After two years, his father became seriously ill and the young student thought he would have to abandon his studies. But teachers and friends had other ideas and raised sufficient funds for him to complete his final year. Immensely grateful, he vowed not to let them down.
“Those were hard days,” he remembers, “when I was studying while worrying about my father’s health and my family. But I finally managed to overcome the difficulties.” He got his degree but then couldn’t get a job. “I did not know what I was going to do,” he says. As a graduate, he still had many options but the tourist industry had yet to enter his head.
Then his luck changed, or appeared to change. He says: “Fortunately, I was given a lift back to my home province by a teacher who told me about the tourism industry. That was the lucky break that connected me with community tourism.” He soon sold the idea to his wife and put it into practice, but it was far from an instant success.
He recalls: “At first, my wife and I devised a community tour with accommodation in our Mong stilt house. But for the whole year there were not that many visitors. Those that came liked to take part in the cooking but few stayed overnight. Mong houses are quite humid and not really suitable for tourists so a lot of investment was needed.
Then I had another fortunate encounter - this time with Duong Minh Binh, an active consultant of the Community Based Tourism (CBT) project. He advised me to take a look at the community tourism model in Mai Hich in Hoa Binh province. What struck me from this visit was that people there, who studied only to the third grade, were doing very well in the tourist industry.” It convinced him that with the right product an educated man like him should be able to do likewise and he began the conversion of his property.
He says: “My wife and I borrowed money to turn our home into a Thai-style community tourism model instead of one based on the Mong. Thai stilt houses are tall, airy and more suitable for feeding and accommodating visitors. But that time was very challenging, too: few people knew about the Hua Tat village where we lived, while the people around thought we were crazy.
“After three years, it wasn’t working so I called Duong Minh Binh. He came to the village and advised us to raise the standards. One year later, a survey and seminar program was held in which more than 30 travel agencies took part. Within a week, they had sent visitors. At first, my wife and I were worried whether we could cope, but they gave us a lot of thanks and appreciation. That was the moment we finally felt we belonged in the tourism industry.”
It had been a long time in coming but August 2018 saw the third anniversary of the A Chu homestay welcoming its first guests. The couple are making new plans all the time and despite the architectural compromises, they are not forgetting the cultural identity of the Mong.
Says Mr A Chu: “Up to now, my wife and I have stayed at the Thai-style stilt house, because we could use the space downstairs as a cafeteria. But now I am converting the upstairs into private bedrooms more in the style of the Mong people. I’m also building several small bungalows on the lines of Mong ancient houses. All this will offer a wider experience for visitors as well as further improve the service quality”.
“Even in those based on Thai houses, the cultural identity and service style will still be Mong. A Chu homestay aims for at least a 3-star standard. In the morning guests of more than 10 people are served a buffet of local cuisine. It has become very popular and currently, if guests don’t book, they will have no accommodation.”
A Chu homestay is well appreciated by tourists, especially international visitors, while locals are grateful it has brought income to many workers. Mr A Chu, who intends to expand the community tourism and join the CBT, says: “In the first six months of 2018, my family earned nearly VND500 million, equal to the top-ranked tourism models. We created jobs for the villagers and thus helped reduce poverty. I have made contact with five other households in the same village and set up homestays in them. Standards must be as high as those at A Chu homestay and are assessed by guests staying there. If one doesn’t meet the standards, I will not send guests to that house anymore.”
Visitors to A Chu homestay go for two days and one night, three days and two nights or even the whole week. Hua Tat has a pleasant climate, the air is fresh, the highest day temperature is 270C and in the night it ranges from 18 to 220C. During the day, foreigners like to climb the hills, plant and pick vegetables in the garden and join in the cooking with the A Chu family. At night there are cultural performances. From here, visitors can easily reach such places as Moc Chau, Dien Bien and Lai Chau.
One memorable visit came in the summer of 2018, when a group of Singaporean students arrived. Mr A Chu takes up the story: “They stayed for a month doing all sorts of things. They provided poor households with the water purifiers, showed them ways to make paper, do embroidery, make cakes and even “men men”, (that sticky local delicacy from ground corn). They encouraged the Mong people to meet tourists and create more tourist products.”
It is certainly a positive change for a poor yet majestic, mountainous area of Son La province whose reputation for drug trafficking earned it the name “the northwest frying pan*”. Mr A Chu says: “I hope it will encourage more investment from the party and the state to provide alternative income for the Mong people.”
Tourism took a while to find him but when it did, it was well worth the wait.