Reviving a popular destination
Twenty-year-old Lo Thi Bich Phuong and her husband Ha Van thuc, 29, opened their homestay in Nhot Village, Mai Chau District in the northern province of Hoa Binh, 140 km southwest of Hà Nội, in 2019.
To reach Mai Chau from the provincial capital Hoa Binh City, visitors must navigate the winding and challenging Kun Pass, with a length of 12 km. The higher it goes, the more majestic the scenery, with a blanket of white cloud often obscuring what’s down below.
Thi Tho homestay used to be quite crowded but now has few guests
At Thung Nhuoi Pass, visitors can take in the beautiful Mai Chau Valley, with stilt-houses nestled throughout an immense green space.
Mai Chau’s poetic beauty, cool fresh air, diverse cultures, and local cuisine all work to attract tourists. Just three hours by road from Hanoi and they could be setting foot on the wooden stairs of a stilt-house in Mai Chau Valley and immersing themselves in the natural surroundings while exploring the lives of the Thái ethnic minority people.
“My parents-in-law bought this stilt-house for about VND50 million, and we opened the homestay late last year,” Phuong said.
It is ideal to have a homestay in a traditional stilt-house of the Thai, which is made of wood and is tall, clean, and airy. From there you can visit wonderful landscapes or discover Khoai, Lang and Chieu caves.
Mornings are the perfect time for a bicycle ride to neighbouring villages such as Lac, Poom Coong and Van, breathing in the fresh, tranquil air of the highlands.
Phuong’s delicious traditional dishes and performances by Thai people make for a very pleasant evening.
She and her husband are one of five homestay owners in Nhot Village, which has more than a thousand households. Older and quieter, nearby Van Village also has five homestays, while Lac, which is a more familiar tourism site, has more than 20.
Guests, however, are hard to come by these days. “We had a fairly steady stream of visitors at the end of last year,” Phuong explained. “But COVID-19 saw tourist numbers dry up.”
“COVID-19 made life very difficult,” agreed Ha Thi Nhung, the owner of the Thuyet Nhung homestay in Mai Hich Village, 14 km away. “We used to host foreign guests every day, but now no one comes.”
Ha Cong Minh, owner of the neighbouring Thi Tho homestay, said no visitors had arrived since March.
“Homestays were booming, partly due to the policy from the People’s Committee of Hoa Binh Province on the development of community tourism, which targeted mobilising investment and encouraging local communities to participate in tourism activities, creating jobs and raising incomes for local ethnic minority people in the process,” said Dang Tuan Hung, head of the local tourism management division.
“But the pandemic froze tourism, and most homestays are now deserted.”
“Our plans to welcome 3.5 million visitors in 2020 are no longer feasible,” Bui Xuan Truong, deputy director of the Hoa Binh Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, acknowledged.
“As of the end of the third quarter, we had only welcomed about 1.3 million visitors this year, or 51 per cent of the figure in the same period last year and 40 per cent of the annual plan. Earnings have only been 40.7 per cent of the annual plan.”
"Hoa Binh has a scheme to revitalise the local tourism sector," he said.
"The first step is to ensure that pandemic prevention measures are implemented thoroughly. Second, the province will develop packages to attract visitors, including competitive products, additional services, and lower prices.
“The province is facilitating the implementation of tourism support packages by reducing electricity prices, extending tax and insurance payments, supporting employees, and cutting bank interest rates.
“At the same time, we continue to focus on attracting investors, reforming administrative procedures, and accelerating disbursement to complete tourism infrastructure works. The province also provides training courses for tourism teams.”
Hoa Binh’s focus is also on developing existing tourist sites and opening others.
“To attract all types of tourists, we are working on developing community-based tourism, putting our natural and cultural conditions to best use, as well as supporting high-end resorts such as Mai Chau Ecolodge Resort and Ba Khan Resort, which only opened last year,” Trường added.
Another area of investment attention is Hoa Binh reservoir, which is to basically meet the criteria of a national tourist area by 2025.
“By 2030, Hoa Binh reservoir will boast a range of modern facilities and high-quality tourism products, becoming the largest tourist centre in the province and one of 12 key tourist areas in the northern midlands and mountainous region,” he said.
As part of planning, key jetties on Hoa Binh reservoir are to be upgraded. The province will also build a port in Ngoi Hoa Commune, with the goal of building a tourist port in the Ngoi Hoa Bay area. From there, visitors can easily reach Sung Island and other spots with beautiful natural landscapes where eco-tourism and community-based tourism projects have been developed.
In order to connect destinations in Hoa Binh with each other and with partners in other provinces, it will pay great attention to completing road building projects.
The Hoa Lạc - Hoa Binh Highway has already shortened the distance from Hanoi to Hoa Binh City to just over an hour by car. “The province is implementing two key road projects, including improving and upgrading Provincial Road 433 and Provincial Road 435,” said Trường.
“Once completed, Provincial Road 433 will connect the centre of Hoa Binh City with key communes in the core zone of the Hoa Binh reservoir national tourism area.”
“With support from the Government, the newly approved project to build the Hoa Binh - Mộc Chau (in Sơn La Province) Highway, in the form of a public-private partnership, will facilitate economic and social development in both areas. With a total length of 85 km, of which 49 km is in Hoa Binh Province, the road will present significant opportunities for local tourism development.”
October is a good time to travel from North to South as the weather becomes pleasant. Here are the top five places to discover this month.