Ethnic feminist helps poor kids become tour guides in north Vietnam

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Tan Thi Su, 28, founder of a tourism company in Sa Pa that aims to train poor ethnic children into tour guides fluent in English. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

A 28-year-old H’Mong woman has built a social enterprise in Sa Pa to train poor child vendors as proper tour guides thus liberating women from a life as illiterate home helpers.
Tan Thi Su said she was one of many indigent child vendors who harassed and played childish tricks on tourists.
“Failing to sell to tourists meant there’d be nothing to eat," she said. "Selling meant you’d be hated."
She wanted to change that scenario for future generations when she began work on the tourism project in 2007, six years before she launched the company Sa Pa O’Chau, which means “Thank you Sa Pa” in her ethnic language, Tuoi Tre reported.
The company invites volunteers to train poor children in English and guiding tourists. It focuses on educating girls, as there’s a belief among Vietnam's ethnic groups that women’s work is to serve the family.
Su just finished the ninth grade last year by completing weekend classes, but is able to fluently communicate with foreign tourists thanks to the English she either picked up on the street or learned at internet cafes.
She dropped out of public school in the third grade to help her mother sell food and souvenirs to tourists. They occupied a spot in front of a rock church, that's attracts scores of foreign tourists during Sapa's snowy winters.
Her mother let her go alone when she was around the age of 13 and Su says she went wild with her independence.
Su said she knew tourists didn’t understand her ethnic language, and she could only babble a little Vietnamese, so she decided to learn English, and got her first words from foreign tourists.
“Foreigners coming to Sa Pa in around 2000 were very friendly and kind. They didn’t mind being followed by promiscuous groups of kids.
“Very often, they were willing to sit down and teach us some basic English sentences. I learned from there, several words a day, until I could communicate with them.”
Su said that her self-study was not easy since her main goal at the time was to make as much money as possible, to help her mother feed the family.
“H’Mong people a the time believed that daughters had to work, and going to school was exclusively for the sons of rich families.
“H’Mong women are still miserable," Tuoi Tre quoted her as saying. "No one has to carry as much as we do on our backs.”
Su spent most of her revenue going to Internet shops to learn English.
Computers were a luxury for an average Vietnamese family in the early 2000s, and the dial-up service made it too expensive to use them at home. 
Most people, at the time, congregated in cafes that charged users by the minute. Those in large cities charged around VND3,000-5,000 an hour.
Su was in the shops so often that rumors spread among the adults that she was addicted to online games.
Su used a computer for the first time in 2004. She didn’t remember what she spent per hour at the time but said it was very high and she sometimes lost her whole day's wage there.
As she learned more English, Su started to switch from the vending to acting as a tour guide.
At that point, she started a training project with the help of several Australian tourists.
A foreign visitor teaches English voluntarily to children and staff at Su's company

Su has since realized her dream of having her own company.
“I hope Sa Pa O’Chau will offer a good image for ethnic children to follow instead of just working in the fields or bothering tourists with their goods.
“I was like that when I was little, but it’s actually not good for Sa Pa's tourism image.”
Many of her young employees used to cling to tourists hoping to sell their little snacks or souvenirs.
Su said training them has helped her spread an interest in learning and success.
“Not being able to go to school was very regrettable to me. I want to change the mindset of H’Mong parents as many of them think that studying is of no use to girls who only end up taking care of their husbands and children.”
Many local children have become experienced tour guides thanks to her company.
Some have left to pursue their studies full time; others have taken jobs withlarger tourism companies in the area.
Su hires new kids as soon as anyone leaves.
Despite running her company, she finds time to attend weekend classes and tourism conferences in Hanoi.
“I still have to study a lot. I have to graduate high school, and study finance, management, and tourism. My Vietnamese is not really good either.”
Although her initiative remains threatened by unstable income, Su said she has plans to expand it to potential tourism destinations in the nearby Ha Giang Province.
Che Phong Lan, a consultant at the Hanoi-based Center for Social Initiatives Promotion which has been supporting Su’s project since 2010, told Tuoi Tre that Su is totally devoted to her big dream of creating opportunities for ethnic minorities.
“She has an open heart to call for participation from not only people in her community but many people from different countries.”
Lan said Su has become famous and is likely to go far thanks to her hard work.
“Su learns fast. She’s a person with a huge amount of energy, one who works without taking a day off.”

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