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Breathing new life into an old lifestyle

Bho Hoong Village on the banks of the Kon River enjoys cool weather all year round, and has amazing scenery. But visitors get their biggest kicks from the direct glimpses they get into the lifestyle, culture and special skills of the village’s Co Tu ethnic minority residents. Cong Thanh reports.

Warming up: Villagers of Bho Hoong in the central Quang Nam Province play gongs and dance around fire at a night festival held to entertain tourists.
Warming up: Villagers of Bho Hoong in the central Quang Nam Province play gongs and dance around fire at a night festival held to entertain tourists.

A Lang Bay, 84, looks years younger than his age when he plays the traditional musical instruments of the ethnic Co Tu.

Bay, one of the oldest men in the mountain village of Bho Hoong in the central province of Quang Nam, is adept at playing the six instruments used to create romantic melodies at village festivals.

Abel, similar to the Vietnamese two-chord fiddle, is one of the most special instruments for Co Tu people. A bamboo tube is fashioned into something resembling a vertical violin with two strings. Users twang a wire string with a bamboo lath, while keeping the other in the mouth.

The best abel player could once lure the most beautiful woman in the village, Bay recalled.

“I played abel to express my love to my woman and it fascinated her,” he said. “Hosts also traditionally play such folk music to welcome friends.”

However, few young people today learn how to play these instruments.

“Today, such old-fashioned instruments are only seen at traditional rituals and festivals,” Bay said. “Young Co Tu people rush out to make money away from home, as hunting and farming offer limited incomes. They have changed their lifestyles to suit modern life, choosing smartphones and modern fashion over old cultural treasures.”

Handiwork: Brocade products made by women at a centre in Dhroong Village in Quang Nam Province. The village is a community-based tourism site.

The music was revived in recent years when the village was developed as a community-based tourism village along with neighbouring Dhroong Village in Ta Lu Commune. Bay and his family members perform at the guol (communal long house) to entertain tourists. The 84-year-old plays khen (pan-pipe), a wind instrument similar to that played by the Mong people but with shorter bamboo tubes, as well as tobheh (monochord), aluot (flute with square holes) and bholua (horn), while the others perform gong, booch (love duets) and dancing.

“Playing abel revives my soul and keeps me young. I’m eager to play it all the time,” he said.

Mutual benefits

Villagers share the profits with the tour operators: Ha Noi-based Handspan, Hoi An Motorbike Adventures and Rose Travel Service company.

“Villagers get VND50,000 each from gong and dance performances, cuisine and accommodations for tourist bungalows,” said local guide A Tieng Pai, 25.

The tourism site opened in 2008, but was decorated and upgraded to tourist standards in 2013, according to Pai.

“We host around 20 tourists each month who come for two-day tours. In addition to exploring the village, they can also take trekking tours around nearby forests and mountains,” he said.

Phan Thi Hien, manager of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures, said the three travel agencies invested VND2.3 billion (US$110,000) to turn Bho Hoong Village into a tourist attraction.

“We signed a 20-year deal with local administration to develop community-based tourism in the area. It has so much potential for tourism, with crafts like brocade, bamboo and rattan weaving that have been practiced for centuries as well as an ancient lifestyle that has been preserved for generations,” Hien said.

She added that villagers were still hesitant to use craft production as an way to improve their livelihood, although many struggled to earn a living by farming.

“We offer them the chance to make souvenirs that would sell for about $1, quite an acceptable price for tourists,” Hien said. “However, villagers still hesitate to do so as they are not used to marketing.”

Feast: Visitors enjoy local food for dinner at a house in Bho Hoong Village. A typical local meal includes com lam (rice cooked in a bamboo tube) and grilled pork and chicken, served with wild vegetables and bamboo sprouts.

Australian tour operator Mark Wyndham said Bho Hoong Village was one of the most popular sites for tourists in the central region.

“The village preserves the original lifestyle of hill tribe villagers. Foreigners who come to explore the region on adventurous trips love it. It’s also very accessible because the province built infrastructure in mountainous areas,” Wyndham said.

He emphasised that the company designed the community-based tourism site specifically for small groups.

“Five traditional Co Tu thatch-roofed houses are reserved for 20 visitors at a time. We do not want to disturb the village with too many visitors. It would change their lifestyle and culture,” he explained.

However, Wyndham made the same observation as Hien.

“We suggested villagers of Bho Hoong create crafts for sale so they could improve their incomes. But I have not seen any development in the past four years. They seem to prefer hunting and farming forestry products,” he said.

The old guard: Briu Thien, 70, wears traditional costume of Co Tu group in a festival at guol (communal long house). The village has been a highly favoured tourism site as it still preserves its traditional lifestyle and culture despite rapid urbanisation and modernisation.

Cuisine, special wine

Briu Thien, 60, heads the seven-member cooking team, preparing traditional food for tourists.

“We get more money from cooking for tourists,” he said. “We offer them our best food, introducing them to dishes we have eaten for generations.”

A typical meal includes com lam (rice cooked in a bamboo tube) and grilled pork and chicken, served together with wild vegetables and bamboo shoots. In April, tourists can taste Ta Vat wine, a unique drink made from fermented resin extracted from ta vat fruit in the forest. It’s a potent brew: guide Pai estimated that visitors would get drunk on 1.5 litres.

Still struggling

Despite the extra income earned from tourism, villagers still struggle with poverty. Briu Dom, head of the village, said that half the village’s population earns VND300,000 ($14) monthly from farming cassava and rice on the sloping hills.

Many must supplement this income by cutting down trees and hunting wild animals. Briu Da, 70, shows off the collection of wild boar skulls in his kitchen, the main products of his youthful hunting endeavors.

“I started hunting when I was 18. I was one of eight children and we lived on hunting, along with farming forestry products and logging. A wild boar could bring me VND5 to 7 million ($240-340) – enough to feed the whole family,” Briu Da recalled.

The 70-year-old war invalid said he and his wife received VND3.5 million ($166) from the state’s monthly allowance. In addition, he could earn VND1 million ($47) from making bamboo baskets and food trays.

Going fishing: A Co Tu man goes hunting in a stream near Bho Hoong Village. The village is surrounded by pristine nature – forests, wildlife and green landscapes.

Challenges and support

Poor infrastructure along Highway 14G, which connects Da Nang and Quang Nam’s mountainous districts of Dong Giang and Tay Giang, limits access to these locations. Only two vans carry commuters from Da Nang to Dong Giang and Tay Giang, a three-hour trip.

However, the community-based tourism villages of Bho Hoong and Dhroong have received support from foreign organisations, such as the Luxembourg government, which provided $1.3 million to promote tourism in mountainous areas along the former Ho Chi Minh Trail.

“Village households received training in tourism services, speaking English, cooking and customer care,” said Nguyen Thi Huyen, ILO Country Officer for Viet Nam and the ILO’s National Project Coordinator of Sustainable Tourism Projects.

“The project has improved local people’s incomes. Most locals made a living through farming, but now they have another means of making money after the harvest time.”