What's behind that beautiful hill tribe smile?

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Vietnam's tourism policies disenfranchise locals who are struggling to survive

A Hmong ethnic mother with her 3-year daughter and 9-month son selling souvenirs to visitors at a village in the popular tourist district of Sa Pa in the northern mountainous province of Lao Cai. PHOTO: AFP  

Many netizens have praised a recent camera commercial in which a foreign tourist is shown taking amazing pictures around Vietnam. Among the pictures he takes are shots of the beautiful landscapes and hill tribe children of Sa Pa.

This man is lucky because he is just an actor in a commercial. If he was a real tourist, the children would have clung to him until he gave them money. Or if he didn't give them money, they wouldn't have smiled and instead would have hid their faces in their hands, demanding a fee before allowing a photo.

These children are not at fault. But their actions are a result of Vietnam's poor management of tourism an industry in which only the companies and corporations benefit, not the local people.

When local heritage does not belong to the locals

In Da Lat, some tourists have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dong just for a bowl of rice noodles thanks to vendors willing to quarrel until they receive a large sum of money.

Why are such vendors so rude to their customers, who are making them profits in the romantic resort town?

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At the Sa Pa Stone Church, groups of ethnic locals surrounded me, insisting that I buy a bracelet for VND20,000 (US$0.9). Any tourist is afraid of this. But why do the vendors do so?

At an old pagoda in the northern province of Ninh Binh, I encountered an old man who walks a buffalo with a red cloth on its back. He always clings to visitors, asking them to take picture with the buffalo for VND10,000. Nearby, many old women surround tourists, begging them to buy paper fans, all with the same decorations.

Why do they do so?

There is one answer for all the questions above: It's because of the selfish way local authorities and travel companies manage the tourism market.

The vendors who sell hot soy milk near the Da Lat market are quite different from the noodle seller who is migrant vendor. They do not rip off tourists because they are natives who respect and protect Da Lat because the tourism town helps them earn a living. They respect their hometown and do not want to spoil its image.

Meanwhile, for vendors like the extortive noodle seller, the town is not their real home and they do not feel the necessity to protect it.

A woman in Sa Pa who sells bracelets told me that they used to make brocades and sell each piece for VND500,000 ($24). But it is not enough to make ends meet because it takes a month or even more to make just on piece. As a result, they hawk bracelets.

The only way for them to benefit from tourism is by selling bracelets or being a porter for tourists who climb Mount Fansipan for VND150,000 per day. Meanwhile, the trips' guides, who are from the city, earn 3-5 times more than a local porter. A porter carries the luggage, cooks, and helps the guides and tourists do all the heavy lifting. The guides do no hard labor at all.

What local people earn from tourism is insignificant. They have to find other ways to earn money, like the bracelet vendors who hassle tourists, or the children who hide their faces and demand for money before allowing tourists to take photos.

At the Ninh Binh Pagoda, the old men and women do not earn anything from the pagoda in their hometown. The tourism companies organize tours and make profits, while the natives have been left on the fringes and are struggling to survive on their own.

Stolen values

A culturologist told me the story of a famous mountainous pagoda that receives big money from pilgrims and visitors. There used to be a committee voted in by the locals to mange the money and use it to build schools and bridges. They bought an ambulance for a local clinic and met the demands of the locals wisely.

However, thanks to tourism development, tourism agencies jumped in to manage the pagoda. The new manager immediately bought two cars, saying they were needed to serve "management purposes." The pagoda has made no more investments in public services since then.

It is a small story but it represents how Vietnam manages tourism. Relevant policies have forced local people, the actual owners of the local beauty and heritages, out of the business. The locals then struggle to earn scraps from tourism in any way possible, causing the kind of mess we now see in Sa Pa.

Why do Sa Pa women no longer weave brocades? They have to sell bracelets because they have been unable to make ends meet with VND500,000 a month from brocade weaving.

Tourism development has only benefitted the corporations and tourism companies and not the local people, who are the owners of the heritages, landscapes and natural beauty.

If the northwestern farmers do not make terraced rice paddies, how can tourism companies take a number of tourists to the site and introduce the fields as national heritage?

In a Dong Van ethnic minority community in the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang, management agencies forced locals to move their shops into a new concrete market, opened hotels and cafés and called the place an "old town" in order to earn money from tourism. They stepped in and earned from the values that the locals had created for hundreds of years. They don't care how adversely it affects local life. They don't care that locals receive no benefit from all this.

When local people are no longer the owners of their homeland, and receive no benefit from the vast profits being made off of what they built, the can no longer love the place they call home.

This is a result of Vietnam's tourism development, like the children who hide their faces and demand money if tourists take a picture of them.

By Khai Don*

* The writer is a journalist and blogger who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.

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