Though Sa Pa District in the northern province of Lào Cai has long lured tourists all year round due to its mild temperatures, spectacular mountains, beautiful forests and unique ethnic minorities, social distancing has now led to the vast majority of people staying home.
However, two innovative Sa Pa residents are now offering online tours of the classic Việt Nam destination.
Vũ Ngọc Hướng, 22, of the Giáy ethnic group, was the first to offer such tours in the region.
Vũ Ngọc Hướng guides an online tour to ancient stone site in Mường Hoa Valley. Photo courtesy of Vũ Ngọc Hướng
Virtual tours involve a guide going out and visiting various tourist sites as normal, but these are livestreamed so the ‘virtual tourists’ can watch from the comfort of their own homes.
Hướng’s tours allow people to ‘visit’ ancient stone sites in Sa Pa and explore the Giáy ethnic cuisine and lifestyle. Over a hundred participants throughout the country have joined her tours since early July.
“During the past two years, the tourism sector in Sa Pa has been seriously hurt,” Hướng told Việt Nam News. “Many businesses had to stop their operation while many in the field lost their jobs. Local farm produce and handicrafts have also been damaged with many lives affected.”
Hướng believes that more and more young people from urban areas are becoming interested in local cultural values and the area’s stunning scenery.
“To entertain bored city dwellers, I decided to organise online exploring tours with local ethnic people in Sa Pa,” she said.
Pristine landscapes are featured in her tours. Photo courtesy of Vũ Ngọc Hướng
Hướng takes around three days to plan a 1.5-hour virtual tour, when she creates an outline, visits a site in advance, and advertises on social media before hosting the event on Zoom or Google Meet.
Each month she hosts four paid tours at weekends and a free tour. She designs the tours focusing on local cultural features, special customs and landscape in the area.
“Online tours are challenging,” she said. “On a normal offline tour, I can easily interact with tourists, show them beautiful spots on the way or tell them interesting stories. Online tour depends much on objective factors like the weather and internet strength.”
Despite many obstacles, Hướng makes the utmost effort to bring her audience an experience they won’t forget. Her tours usually have anything from five up to 15 people, though the largest gathered tour saw 46 attendees as part of a free trial.
Hướng focuses on Giáy ethnics' cultural features. Photo courtesy of Vũ Ngọc Hướng
Lan Thanh, a participant based in Hà Nội, said Hướng guided the tour in a natural but alluring way. “She seems to be honest in telling stories,” Thanh said. “She is also pretty and charming.”
Participants in the online tour also can raise questions or share their personal experiences of it.
However, Thanh believes that Hướng should invest more in equipment such as a Bluetooth microphone so that the sound is good and the internet connection is strong
One of Hướng’s most unforgettable experiences was guiding a virtual visit to Nậm Cang in early August, when the temperature was nearly 40 degrees Celsius.
“My mobile phone shut down several times while I was online as it was too hot,” she said. “I had to reset it and log in to the conversation many times. I learnt a lot from that tour.”
Hướng said she would continue the virtual tours and then offer English-speaking guides and change it into actual tour when the pandemic is over.
“I hope to set up an enterprise offering experience to both domestic and foreign tourists in my home town,” she said.
Hướng has hosted a YouTube channel titled "Hướng Giáy Sa Pa" since last August, on which she uploads various clips of local landscapes and customs. She intends to make English subtitles for it soon.
Terraced rice fields maturing in Sa Pa. Photo courtesy of Đỗ Hoàng Vũ
Touring remote areas
Unlike Hướng, Đỗ Hoàng Vũ, 24, of the Kinh group, spent many years working in tourism in HCM City and Hà Nội before moving to Sa Pa.
He knows what tourists expect in the region. So Vũ chose to focus on various remote areas in Sa Pa with stunning landscape and unique trekking experiences.
Vũ has recently conducted his first virtual tours, which lasted for three days. Each activity lasts about one and a half hours.
“The terraced rice fields in Sa Pa are getting yellow,” Vũ said. “Tourists should not miss this beautiful season here.”
Vũ's team crosses a stream on the way to Lảo Thẩn peak. Photo courtesy of Đỗ Hoàng Vũ
The activities in his tours include a visit to terraced rice field in Mường Hum, and a visit to Ngải Thầu Thượng Village, located 2,000m above the sea level, overlooking Y Tý Valley close to the border with China, when the guides camped and cooked dinner.
The next day, Vũ went to local Choản Thèn Culture Park at a village of Hà Nhì ethnics, and checked-in at Thiên Sinh Bridge, where locals and Chinese neighbours were exchanging goods.
In the afternoon, the team trekked up Lảo Thẩn Mountain and watched the sunset.
On the early morning of the last day, the team watched the sun rise and meditated on the mountain peak.
“Y Tý is located 80km away from Sa Pa District. The trip lasted three days through various changing weather,” Vũ said. “I could only livestream the first day while the remaining two days I had to film it and send it to the audience as offline videos.”
Vũ said it was important to have places with good internet connection to ensure images and content of the tour. His chief obstacle is internet access in remote areas like Lảo Thẩn Mountain.
Vũ's team camps by a stone road built by the French in 1927 linking Sàng Ma Sáo (of Lào Cai Province) and Sàng Ma Pho (Lai Châu Province), which is now a spectacular trekking route for tourists. Photo courtesy of Đỗ Hoàng Vũ
“I think in the next tours, I will focus on stories and cultural experiences rather than trekking too far away from the town,” he said.
Hà Nội-based secondary school literature teacher Nguyễn Thu Hòa, who used to be a frequent tourist to Sa Pa [pre-pandemic] and joined Vũ’s first online tour, said she appreciated Vũ’s knowledge.
“He attracted us with his experience gathered from actually living with locals, which cannot be heard in other channels or books,” she said. “He has travelled widely not only in Sa Pa but also in other areas in the country.”
“His passion for tourism, creativity and inspiring tourists during this global health crisis period is admirable. I think he will not find any difficulties switching from online to offline when the pandemic is over.” VNS