[Wanderlust Tips March 2018] At the age of 32, Huyen Phuong has travelled all over Vietnam and has gained all the experiences to understand the difficulties of many ethnic communities in the country. Instead of donating or giving gifts as normal, she has decided to devote all of her time to develop voluntourism which is still relatively new in Vietnam. Phuong wants to assist the sustainable and long-term development of the local community, as well as enable the young generation to build a better life.
As far as I know, you have travelled a lot and experienced many cultures and lives of the local people. Did those trips inspire you to pursue your current job?
Previously, I travelled very often and one of my most unforgettable trips was to Du Gia – Mau Due in Ha Giang. It was also the first time I went on a trip for both relaxation and charity. The way to Du Gia – Mau Due was full of rocks and extremely difficult and it would be one of the most challenging roads I have ever crossed. Even on the road, we encountered a group who were blasting the mountainside to build a road so we had to stop and wait for 2 hours.
Before departing, our group contacted a school in advance. When arriving, I was really sad seeing the children not wearing clothes or footwear in the cold weather. When going into the kitchen to see the children’s meals, we were even more surprised. The meal consisted of rice, vegetables, and tofu. However, despite living in poverty, the children were very wellbehaved; after finishing the meals, they stood in line to carry the bowls to the regulated place. Those were the images that I will never forget. I realized that the life of local people was so difficult, which motivated me to help them to have a better life.
It is known that V.E.O is building a volunteer tourism model which is still new in Vietnam. Why did you decide to establish V.E.O?
Previously, I worked as a bank auditor and at that time, I often collected items from people, then went on a trip to donate them to those who live in deprived areas. I felt very happy because I could do something good for people while travelling for relaxation. However, when I went back to those places, I found that they were still so poor and my charitable giving did not help the community to develop at all.
Therefore, people can travel for exploration while contributing to the community. I also referred to some travel trends around the world and realized that responsible tourism, more specifically, voluntourism is a great option. That means, on a trip, you would spend half the time doing volunteering and the remaining time for exploration travel.
I participated in V.E.O from January 2016. Before that time, V.E.O already started experimenting and it worked quite well. Then after conducting marketing strategy and completing the personnel structure, in May 2016, V.E.O Training and Travel Joint Stock Company was officially established and put into operation.
What are the objectives of V.E.O?
V.E.O operates based on two main objectives. The first objective is to support people through volunteering activities such as building facilities (electricity, roads, schools, and medical centre), designing community-based tourism products with local people, bringing for the locals, and bring the products to the tourists. In each place, V.E.O will support the local community for 1-2 years, work with them and help them improve their ability to earn a living and get a better life.
The second one is non-government education projects for local children. Currently, V.E.O is implementing the project “Bookcases in V.E.O” with about 20-30 kinds of books suitable for different age groups. Each trip by V.E.O relates to the content of a book in the bookcase, it means that volunteers will organize activities in accordance with the theme of the book. It aims to raise the children’s interest in reading and encourage them to explore the outside world.
For example, when organizing an art competition, children often only draw teachers, farmers, doctors, soldiers, which are basic occupations. They do not know much about astronauts, singers, or models. Thus, the activities help them expand their worldview and gradually explore a wider world. If V.E.O only pursues an educational objective, it is not enough because if you just give the children the dream of changing their lives and the beautiful world while their parents cannot afford, the poverty will stop them from reaching their dream. They cannot go to school and have to stay at home to walk the buffalo or do the farming to help their parents. So although it is a bit greedy, V.E.O still pursues these two goals and in the long run, we will invest in the younger generation. In an effort to enable children to achieve their dreams, we need to help their parents as well.
Could you share with us the difficulties V.E.O had to face and overcome at the beginning?
There were a lot of difficulties because this model was still new to customers, Vietnamese market, and beneficiaries. For example, the products relate to volunteering, so many people ask us on V.E.O’s fan page or hotline:“Why do we have to pay money for volunteering?”, where in Vietnam, people do not need to pay when participating in volunteer activities. For instance, the Youth Union organizes the Green Summer campaign and other programs that are often sponsored by big organizations, so you can take part in activities without fees. However, for V.E.O’s tours, you will register for your favorite tour and pay for it as a travel product. V.E.O’s product is a new one and I have to change users’ mindset that it is considered normal for them to pay for a product they want. So the hardest part to do is the marketing.
The next difficulty we encountered was that the project was carried out at ethnic minority areas, so many people could not speak Vietnamese there. They had the potential to develop tourism but had not been trained to promote it and offer services. They did not believe that tourism activities could bring them money. I had to convince them and always kept my promise, as Vietnamese had a phrase “Fool me twice, shame on me”.
Later on, it was great that we had achieved success at some first destinations, which caught the attention of the media. V.E.O appeared in the newspapers, radio, and television, which allowed us to gain more trust from the communities. We were even invited to some places to do voluntourism.
It is said that you have participated in the Shark Tank Vietnam with the voluntourism model of V.E.O. In the program, you successfully persuaded 3 Sharks and called for an investment of VND 2.7 billion. That is also a confirmation of the potential of V.E.O. Could you share with us the development plan of V.E.O in the future?
Currently, 70%of V.E.O’s customers are from 15-30 years old. Foreign customers account for approximate 5-10%. Previously, most of V.E.O’s foreign customers are those who study and work in Vietnam. However, recently V.E.O has expanded its international market to Singaporean and Brunei students (most are high school students). When visiting Vietnam, they will take part in work camp tours – spending their holidays while doing volunteering work in 5-10 days. In addition to the better budget, targeted customers often have charitable funds ranging between VND 30-40million to support the community to build facilities.
So for me, they are also great potential customers.V.E.O’s current successful destinations include Yen Bai, Hoa Binh, Lao Cai, Phu Tho, Ha Giang, Lang Son, and Cao Bang. 2 days – 1 night trips to the destinations that are 150-180kilometers away from Hanoi will cost VND 800,000- 900,000 per person. Longer trips to destinations that are more than 350kilometres from Hanoi have the price of VND 1.6-1.8million per person.
Although V.E.O focuses on northern mountainous provinces, participants are not only in Northern Vietnam, each trip will have about 10-15% of the visitors from Central and Southern Vietnam. So in 2018, V.E.O will decide to broaden its market to the South and build the first project here.
Thank you for your meaningful sharing, wish you and V.E.O success in future plans to help more local communities.
Van Ly | Wanderlust Tips