I often tell myself that if in a given day I don’t learn anything new or do something useful, then I have wasted that day.
Before going on a trip with Peace Trees Viet Nam (PTVN), I didn’t think that it was possible to have so many different experiences while I was on vacation. I was able to relax, travel, and chat with the locals, while also working to help people who are in need and learn from them.
PTVN is not a travel company. It’s a non-profit organisation. Through their tour packages, the company allows Vietnamese and foreign travellers to learn more about Viet Nam and work with social programmes.
The tour company allows travellers to assist in the removal of land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in central Viet Nam. Tourists will also be able to work alongside locals to help create an infrastructure that will create a safe and healthy future for residents of the central province of Quang Tri.
During my trip, I visited the Truong Son Cemetery in Gio Linh District that is home to 15,000 graves of soldiers and civilians who died while fighting against the US. After that we went to Vinh Moc tunnels in Vinh Linh District, which housed an underground village built in the demilitarised zone dividing north and south Viet Nam. Later, we went to Quang Tri Citadel where Vietnamese soldiers fought a bloody 81-day battle. Finally we arrived at the historic Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River, which served as the border between the two regions between 1954 and 1975.
After visiting these destinations, I felt that I had learned a lot about the bravery of the Vietnamese people and the soldiers who fought during the war. However, I also felt that I understood the true cost of the war, which still affects people today.
After the inspiring tour, the group visited and worked at a friendship village that PTVN built for UXO and Agent Orange victims and impoverished poor children.
I will never forget playing with the children. The children at the centre were overcome with joy as they played with the balloons and stickers that tourists bought for them. While the children that live in the city where I am from may not be that impressed with such gifts, the poor children here thoroughly enjoyed them.
Nguyen Thi Cuc lost her legs in an accident caused by a UXO. Now unable to work, Cuc continues to live an active lifestyle and even won several medals during the province’s special olympics.
She has had a hard life, but now she looks relaxed and is able to teach courses on how to properly prepare sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
“Vietnamese people love these snacks, especially during Tet (lunar new year) or when they are receiving guests,” she says. “I don’t know why they are so popular, perhaps because they are delicious and they make interesting noises when you bite into their shells.”
This type of trip is known as responsible travel, which encourages travellers to participated in tour packages that are designed by companies to form responsible relationships with local communities. This new approach to tourism can help improve businesses incomes and create more jobs for people. The concept is new to Viet Nam.
Le Nguyen Travel is one the first companies that has implemented this new paradigm into their travel packages in Viet Nam. The company works with its Canadian counterpart, Cegep Marie Victoria Company, to recruit Canadian tourists to visit Hoi An. Participating travellers can stay up to one month in the area, where they will live together with the locals and volunteer in social programmes.
The tourists are able to help with household chores, study Vietnamese, and learn how to cook Vietnamese food. They can also help village elders and disabled residents and teach English to orphans.
With this package, travellers can visit Tra Que Village, which is famous for its vegetables, and Thanh Ha pottery village where they can learn how to make pottery.
“I stayed at a house in Hoi An and I shared warm moments with the family when we cooked, ate and did house chores together,” says K Paul, who went on the package. “We really understood each other.”
“We didn’t use the air conditioner in order to save electricity and protect the environment,” Paul says. “Hoi An people are so nice and friendly and the life here is peaceful.”
According to Le Ho Phuoc Vinh, Le Nguyen Travel’s director, the three key components that play a central role in responsible travel are the local people, the tour operator and the travellers.
There are two essential aspects that responsible tourism utilises – environmental protection and socio-economic development. Both aspects are crucial to creating responsible and sustainable services that will employ large numbers of people without harming the environment.
A pilot project Responsible Travel in Viet Nam has been launched in co-operation with the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV) and will last until December 2010.
“Visitors are now becoming more aware and concerned about other matters relating to tourism such as littering in public places and water and noise pollution,” says Phil Harman, senior advisor of SNV in Viet Nam. “About 97 per cent of tourists, when interviewed, said that they were willing to pay more for a responsible travel holiday that is environmentally conscious and brings about more benefits for needy local people.”
Someone may think travelling is all about enjoying yourself, but for me its about making a difference.
Before leaving Quang Tri, we spent the morning planting trees. Looking at the saplings, I felt satisfied with my trip and I hope one day to come back and see how much growth has taken place in the area. — VNS by Minh Thu