11:26 | 26/04/2019 Travel
(VEN) - Tan Thi Su, a member of the ethnic H’mong group, is a familiar figure in Vietnam’s tourism industry, especially in the northern province of Lao Cai. Nothing in her background hinted at the success she would achieve well before the age of 30 as the founder and director of the Sapa O’Chau travel company, which leads thousands of tourists on hikes through the challenging, dramatic mountain scenery on China’s border.
In 2016, Forbes Vietnam included Su in its list of “30 under 30” high achievers. She is also featured in “Tourism Stories - The Vietnam Edition” about outstanding individuals who overcame difficulties and launched creative tourism initiatives across Vietnam.
Su, 33, comes from Lao Chai Commune of Sa Pa Town, a world-renowned tourism destination. Like many of her ethnic group, the family subsisted on rice and corn cultivation, and like many girls, at the age of nine she was forced to drop out of school to earn a living. At that time, Sa Pa was still not as commercialized and crowded with tourists as it became in later years, and she could not communicate with those who did come to the remote region because she did not speak English.
Su joined one of the many H’mong girls roaming the town, trying to sell ethnic brocade crafts to tourists. For her it was a source of income, albeit meager, but also an opportunity to pick up some English. As soon as the internet first appeared in Sa Pa in 2004, Su started learning English online while continuing to work as a street vendor. She also worked for hotels in the town to find opportunities to speak English with tourists. Su then began working as a tour guide, taking advanced English classes to improve her skill further.
Her personal background and the long way she had come gave birth to the idea of founding a project to help tourists connect with local guides, and assist children from mountain communities to attend school. In 2007, with the help of Australian friends, Su built the Sapa O’Chau project in Lao Chai Commune - the first community-based tourism facility of the H’mong in Lao Chai. In 2011, with support from the Center for Social Initiatives Promotion (CSIP) and KOTO International, Su was trained in leadership and business management.
Sapa O’Chau -Vietnamese for “Thank Your Sa Pa” - has much to be grateful for, as do the many foreigners and local people who benefit from its services. It has become more professional over the years, and diversified its business lines to travel and catering services in addition to brocade sales and charity services.
Sapa O’Chau offers tours to ethnic minority villages in and around Sa Pa, provides English-speaking guides while helping many villagers enter the tourism industry by offering home stays and other services, and at the same time providing training and accommodation for hundreds of ethnic minority children.
Tan Thi Su hopes that her community-based tourism model will be developed widely to change the lives of poor
children in mountainous regions like Sa Pa.