Tan Thi Su and the dream of Sa Pa O’Chau

[Wanderlust Tips March 2018] Tan Thi Su is an H’mong woman who makes everyone fall in love with her bright face, warm smile and sparkling eyes from the first meeting. When you listen about the journey to make the dream of Sapa O’chau come true, your affection will turn into a deep admiration for her sincere heart and the beautiful things Su is trying to do for the poor children in Sa Pa.

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Hi Su, it is known that you were born in a family in difficult circumstances and had to leave school from at a young age. Could you share with us about that time?

As my family was so poor, I stopped going to school since I was in grade 5 and worked as a street vendor to support my family. However, my work was not stable; sometimes, I could not sell anything. And without sales, I could not get enough to eat.

Fortunately, tourists to Sa Pa were very friendly; they were not uncomfortable when being followed by a group of children. They were also willing to teach us some basic English phrases. I have learned from them, built up my vocabulary every day, and then I finally could communicate with foreigners. After that, I started working as a tour guide for visitors to Sa Pa.

Later, when I could afford, I continued my study in secondary and high school education. I finished high school last year.

Could you share with us your treasured memories during the time you worked as a tour guide?

When I went to work, there were a lot of memories, both happy and sad. However, the most memorable moment was the time I met very kind-hearted visitors. At that time when I was only 13-14 years old and new to the town, I met a Dutch couple and led them to visit Sa Pa’s villages. Though I could not speak much English, they did not look down on me and were very kind to invite me for meals. After a week in Sa Pa, they were very sad to leave and also cried when saying goodbye. That was a beautiful memory. Although they were foreign tourists visiting Sa Pa for a while, thanks to the sincerity we gave them, we have become good friends.

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Do you think to become a tour guide, we need to have a sincere heart to make good impressions on visitors?

I think whether domestic or foreign tourists, when they travel to Sa Pa, we – as locals – need to treat them sincerely to become friends. In the beginning, they were strangers, but the Vietnamese have the idiom “at first strange, now familiar”. We exchange culture and knowledge with each other to create beautiful memories.

Until now, you and the volunteers have successfully established Sapa O’Chau – a social enterprise with meaningful tourism activities.

What has inspired you to come up with the idea of Sapa O’Chau, and how was the journey to make this dream come true?

Many people have also asked me why I established Sapa O’Chau, and I said that I had sympathy for children in difficult circumstances and I wanted to do something to support them so they could continue going to school.

Therefore in 2010, I opened the first free class for children with the hope that they could learn to read and write English better. I think that they will gradually become more confident in communication, improve their work and daily life, as well as support their families. At first, my class only had a small group of students, but after about 3-4 months, the number increased to more than 100 children.

They introduced the class to each other and more students went to my class.Up to now, Sapa O’Chau has not only opened classes but also helped many children with accommodation. As of this time in 2018, I am helping 30 college and university students, and 57 students aged 16-20 are still attending the class. Some children are from poor families in remote areas, so when coming to the town, they usually do not have a place to live, which affects their learning.

Therefore, Sapa O’Chau support both material conditions and their spiritual life so that they have the opportunity to continue studying. They are taught English and communication, as well as experiences and skills in life.After finishing grade 12, the students can go to college, university or find a job. Or they can choose to stay and work for Sapa O’Chau. Those who major in tourism can come back here to work as an intern.

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What are the current main travel services of Sapa O’Chau?

Many people in Sa Pa are illiterate and do not have much experience in tourism, so Sapa O’Chau has connected them together and helped them. Sapa O’Chau organizes tours to visit ethnic minority villages, provides local tour guides who can speak English. Travellers can visit the natural scenery, experience the activities of local people like farming, and then stay at a homestay.

What do you think about Sa Pa’s tourism? What do we need to do to develop tourism in the future?

I think that I cannot do everything by myself and should not judge everything from my own viewpoint. Sa Pa has a beautiful culture and landscape, so it will be better if people can work together and contribute to the long-term tourism development of this land. For me, I am trying to accomplish the best I possibly can.

As Sa Pa is developing and changing, different people will have different opinions about this development, depending on their positive or negative viewpoint. I am a local who was born and raised here, so I always wish that Sa Pa will develop but still keep its treasured and unique features. Its advantages include climate, beautiful landscape and cultural diversity of the 6 ethnic groups living together. In order to keep tourists or develop tourism, it is necessary to preserve the cultural values. Tourists love a land by not only its beautiful wilderness but also the sincerity of the indigenous people.

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In the near future, what are you looking forward to and what are your plans to develop Sa Pa O’Chau?

At present, we still have to rent the accommodation for Sa Pa O’Chau’s children, so my current plan is to secure our own accommodation so I will feel more secure and can help more children. In the long run, we hope that we can help children in not only Sa Pa but also other areas so that they will be given the opportunity to go to school and have more stable jobs. And I hope that I am setting an example which will be widely known so people can apply and work together for a better life.

Thank you for sharing this with us, wish you good health and more success for Sapa O’Chau in the future.

Van Ly | Wanderlust Tips

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