But if funds were low, Madam Hai did not lack ambition. For her it was not about eking out an existence: it was about the survival of an entire culture - that of her own Tay people, their language and rich, but endangered, customs. Now, not only has she breathed new life into a segment of this ethnic minority, she has founded an internationally acclaimed ecotourism village.
Lauded for her efforts by a grateful community, she has also been recognized by a wider audience - picking up the “Sustainable Tourism” award at the ASEAN Tourism Forum 2018 in Chiangmai. Thai Hai Eco Tourism Village has helped put this mountainous corner of Viet Nam very much on the tourism map and attracts around 10,000 visitors from some 30 countries each year.
But impressive stats and glittering awards were the last things on Madam Hai’s mind 15 years ago. “In the early days, this place was just bare hills so I put in some plants, including medicinal plants, and grew vegetables,” she recalls. Her real “spade in the ground” moment came, she says, “when I built the first stilt house and raised pigs and chickens under the floor.”
It was a humble abode but both a milestone and a signpost. It was in these traditional houses that the Tay people lived back in Dinh Hoa where Madam Hai grew up. She remembers: “From a young age, I was told by my grandparents and parents that wherever they went, they would maintain the voice and customs of the Tay people.”
As the land was tilled and the plants grew tall, she was preparing to do just that. And when she moved the animals out and started living in the house, the transformation was under way.
Although she uses words like “gradually” and “day by day” to describe the progress, she did not hang about. Besides draining a lake and planting 10 hectares of forest, she transferred 30 stilt houses from the Tay community in Dinh Hoa. Some of the buildings were at least half a century old so there were many challenges.
Undaunted, she met them head on and explains: “When I transferred the stilt houses to Thai Hai, my purpose was not only to keep the “body” but to keep the “soul” of the stilt house, which is the cultural tradition and the working and living life of the Tay people.
“Overcoming the difficulties, I finally accomplished my wish. Nowadays, Thai Hai Eco Tourism Village has become the home of dozens of families with more than 200 people belonging to different ethnic groups such as the Kinh, Tay, Nung, Cao Lan, San Chi all living there.”
The scale of the achievement is one thing, the manner quite another. All production activities are self-sufficient. The village even produces its own bottled water, grows and produces green tea, and cooks in alcohol according to a typical Tay process that maintains cleanliness and protects the environment.
Not surprisingly, this has won the approval of the green lobby as well as the tourism industry. Yet Madam Hai admits: “I did not study tourism, so when Thai Hai first came into operation, we encountered many difficulties in guiding and serving tourists. I had to mobilize all villagers to participate. Their enthusiasm, friendliness and simplicity have helped visitors have experiences they won’t forget.”
Given the challenges she’d already overcome, a lack of tourism qualifications was never going to stop her and it was in 2011 that she created the Thai Hai Eco Tourism Village. To meet the diverse needs of visitors, she divided it into several areas such as conservation, food, resort, entertainment and event organization.
Tourists are offered a variety of activities as well as the chance to experience the traditional Tay culture and cuisine. They can even spend a night in a stilt house and sample the daily life of the villagers. Activities include making medicine, picking and processing tea, wine making, fishing, rice husking, pounding rice, listening to music and even attending the naming ceremony for children. As many as 3,000 guests can be fed while up to 500 can be put up overnight.
By 2014, Thai Hai Ecotourism Village was the first private tourist site in Thai Nguyen province to be recognized as a local tourist destination and became another of the province’s attractions. It has also opened professional training courses to help the locals develop better skills in receiving, guiding and serving tourists.
From unlikely origins, Thai Hai has become an attractive destination and not only changed Madam Hai’s family life, but created stable jobs for hundreds of people. Besides the community developments, kindergartens and primary schools were built in the area outside the village.
Every day, in addition to the basic knowledge of the Tay culture and customs, children learn Tay, Kinh and English. As they grow up, they will be able to go to university or study abroad and be encouraged by the whole village to realize their dreams. The remaining children are taught how to grow vegetables, make wine, rear animals and serve tourists. Thai Hai is also home to many disadvantaged people.
All in all, it is a thriving cultural mecca that has been a revelation in the world of tourism and to the Tay people. Take a bow, Madam Hai - above all else it is a triumph of the human spirit.