by Trung Hieu – Hoa Quynh
Ha Noi and its surrounding areas have the highest number of handicraft villages nationwide, but the city still struggles to exploit their potential as tourism destinations.
Nurul Hasfir, an Indonesian visitor who toured Bat Trang pottery village last weekend, says she appreciated many of the local products.
"But just looking at products displayed in shops is just like the window-shopping you can do in any city. I felt curious about how local people make their unique pottery products, and I wish we had had more time to try to make pots," she says regretfully.
The capital city now has more than 270 craft villages, including some of the country's most famous villages such as Bat Trang, Van Phuc silk village, Nhan Hien stone-carving village, Thiet Ung wooden art village and Nam Cuong bamboo weaving village.
Ho Kim Dung, deputy head of Viet Nhu travel agency, says some years ago, her company organised 4-5 groups of tourists to visit Bat Trang and Van Phuc craft villages every month.
This year, because the number of clients dropped, the tours to craft villages are only organised if clients still have spare time after visiting the city's main destinations, she says.
"Many tourists love to participate in the production process in the craft villages. They like to learn about the production practices and cultural and historical background behind them, but most craft villages lack information. Most tours only let tourists watch artisans work, so many tourists feel bored and do not want to come back," she says.
Another reason for the shortage of tourists is that handicraft products are too monotonous, according to Nguyen Minh Man, head of the marketing unit of Vietravel travel agency.
"Their designs remain unchanged year after year. Residents of the villages lack knowledge about tourism, they can't use foreign languages and don't have any marketing skills. Services are spontaneous, making travel agencies reluctant to introduce these tours to clients, as they are afraid that the tour quality would be affected.
Mai Tien Dung, deputy director of Ha Noi Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, says handicraft villages in the capital are currently struggling with a number of problems hindering tourism development.
"Although handicraft villages are ideal tourist destinations, they still face a number of issues, such as unfavourable traffic conditions, unprofessional services, lack of capital and production sites and a lack of creativity when it comes to handmade products," he says.
Van Phuc silk village in Ha Dong District is an example.
Ha Noi City intends the village to serve as a role model for other craft villages intent on expanding their role as tourist attractions, but there are many obstacles in the way.
Le Quang Dao, deputy director of Tam Nhin Viet Travel Agency (Viet Vision Agency), says his company sees very few customers request a tour of Van Phuc.
"After visiting the village, some customers complained that they had read about it on the internet and seen many beautiful pictures, but it was not what they had imagined a traditional craft village to be like.
"Most visitors to Van Phuc were not very satisfied because there is no place to visit, except for the silk shops scattered around the village. The unprofessional attitude of a few sellers also disappointed tourists," he says.
According to some tour operators, the plan to turn Van Phuc Village into a major tourism destination is hardly feasible. Because the village has been undergoing a process of urbanisation for a long time, it no longer has traditional features.
According to the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Van Phuc now has 400 craft households, but only artisan Trieu Van Mao's workshop still relies on the traditional production method.
To help solve the problem, Head of Investment and Development Unit of Ha Noi Tourism Corporation Phung Quang Thang says that instead of only a few families performing the production process for tourists to watch, it is necessary to expand weaving jobs.
Dao suggests that the craft village should be completely replanned.
"Tourism spots in the village should be restored and protected, such as the house where President Ho Chi Minh stayed during the time he was writing the call for the entire national resistance war [against the French in 1946], the local communal house where there are two ancient looms and the traditional silk production workshops.
"We need to teach villagers sales skills and add the village as a destination to tourism routes that come near it, so visitors can see more than just one village."
To help the silk village regain its attraction to tourists, Dung from the city's Culture, Sports and Tourism Department says the village needs to set up a production model that includes tourism, and workshops should be turned into tourist attractions.
"Visitors should be able to participate in the production process and buy products directly," he says.
The Department will write a standard introduction on this tourist route for travel agencies to use and select a number of shops to be "standardised shopping services". It will train selected workshops and shops in the village in the tourism profession.
Sadly, although the capital city has many ""golden conditions" to develop cultural heritage tourism, with thousands of relics and many unique folklore festivals, some of which have been honoured by UNESCO, until now tourists have only been guided to visit museums, temples and pagodas, and watch water puppet shows.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Ha Noi each month receives more than 10,000 clients, of which 80 per cent are tourists who participate in tours.
Many people believe that this figure indicates cultural tourism is a desirable commodity. But some others sigh and say it only reveals a major weakness in the city's tourism sector. Because all of the city tours are quite monotonous, only visiting museums, libraries and temples, of course people enjoy water puppet shows.
Recently, a number of travel agencies have developed "cultural tourism" tours to craft villages around Ha Noi, but these still fail to attract many visitors.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong, director of the Office of the Viet Nam Administration for Tourism, explains that although Ha Noi offers huge potential for cultural tourism, it does not really meet the needs of customers.
"Many tourists also expressed disappointment when comparing organised tours in Ha Noi with backpacker travel.
"Tourists who join tours can only glance at sites, and are told a bit by the guide about the great historical, cultural and spiritual values of the tourism destinations, but they can hardly feel the rich history of these places that has accumulated for thousands of years."
This sad reality, she says, is mainly due to the lack of uniformity in building tourism programmes and the lack of properly trained people working in the cultural tourism industry.
"Ha Noi has a history of more than 1,000 years of culture and thousands of historical and cultural relics. According to statistics, up to 40 per cent of relics across the country are in Ha Noi. This alone should be an attraction for tourists, especially foreign visitors who are interested in the history and culture of Viet Nam," she says.
So the tourism sector should focus on offering visitors more unique experiences of craft villages that truly convey a sense of culture and heritage. — VNS