the beginning of this year, there has been more than 1,200. Price for a meal varies according to demand. It can range from VND80,000-200,000 per head while an overnight stay is at VND60,000.
Hoa said that within two years, she had paid off her bank debt of VND50 million (US$2,200) thanks to tourism.
“In the past year, my family planted one tonne of rice a year, earning only VND6 million. But since I became involved in community-based tourism, I earn about VND3 million a month, which is more profitable than farming,” Hoa said, adding that she had suggested more people in the village join community-based tourism activities.
However, there are difficulties promoting community-based tourism in Nua Village as it is located in a remote area about 130 kilometres from Vinh City.
“Despite the potential, the number of tourists is limited and little promotion has been carried out,” said Vi Van Giao, the village chief.
Giao said that the village was doing its best to preserve traditional customs, especially folk songs, to contribute to community-based tourism.
Local people also face difficulties in terms of capital as there is no credit programme for community tourism.
“We need long-term loans with low interest rates because promoting tourism takes time,” Hoa said.
She still hopes more people in Nua Village will join in promoting tourism.
“I don’t mind the competition after more people join in as I believe community-based tourism will help increase villagers’ income and raise awareness among locals about environmental protection and traditional preservation,” she said.