The stars of the CBT Vietnam project

For nearly a decade I have been fortunate to be a part of a community based tourism project through Capilano University. I have worked on this transformational project in Vietnam in varying capacities and have many people to thank.

Sapa's inspiring terraced landscape.
In northern Vietnam there is a (in)famous tourist destination known as Sapa. Inspiring terraced landscape, cool climate and colourful culture is easily accessible via overnight train. For one hundred years visitors have frequented Sapa. Tourism is here to stay.

The ‘CBT Vietnam’ project emerged from a trip to Sapa by a group from Hanoi Open University (Vietnam), Capilano University (Canada) and North Island College (Canada). Dr. Geoffrey Bird led an initial five-year project supported by the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. The project focused on skills-based training in the villages of Tavan and Taphin. Volunteer students and faculty from partner schools developed and delivered training primarily to local women. The goal was to create new opportunities for employment, develop a more sustainable form of tourism, and increase quality of life.

I was a student volunteer on the project who was changed by the experience. In fact, I took a leave from my studies and moved to Vietnam to travel and work in tourism. I was inspired.

Speaking with Khu in Lao Chai.
Two years after the project had completed I visited Taphin village and some of the locals. We discussed the idea of another project. Planning, entrepreneurship, network building, collective marketing and mutually beneficial partnerships were themes that would eventually lead to a series of projects generously supported by the PATA Foundation. The projects continue to bring Vietnamese and Canadian volunteer students together in the delivery of community tourism learning programs.

Some of the stars: Taryn, Stephanie, Jase and Kyle.
My current role as a project lead, and the successes it brings, is the product of the hard work of many. I am thankful for those who have continued to selflessly put forth their time and effort. Instructors and Deans, Stephanie Wells, Jen Reilly, Kim McLeod, Dr. Chris Bottrill, Casey Dorin, Ms. Ngoc Anh and Ms. Que have been instrumental in making these projects happen. The countless students that have been on the CBT Vietnam project are the heroes and heroines. Our stars. In the field they have excelled. They have been the energy and the true grit of the project. 

In a training workshop. Ms. Ly Man May is pictured second from the left. 
But the people that deserve the most appreciation are those from the villages. They have inspired us all. Tearful goodbyes when we depart from a project trip are testament that we are more than partners in the experience. This community development project is not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ case study. People like Ms. Ly Man May in Taphin, Ms. Soi in Tavan and Ms. Mai in Lao Chai are some of the individuals that deserve all the credit. These resilient, thoughtful women have trusted and welcomed us into their homes. 

When you go to Sapa you might have the opportunity to stay with some of these women. Learn from them like we have, and when you leave, be sure to thank them in their language.



So I'm back. What now?

Sam is pictured standing in middle of the back row with her fellow CapilanoU student volunteers.
I have been travelling pretty extensively for the last ten years. Whenever I had the opportunity I would save, plan, pack and go. Before the Vietnam trip I hadn't travelled for a year so one could imagine how excited and honoured I was wen I was selected as a student volunteer. With a full course load and working two new jobs I jumped right in!

An informal meeting in the Lao Chai.
Looking back on this past winter; the hours I stressed over not doing enough for the project, working too much, and my studies, at the time it felt like the end of the world. The experience of barely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel can be daunting.

Well, I did it! I reached the end of the tunnel, and damn it was awesome! Vietnam was amazing. Not only am I walking away with a new outlook, I have developed a new sense of humility and a incredible appreciation for the access to opportunities as a Canadian.

Some of the amazing women in Lao Chai. 
The women in the village taught me more than I could have ever brought to them as a member of the CBT Vietnam team. I owe them more then words can ever explain, and the only way to do right by them is to bring this knowledge and personal change and use it in the future. As my 440 Paper (the final graduating paper for my Tourism Management Degree) comes around I plan to use this and start my next chapter. I hope to find a female mentor with experience in community development, learn from her, and research a subject around females in tourism.

Looking forward to new challenges, opportunities and experiences. Thank you CapilanoU, CBT Vietnam, and the PATA Foundation



Connections and transformations

"How was your trip?" 

I get asked that question almost every day and it's probably the most challenging question to answer. The truth is, it's hard to express how much the CBTVietnam trip means to me. Whenever, I try to explain it I never feel like I do it justice as words can't describe it. It was a trip of a life time and can only be truly understood by experiencing it for oneself. However, I want people to hear about it even if its only a taster of how inspiring and rewarding it was.

