Viet Nam News
Disconnected from the outside world for a long time, a village in the middle of a huge reservoir is discovering the benefits of community-based tourism, Lương Thu Hương reports
Not too long ago, Ngòi Village was living in a world of its own, quietly minding its own business, virtually unnoticed in the midst of a massive reservoir created by a hydropower project.
Accessible only by boat, its inhabitants wiled away their time fishing and farming.
That was until two months ago.
A community-based tourism project has woken up the outside world to this slice of paradise and changed the lives of the villagers.
The unique culture and simple lifestyle of the ethnic Mường that have been preserved for centuries in the village are now a magnet attracting more and more visitors, and bringing more income to locals.
It took us about 30 minutes to reach Ngòi Village by boat from the Thung Nai wharf. The ride was a great opportunity to contemplate the beauty of Hòa Bình Lake, as the locals call the reservoir, that provides water for the Hòa Bình hydroelectric plant.
As we approached the village, we could understand why the centre of this man-made lake has been compared to Việt Nam’s natural wonder, Hạ Long Bay.
Over 50 islets of all shapes and sizes rose languidly from the depths of the vast expanse of jade green water.
Early catch: Ngòi Villagers wake up at dawn to collect fish from their nets. VNS Photo Thái Hà
Our boat slowly passed the lovely villages of the Dao, Thái, Mường living on the islands. The idyllic scenes of green maize fields on the mountainsides and small fishing boats gently floating by the shore made us feel as though we had entered very traquil waters.
Ngòi Village gradually loomed into view, nestled among the limestone mountains, “a sleeping beauty who has recently awakened”, as our local tour guide, Trần Văn Vỹ, described it.
Vỹ said Ngòi was one of the most ancient villages of the Mường in Hòa Bình. It is home today to 79 households, all of them Mường.
No one knows exactly when the village was established, it is assumed to be at least 1,000 years old, as per an ancient Ngọc Lũ bronze drum unearthed in the area in 1993.
The village was previously called Bưa Dâm, indicating in Mường language a vast flat area on the mountain that is shaded with abundant tall trees. Ngòi lives up to its old name today with its maize fields and orchards.
Vỹ told us that the ancient village is also endowed with precious primary forests that contain many highly-valued medicinal plants and a variety of wild animals like monkeys and deer.
Most importantly, it has many hidden natural wonders awaiting discovery by visitors.
“There are many caves here, but only five of them have been discovered. About one kilometre from the village is a 15ha lake which is called the Fairy Lake, surrounded by limestone mountains with dozens of primitive Karst caves,” Vỹ said.
Timid beasts: A Mường woman herds buffaloes in Ngòi Village. VNS Photo Thái Hà
The one-hour trek through Ngòi Village under Vỹ’s guidance helped us fully appreciate the leisurely, peaceful life of the people here. There seemed to be no definition of time. Sometimes we encountered little boys and girls playing at the foot of a hill while herding their cows, or some villagers coming back from working in the forest, carrying some edible plants or woods in the baskets on their backs. All of them were very friendly and welcomed us with big smiles.
The most interesting part of our trek was the visit to the village’s shaman, Bùi Văn Tân. In Mường culture, a shaman not only conducts rituals during special ceremonies but also preserves local cultures and history through his prayers.
Talking with Tân about Mường rituals and the wisdom contained in them enabled us to partially understand the spiritual life of the Mường people and treasure the work of shamans, or Mo Mường, one of Hòa Bình’s national intangible heritages.
At nightfall, we returned to our host family and tried our hands at making local dishes like chả cuốn lá bưởi (grilled pork wrapped in grapefruit leaves), grilled chicken, fried fish and a soup with wild plants. Then we enjoyed the delicious meal with sips of rice wine, sitting by a fire.
Getting up early to set the brilliant sunrise on the island was a thrilling, unforgettable experience.
We learnt that if visitors wanted, a special arts programme featuring Mường’s “cultural colours” would be organised. Visitors can drink “tube wine” and join locals in dancing with bamboo poles and enjoy the cheerful chimes of the gongs.
Going local: Visitors to Ngòi Village can spend the night in stilt houses. VNS Photo Thái Hà
“The Mường accounts for 62 per cent of the total population of Hòa Bình, but there has been no village that is typical for Mường cultures,” Vỹ said.
“Therefore, as soon as the tourism potential of the ancient village of Mường people was discovered, it was planned as a cultural destination. It is particularly suitable for homestay tourism as the village has been able to preserve its ancient lifestyle due to its isolated location,” he added.
The community-based tourism project was initiated in the village by the Hòa Bình Tourism Investment Joint-stock Company in 2014. The project aimed to preserve and promote local culture as well as the natural surroundings to ensure sustainable development. The first phase of the project has been completed with seven homestay accommodations ready to welcome guests.
According to the Hòa Bình Province’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, investing in tourism development in Ngòi Village has met many challenges, particularly in building infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the villagers lacked awareness of tourism and its benefits. It took a lot of effort to show them how their lives would change for the better, and to teach them the soft skills for welcoming and caring for guests.
“We identified that the most important thing is to help locals to preserve and promote their original cultural values, because only then can tourism in Ngòi Village be different and attractive,” Vũ Duy Bổng, general director of Hòa Bình Tourism Investment Joint-stock company, told the press.
Only way: Ngòi Village is located in the midst of Hòa Bình reservoir and can only be accessed by boat. VNS Photo Thái Hà
Bùi Văn Thào’s family, our host, was among the first seven Mường families in the village chosen to offer homestay services. Each family received financial support of VNĐ200 million (US$8,800) from the Company, and they could repay this within five years without interest.
The money would be used to renovate their stilt houses, including the building of new toilets and purchasing new facilities like heater and hand sinks. The hosts were also trained about the professional manner in which they could welcome guests.
Vỹ said each homestay family also received VNĐ30 million ($1,300) in cash from the provincial authority. “With such huge tourism potential, it should take them less than five years to pay this back,” he said.
Another villager offering homestay service, Bùi Thị Mân, said that she was trained in the village itself.
“I attended a 15-day training on how to prepare mattress and blankets and how to welcome guests, to keep our houses neat and clean,” Mận said, adding that she has also learnt how to cook a variety of dishes in addition to traditional Mường cuisine to meet the guests’ demand.
Besides cave exploring and homestay services, Ngòi Village has received investment in other facilities like a waterpark, kayaking, high-speeded cruises and a floating restaurant. Fifty young women in the villagers have been trained to become lifeguards.
After having their stilt house renovated, Thào’s family began to welcome their first guests over two months ago. They have realised the benefits that community-based tourism has brought.
“We used to have nothing but the stilt house when we joined the community-based tourism project. We then got financial support without interest to improve our living conditions and earn extra income.
“There is no road connecting Ngòi with surrounding villages. Our daily supply and trading depend on waterway. Community-based tourism has brought more tourists to the village, which has helped the villagers know more about the outside world. We have also been able to sell more fish we catch and the plants we grow.”
Hà Văn Siêu, deputy general director of the Việt Nam National Administration of Tourism, said the model of community-based tourism in Ngòi Village is on the right track as it prioritizes three issues: identifying Mường’s cultural identity as an attraction that needs preserving; enhancing the locals and authority’s awareness about sustainable tourism development without affecting the environment; and equipping locals with necessary skills so that they can confidently provide services and gain tourism benefits.
“Now all the villagers want to follow community-based tourism. In the future, each stilt houses in Ngòi Village will be turned into a homestay facility and be a Mường architectural masterpiece or a space for preserving traditional crafts and cultures,” Vỹ said. VNS