People who know me in the UK and US are aware of my long-term commitment and support to Environmental and Ecological projects. This has included hands-on contributions and efforts to small-scale conservation and ecological activities over many years. It‘s no surprise therefore of my particular interest in the work my host community has been working on to promote sustainable tourism in a remote and un-spoilt part of Vietnam during my Teach Abroad program. There are many components towards its success but one important focus is retaining the natural beauty and un-spoilt ecology that will draw people to Vietnam in the first place. It is this aspect that Greenheart Travel has been supporting me by awarding me the Greenheart Travel Grant to assist my work with educational activities to maintain a state of natural beauty and protection of the natural environment, with An Lac Community in The Khe Ro Primitive Forest.
An Lac Community and The Khe Ro Primitive Forest are north of Hanoi by about 150Km/ 95miles or 4-5 hours in the car, the area is off the beaten track and has a wilderness feel about it. This detachment from the more main stream of life in Vietnam is both its strength and its weakness in terms of defending what it has and supporting its people. The people who live there are known as the An Lac community with a population of 3,424 residences. This is the Son Dong District, Bac Giang Province an area of 7,153 Ha of land including the natural forest itself of 5,092 Ha, which holds a diverse eco system that maintains the natural beauty of the area. There are 12 villages in total holding 732 families with 5 different ethnic groups. These are Tay (53.9%), Kin (34.9%), San Chi (8.3%), Cao Lan (1.7%), and Dao (1.2%).
These individual groups still hold on to their own cultures, even though living in such close proximity to each other, revealed in dress and customs that live on. An area as remote and rural as this means that there is real low-income amongst its people, with the Son Dong District being part of the 61 poorest districts in Vietnam. Consequently there are said to be over 65% of families below the poverty line, with over 90% of economic activity being generated by agricultural activities. With economic disadvantage as significant, it is understandable that people are attracted to the offerings of commercial gain from tourism. However it has brought with it growing problems of litter and rubbish in particular, as well as tourism from other areas where people have by their own challenges, e.g. from Vietnam and China.
Despite the more instant appeal for the locals of some extra income this form of tourism has its own issues and dilemmas. Tourists vary but can be less considerate of the environment, and leave rubbish and pollution as well as not really bringing a lot of finances into the area. As a result there is a risk of spiraling down in terms of what the area can offer and also not generating enough money to actually remedy these negative inputs. In time, water pollution and other natural degradation that will negatively impact on the very communities that were supporting this form of tourism. To add to this there are increasing risks for the future of external powers and finances buying up and building hotels that suck the resources and finance away from the locals even more. Clearly a people who are already 65% below the poverty line do not need this. With sustainable eco tourism the moneys generated are retained with in the community so many more local people benefit both by what damage is not done and the income to the community.
The house share is the way they run the guest accommodation and this works well as people have the benefit or experiencing the life for the Vietnamese in this area as it is. The An Lac community knows they want to go this route forward but are still learning how to implement it all. The areas of hospitality and customer satisfaction are improving and appreciation of what ‘Westerners’ are seeking in a visit is being developed and has improved only over a few months. Greenheart Travel’s partner in Vietnam on the ground are CSDS and they have been instrumental in providing this support to the local community.
Honey and Rice Wine; a way to promote the environmental message.
Like all other parts of Vietnam the area has its own ‘in house’ style of rice wine flavored with fungi and flora / herbs and spices, and this area has its own individual examples. It feels like a time bubble where one is travelling back centuries even millennia. The rice was the best I have ever tasted, simple, fresh, clean, yet earthy in flavor. CSDS has been and are working with local producers and people around a theme of sustainable tourism and the local rice wine could be a player for sustainable, economic growth in the area.
The appreciation for their own traditional ways of living is growing beyond rice wine. Honey is another example of a product from the area that has an excellent malty taste with notes of ‘apples and pears’ that could be valued by incoming tourists. The bee keepers of An Lac use traditional skills inherited from their ancestors to develop and run hives, understanding how to find the Queen Bee and attract the worker bees. They also know the dangers of the less common bees that can damage these hives, and how to harvest the honey in keeping with the seasons. Bees take nectar from many different wild flowers and help the conservation of the wild flora and pollen from across the west of Tay Yen Tu Ac Lan Commune, Son Dong District. This too, is part of the drive to reduce pollution as it focuses people’s minds on nature as the key resource from which all other things follow. The forest of Khe Ro has 895 flora species and 430 different medicinal herbs and fungi, said to be good for health, and strengthen the blood. These are shared and given freely with in the local community for any one in need at the commune.
The project ‘Development of Ecotourism’ fund has been implemented in order to create a sustainable income to support and establish both herb and bee keeper groups like the examples given above to help drive a successful and sustainable economy that has the preservation of the environment in mind.