A visitor from Dublin, Ireland who traveled alone to Mai Chau valley and stayed with a local family last August described the experience as his happiest time in Asia.
“I’ve been on a lot of tours during the summer but I can really say this was by far the best. The 'family' slogan really hit home right away when family war veterans are pouring you tea while sitting in a family home eating local food,” he wrote in a TripAdvisor review.
The chance to get to see the raw Vietnam and enjoy the country's unique family atmosphere has won homestay tourism a significant role in the local industry, so much so that experts suggest the government encourage growth in the sector by providing closer operational guidance and language training.
A tourist named Bruce Noble said he stopped into a lot of homestays while traveling the length of Vietnam during the summer of 2012 but the one in the northern highlands in April last year “stood out.”
He was so taken aback by the warmth of the family and the very basic nature of the home he wrote: “I believe I was the first to stay here.”
Noble wrote on TripAdvisor that he and his local guide stayed with a family amid rolling hills and rivers on their way from Hanoi to Sa Pa.
“To be shown around the village, rice fields, rivers and bush land with the most wonderful double waterfall to swim and wash the end of a day away was better than any 5-star hotel.”
He enjoyed the variety and flavor of the family meals cobbled together out of food raised by his hosts and their neighbors.
The family had a large fish pond and raised chickens, ducks and pigs in a “compassionate manner.” The fruits and vegetables they served had been grown in their back yards.
“This is the real Vietnam,” he wrote.
Prosperous and spontaneous
Homestay tourism was first provided in Vietnam in the 1990s and has become particularly popular in Vietnam's highlands which
are rich in mountains and diverse ethnic communities. The model has also become popular in destinations with ample commercial hotels, such as Hue, Hoi An and the Mekong Delta.
The service has brought good, easy income to a number of poor families as it requires little start-up investment.
Ly Tien Khoa, a farmer in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre, gives his customers bicycles to roam the surrounding
villages, rice fields and the province’s famous coconut orchards. His visitors stay with Khoa's family, cook and eat with them.
His colleague Ha Thi Chung, a Thai ethnic woman from Mai Chau valley in Hoa Binh Province (which EU tourism adviser Don Taylor calls the homestay capital of Vietnam) offers a homestay package involving a tour around the valley, visits to local stilt homes and rounds of can
--a rice wine drank from a communal jar through a number of long straws.
Some homestay tourists have opted to mix their trips with charitable activities like
building houses for locals or delivering supplies and gifts.
But tourism experts have expressed concern about the way some successful homestays have expanded their facilities into something that more closely resembles a guest house--hosting a large number
of visitors at a time (like a hotel) and departing from the intimate essence of the homestay.
Khoa has expanded his service from one to 12 rooms, which received 24 visitors during peak season. Chung meanwhile now owns four different stilt houses that can accommodate up to 20 visitors each.
Victim of success
Don Taylor, adviser to the Environmentally and Socially Responsible Tourism Capacity Development Program funded by the European Union, said Mai Chau may become a victim of its own success.
Taylor said the service is developing too fast and is losing the special traits that made it desirable in the first place.
Many hosts feed their guests at a nearby restaurant instead of inviting them to eat with their family.
Modern comforts like hot showers and thick mattresses have become common, he said.
Taylor says homestay services are turning from a business model with great potential to a redundant aspect of Vietnam's tourism landscape due to unchecked overgrowth.
What's worse, he noted, is that the rapid expansion in the number of businesses hasn't coincided with an improvement in quality.
Homestay hosts are not well-trained and most don't speak fluent English, Taylor said.
The cultural exchange --theoretically a critical aspect of the service, therefore begins and ends with whatever information tour guides offer and whatever the tourists can observe, he said.
Phan Dinh Hue, director of Viet Circle tourism company, said homestay tourism needs government support--the service is currently being sponsored and supported by international organizations to help rural, ethnic people earn better incomes.
“The government role in this special service has been very vague. People are doing it on their own and that is very dangerous,” Hue said.
When people are not aware that basic, raw conditions are the main attraction, they tend to modify traditional homes, only to drive tourists away, he said.
Many hosts in the central ancient town of Hoi An have upgraded their guest rooms to resort standards and even added swimming pools.
Vang, a local host, said she has expanded her service from four rooms to eight.
"The government role in this special service has been very vague. People are doing it on their own and that is very dangerous"-- Phan Dinh Hue, a tourism investor
The authorities in Hoi An have stopped receiving registrations for homestay licenses to deter the rush to commercialize the service.
Officials said homestays are supposed to provide visitors an opportunity to explore large green spaces and widespread development will quickly suck up that landscape.
A total of 61 families in town currently operate 164 homestay guest rooms.
Hue said homestay services are developing in several countries and has become a tourism strength in, for example, Malaysia.
"Vietnam can only hope to compete if its service providers learn to preserve the special aspects of their culture under government guidance," he said.