Once she had abandoned her studies, she had to get up before the first cock crowed to accompany her eldest sister on her daily trek through the forest. They had to walk 10km just to sell brocade to tourists and get home only after dark. The family lived in the Lao Chai commune near the tourist town of Sapa in Lao Cai. Theirs was a simple life.
In the 1990s, Sapa was still quiet with few visitors and little contact with the outside world. “I did not know a single word of English,” Ms. Su recalls, “so I had to use signs and body language to communicate with customers. I also noticed that the gentle Mong-Dao women, most of whom were carrying babies, were reduced to squabbling with customers just to scrape a living.”
But it was here, where she realized something. “I knew I had to be different,” she says, “and realized that if I was good at English, I would be able to make more sales. Then I could save money, go back to school to escape poverty and help raise my sisters”.
“Luckily, I met many friendly visitors who were happy to teach us, highland children, basic English and correct our pronunciation. Even with simple English, I was able to sell more than others. And then I had a bigger goal - to improve my English every day”.
“In 2004, the internet came to the town of Sapa. After work, while other children played video games, I learned English online. Later, I worked in hotels so that I could meet foreign tourists to practice speaking English. I got a job as a tour guide but once my English was better, I quit and went back to school.”
Thanks to her proficiency in the language, Ms. Su was more than an average tour guide. She says: “I regularly advised foreign visitors and took guests to meet the Mong-Dao people, showing them community activities. At that time, I came up with the idea of establishing a tourism project in Sapa. It was to set up a network where local guides could meet travellers and take them to their villages. I thought the extra income would enable many highland children to go to school.
“In 2007, with the help of some Australian friends, I started building Sapa O’Chau (it means ‘thank you’ in the Mong language) in the Lao Chai commune. It was the first time the Mong people there had ever done business in community tourism. With the aim of it becoming a social enterprise, I created jobs and learning opportunities for them.”
Well-intentioned though it was, there were early difficulties. By 2011, due to a lack of experience in management and a competitive market, the operation teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. But Ms. Su would not be beaten: ever resourceful, she scoured the internet. “I managed to connect with a project called “Enhanced Leadership for a Social Enterprise Leader,” he says. “It was under the Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP). I also found ‘Know One, Teach One’ (KOTO) which was supported by funding from the Irish Development Agency and technical assistance from the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI).”
With the help of these organizations, Sapa O’Chau survived and went on to flourish. A grateful Ms. Su says: “My project was valued highly by CSIP who offered their support. After that, I was trained by them in leadership and business management skills. Sapa O’Chau thus became professional and achieved-breakthroughs in the industry. It expanded from volunteer travel to many other services and turnover reached VND1 billion”.
Sapa O’Chau tours are now open to the public, offering free English classes for local children. Since they began, many wandering child street sellers have become affiliates and they guide visitors to their own villages. The tourists are greeted by friendly girls, who wear Mong costumes and speak fluent English.
It was in 2010 that I first opened an English class for children with the hope that they would be able to read and write better. It was just a small group, but after a few months more than 100 students attended. They introduced others and more and more came to the classes.
Now, Sapa O’Chau also provides guidance for pupils attending high school in town or vocational training at Sapa O’Chau, Sapa O’Chau sponsors the accommodation and food. In 2018, it helped 30 college and university students and 57 others, aged 16-20, who were still attending classes. Some children come from far and have problems when they are in town. If they do not have accommodation it can affect their learning. Sapa O’Chau supports them so that they can continue their studies. Here, they are taught general knowledge, English communication, and life skills. After finishing grade 12, they can go to college, university or work. They can choose to stay in Sapa O’Chau to work or study about tourism then come back to intern here.
“As I was born and raised in Sapa, I hope it develops but preserves its own unique characteristics so that people will love not only the beautiful scenery but the place itself and the sincerity of the people. I also want to change the notion that Mong women are just born to marry, work in the farm, raise children and do nothing else. I want them to look at me, they think ‘poor Su did not have the chance to go to school, but if she can do it, I can do it too”.
“I hope that I can contribute to help not only Sapa but many other areas as well, so that those people will also have the opportunity to continue to study and get stable jobs. I hope my example can be widely shared so that many people know of it and work together to inspire life-changing events for poor children.”
“In 2016, I was honoured by Forbes Viet Nam Magazine celebrating 30 young Vietnamese faces under 30. In 2017, I was also honoured to be awarded the 12th Luong Dinh Cua Award by the Central Committee”.