|Rice and shine: On an early morning hike, the author encountered shimmering rice fields surrounded by limestone karst – without spotting a single fellow tourist. — Photo by Elisabeth Rosen
by Elisabeth Rosen
Vast green peaks surrounded us, thinly veiled by mist. As a cool breeze swept over us, we took in the fact that we were the only hikers on the deserted path.
Most people come to Cat Ba Island as part of a two-day cruise on Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site known for its awe-inspiring mounds of limestone karst. For these travellers, the island serves mainly as a rest stop before the return journey to Ha Noi.
But Cat Ba offers far more than backpacker bars and overpriced restaurants. My friends and I headed 13km inland, where limestone cliffs shelter an impressive landscape of emerald rice paddies and knotted mangroves. We chose to stay in the Cat Ba Eco-Lodge not only because it was ideally situated for trekking through this remote area, but also because the lodge promised to deliver a more sustainable experience than its fellows.
"Unlike the other hotels in Cat Ba, we are concerned with proper disposal of sewage and rubbish," said Kenny Le, the hotel's general manager. "We teach our staff what it means to be eco-friendly."
Founded in 2010 by Nguyen Manh Hung, who previously managed several hotels and restaurants in the area, the Cat Ba Eco-Lodge follows a strict set of environmental principles. All the water comes from a stream nearby and is re-used to water the garden and trees. Trash is recycled and composted. The buildings are built with natural materials in the local style of the Muong ethnic people, who are also involved in the running of the business.
"All of our staff are local people from Cat Ba Island," Le explained. "Many of them haven't gone to school because the main business in Cat Ba for hundreds of years has been fishing. We try to provide them with a means of employment."
As Viet Nam's tourism industry expands, hotels like the Eco-Lodge can play an increasingly crucial role in ensuring sustainable development. While there are currently only a handful of such enterprises, they enjoy a growing following.
"Ecolodges have met increasing success because they are away from the major tourist sites in Viet Nam and therefore away from their rampant "concretisation," said Alexandre Portier, who manages Panhou Ecolodge in the mountainous northern province of Ha Giang.
"A majority of travellers, often European, do not want to travel thousands of kilometers to know a developed version of a country."
But while foreign tourists and expats like myself make an effort to seek out eco-lodges, many Vietnamese remain unaware – or apathetic – about eco-tourism.
"There aren't many domestic tourists who care about eco-tourism," Le said. "We receive mostly foreigners."
Moreover, the use of the term "eco-lodge" is completely unregulated, so it's impossible to know if a hotel is really eco-friendly.
"There are unfortunately no worldwide certificates or common regulation of the title ‘Ecolodge'. It's a title many business owners just add with little care of the word," said Pernille Hoffmann, who runs Topas Ecolodge, located on a remote hilltop 45 minutes from Sa Pa.
For these proprietors, being an "eco-lodge" – at minimum – means reducing environmental impact as much as possible. Topas and Panhou follow similar practices to the Cat Ba hotel, saving water and energy and harvesting their own produce.
"We try our best to limit our impact on the environment by using local sustainable energy, growing our own vegetables and filtering our waste water," Hoffmann explained.
This typically means making certain compromises when it comes to comfort. The more luxurious a hotel is, the less likely it follows the principles of sustainability.
"Our establishments aren't intended for a clientele accustomed to luxury hotels," Portier said proudly.
"Our rooms and bungalows don't have refrigerators, air conditioning or baths. We save water – which we recycle – and electricity – the heater is solar."
Environment, these proprietors made clear, includes everything around the hotel: people as well as nature. On Cat Ba, the employees all come from the area. At Topas, 80 per cent of the staff comes from the local ethnic minority group.
"The social responsibility aspect is very important," said Jean-Jacques Barre, the office manager at Green Viet Nam Eco-Lodge in the northern province of Tuyen Quang.
"We work with renewable energy and we make sure that the local people participate in the project. We're constructing several bungalows, so we call local people to build them."
False advertising, Barre added, was one of the biggest problems the fledgling industry faced.
"There's a lot of places that pretend to be responsible," he said. "Everyone's pretending to be an eco-lodge, but there's no social responsibility. How can you pretend to be sustainable when you have air conditioning?"
It's no surprise, then, that many people don't understand what eco-tourism is.
"Sometimes we have complaints from clients wanting to sing karaoke or view television in their bungalow, but this will never be in line with our mission," Hoffmann said. "We are not a standard hotel and will never be. You have to enjoy the mountains, the clean air and the silence." — VNS