Going to Vietnam was more than I could have ever wished or dreamt. I didn't believe it when Chris, Stephanie and Caitlin said it would change my life. It seemed cliche and unbelievable that one trip could touch that many hearts so deeply but once I arrived in Lao Chai all my doubts vanished. The villagers are the most welcoming, open and loving people I have ever met. Right away, they invited us into their homes and treated us like family.

While in Lao Chai, I worked with so many amazing people and witnessed how hard they worked everyday to make a living. Ms. Sao and Ms. Di are two local batik artists who run workshops in their handicraft shops just off of the main road that travels through the village.  I had the pleasure of working with them to further refine their workshops and find ways to advertise to the tourists. It was surprising how much we were able to communicate to each other without speaking the same language. These interactions showed me how powerful body language can be and how it can often be more effective because the meaning of words vary so much from culture to culture.

Working on the batik product also gave me a chance to see how strong the bonds of community are in the village. On the last CBT Vietnam Trip in August 2013, Ms. Di was the only batik artist running workshops in Lao Chai. Since then she shared the knowledge and resources on how to run a workshop with Ms. Sao, again illustrating the strong sense of community this village has. Sharing this information was not seen as a threat to business but a growth of the whole village. The unquestionable generosity and compassion of the Hmong people opened my eyes to the self-centred attitude that I often see at home.  

When I think back to the CBT Vietnam trip, I am amazed at how much I have learnt, not only about community based tourism and Hmong culture but about how to be a better person. The Hmong people showed me how beneficial and important it is to enter every situation with an open mind and a smile. 



I Need to Get My Name on that Book!

Even though technology has left its mark on most households, nature still rules in the village of Ta Phin. There is a story behind every custom and tradition. Dao people have learned from their parents how things should be done, and for most parts those rules still apply to their lifestyles today.

Nights in the village begin early at dusk as families gather around the fire to cook dinner. Although women run the kitchen, in all the families that I stayed with, men had an active part in preparing the food; from preparing the meat to setting the table, pouring the rice wine and entertaining the guests.

Dao kitchens are part of a big open area in the house where everyone gathers upon entering. There are usually two stoves in the kitchen; one for cooking and one for preparing the herbs for the herbal bath. Dao women cook one dish at a time on the cooking stove, and they use the same pot to prepare all the dishes. Considering that there are usually five to ten different dish prepared for every meal, preparing dinner can take up to an hour. They set the table and where everything is ready, you are invited to eat.

Dinner table at a Dao Home stay

I stayed with Chao Ta May and her family on my second night in Ta Phin during the recent CBT Vietnam Project trip to SaPa. At night we all gathered around the fire as she welcomed us with a bowl of fries; a very unique fried potato dish with garlic and salt or sugar! A much needed appetizer while we were waiting for the actual meal.

Chao Ta May’s son had recently got married and was living with his new bride at the same house. As Chao Ta May was preparing the dinner, I asked her about the wedding customs of Dao people.  

“We found her in the book” she replied with a smile. It took me a while to figure out that this ‘book’ was actually a record of available girls in the neighborhood villages and was made by a matchmaker. “I picked her. We sent her family two silver bracelets and waited to see if they would accept them” she eagerly continued. “Then we sent the chicken”. “The chicken?!” I asked spuriously. “Yes! 10kg exactly, and we waited again. When they accepted it, we sent the 70kg pig”. She explained that these numbers were important because the bride’s family had to invite certain people in the process and needed to feed them. “Things have changed!” she continued. “When I was getting married I had no way of seeing or contacting my future husband until the wedding day. He was in another village! Nowadays kids contact each other before the marriage. My son and his wife had sent each other pictures by phone and were talking for a while” she continued with a smile. “When all the decisions are made, the bride should start making her dress. It takes her one year to finish the dress” she said that with a smile! She must have been thinking about her own dress.

As Chao Ta May was sharing this with us, I couldn't help but thinking about the traditional weddings and arranged marriages. If it was not for the match makers and the ‘books’, have these young boys and girls who live miles away in different villages ever had a chance to meet? After all, there seems to be a place and time for everything, even for an arranged marriage and that is in Ta Phin and among Dao people. As for the book, I am on one already; it is called Facebook, so where is my chicken!?