Tourist turns to sustainable tourism

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The La Vie Vu Linh eco-lodge built by Frédéric Tiberghien Frédo, better known as Frédo Binh, in the northern province of Yen Bai in 2006
PHOTO COURTESY OF VNA

When Frédéric Tiberghien Frédo first visited Vietnam 20 years ago as a tourist, he wanted to see more of the country.

He was already linked to the country, being born to a French father and Vietnamese mother, but he lost both of them in an accident in France when he was young, and was raised by his maternal grandmother, according to a 2011 report in the Kien Thuc (Knowledge) online newspaper. He worked as a carpenter and a horse keeper in France and England before deciding to visit his mother's native country.

In his fifties now, he is no longer a tourist. Vietnam has become home. And, he is known as Frédo Binh.

Frédo's transformation from a curious tourist to a charmed one and to a tour operator himself has been accompanied by a motivation to preserve the country's beauty, the culture of its ethnic minority residents and improve the living standards of communities in a sustainable manner.

Over the years he has initiated community projects in many localities in the northern highlands.

In Cao Bang Province, he established a small museum introducing local culture to foreign tourists. In Lao Cai Province, he built a bridge that made it easier and safer for children to attend school. In Yen Bai Province, he founded a nursery school and a community "culture house." He has also helped improve sanitary facilities like toilets and septic tanks at various localities.

His most impressive achievement, however, is probably the eco-tourism project he began in 2006 in Yen Bai Province's Ngoi Tu Village, which is home to Dao ethnic families.

Because of the project, locals are able to augment their incomes from farming by participating in the tourism industry. They have also developed a better awareness of environment protection. Many villagers have become professional tour guides able to speak foreign languages.

"It is slow but lastingly effective to promote Vietnam's image through sustainable tourism," Frédo told the An ninh thu do (Capital security) newspaper.

"Green tourism is not only about sustaining the environment where it happens, but also about how local culture is conveyed to visitors," he said.

When he first arrived in Vietnam and visited Hanoi's famous Old Quarter, he felt the "depth of the culture of the peaceful country."

In 1994, he took adventurous trips to the northern highlands on a Minsk a motorbike produced in Belarus. During those trips, he was not only charmed by the beautiful landscape but also the culture of ethnic minority people he met.

"Then I suddenly thought about doing tourism to earn a living," he said.

Frédo said he printed ads about his motorcycle tours and posted them at places frequented by foreign tourists in Hanoi.

"Unexpectedly," it was "effective," as he received many phone calls and bookings, he said.

In 1997, he founded a travel company called Compagine Bourlingue, which was also known as Freewheeling Tours in English. He asked the ethnic minority residents to join him in offering homestay experiences for foreign tourists in their villages. 

Years later, he came upon Ngoi Tu Village on the banks of the Thac Ba Lake in Vu Linh Commune. He was totally captivated by the scenery and the way local people preserved their traditions and customs.

So, he bought a stilt house there and developed it into an eco-lodge that can accommodate 60 people.

Once again, he invited local people to join him in the eco-tourism project. He taught them French and English. He also sent them to Hanoi, where they were trained in being tour guides as well as other aspects of the hospitality industry.

He also worked to raise their awareness about protecting environment and their culture, and earning a living in sustainable ways.

Speaking about his project, Luong Xuan Hoi, secretary of Vu Linh Commune's Party Unit, said local people's life has changed a lot since they began participating in tourism.

Previously, it was not easy for them to earn more than VND2 million ($94.65) a month, as they only did farm work, but now, that has changed. 

The way Frédo has done tourism, moreover, has contributed to the preservation of local culture, the official said.

Frédo himself has changed a lot over the years.

He can speak both Vietnamese and the Dao people's language fluently. Although he is based in Hanoi, he visits and stays in the village often, and has learnt a lot about the Dao culture, from the meaning of pillars in their traditional houses to the practice of burning incense and offering chicken to the spirits before building houses.

He loves in particular the festival that Dao people celebrate at the beginning of the spring to mark the start of a new rice season.

"It is a beautiful aspect of culture," he said. "People thank the plants, heaven and the earth for giving them a good life and harvest."

He regularly takes his 10-year-old son to Ngoi Tu, where the boy plays with local children. And, like his father, he has learnt to speak Vietnamese and the Dao language very well. Frédo is divorced and has two children.

Asked if he will return to France, Frédo said he will visit his home country, but would end up coming back to Vietnam, because the country is now his "flesh and blood."

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