Ethnic Community Women

Go behind the scenes with CBT Vietnam, an organisation dedicated to helping Sapa, Vietnam’s ethnic minority locals create sustainable businesses for their families and communities.


CBTAmong many other things, one of the most important elements of responsible travel is supporting local business and communities with your travel dollar. But sometimes, it’s not as easy as going for a meal at a family-owned restaurant. In some destinations, some communities struggle to find ways to create sustainable businesses for travellers to support.

That’s where CBT Vietnam comes in. A collaboration between Capilano University and Hanoi Open University, CBT Vietnam is dedicated to helping ethnic minority locals in Sapa, Vietnam to set up their own homestay businesses – and in turn, gain sustainable income to feed and care for their families. We sat down with Chris Carnovale to chat about the goals, successes and future of CBT Vietnam in Vietnam’s rural communities – and how you can help!

What is CBT Vietnam’s goal and how do you get there?

Our ultimate goals are to improve quality of life and to play a part in creating a better form of tourism. We do that through training and programs that help locals in Sapa’s ethnic minority communities set up homestays for tourists coming to Sapa. Our participants work in partnership with Capilano University, Hanoi Open University and other travel organisations, and funded by PATA. We work with them to set up homestays in their own villages, and run tourism training sessions that help guide the locals here on how to set up a sustainable homestay business.

 A glimpse at Lao Chai, one of CBT Vietnam’s homestay communities in partnership with Buffalo Tours.

Why do you think the work you do is important in the region?

Sapa is one of Vietnam’s top travel destinations. Its inspiring landscapes, cooler climate, accessible trekking routes, and colourful cultures make it a great choice for travelers coming to Vietnam. But often when people come to visit Sapa, the benefit from this increasing tourism is unevenly distributed among communities in the area. Because of many factors, ethnic communities outside of city centre benefit less than ethnic Vietnamese living within Sapa town.

By engaging the local hill tribe communities and community members as entrepreneurs, they can have a greater say in what happens in their communities and can have sustainable income from growing tourism. Additionally, the things that has been achieved through the project’s programs has created a more authentic and an enhanced cultural experience for people visiting Sapa.

How did CBT Vietnam get started?

CBT Vietnam was started in 2002, when representatives from Capilano University, Hanoi Open University and North Island College came on a trip to Sapa and noticed that there were elements of the tourist experience that could be improved. They also felt that the local ethnic minority communities were not equitably benefitting from the tourism economy, and they wanted to help assist in bridging the divide between tourism in Sapa and the ethnic communities that made the region so colourful and fascinating.

Hmong woman - interview

Chris Carnovale with local Hmong women involved in CBT Vietnam training.

What has been one of your favourite successes in working with CBT Vietnam?

My personal favourite success I have experienced while working with CBT Vietnam has been coming to the villages and seeing amazing new homestays ready for tourists, set up by people who were not in our training sessions. When we go and visit and ask that person about who helped them with their homestays, they say it was one of their friends or families who were engaged in CBT Vietnam!

Take me through how setting up a homestay benefits local economy. Why is this especially important in Sapa?

Homestays create an opportunity for visitors to spend the night within an ethnic minority community and home. Quite often tourists just go on day-trips and find themselves visiting a destination or – in the case of Sapa – a village for only a few hours. These quick trips do not offer an opportunity to get to know someone or build a relationship with a family. They do not always give visitors enough time to meaningfully participate in a cultural experience. Plus, these experiences are often turned into a commodity rather than an experience, in order to fit the needs and desires of the tourists who are on a tight schedule.

When someone visits a homestay in Sapa, they are welcomed into someone’s home. They get the opportunity to experience what it is like to live in the village. They meet and learn about the host family and the local culture. They get to eat and drink with the family and try local delicacies. They get to experience the village waking up in the morning, the crowing roosters and the restless pigs. And, they create intimate connections with all of those memories.

CBT team

The CBT Vietnam team with Hmong locals in rural Vietnam.

Why does CBT Vietnam collaborate with travel companies like Buffalo Tours?

We have collaborated with several different companies in Sapa and Hanoi, since it is important for tourists to travel with companies that support these types of initiatives in community tourism and responsible tourism, because the companies are often critical to making the experience work.

To explain, the tour companies have the capacity to connect to the tourists. For example, they have the resources and skills to create websites and advertising to tell potential tourists about the destinations, or the cars or vans that get you to or from the village. In the village, daily life does not afford villagers the time to learn how to or even just create a website. In Sapa, the villagers have their fields and animals to tend to. They have families that rely on them.

When we work with travel companies like Buffalo Tours, we are joining two very important elements together – the supply and the demand. Without either of these, these homestays simply couldn’t be as successful as they could be with the support of a travel company (or many)!

What are your top three tips for travelling responsibly while visiting Vietnam?

My top three tips are: research, research, research; use your research; and keep those promises.

Before you go on your trip, do your research. Do research about the destination and culture and maybe even learn a few new words in the local language – if you are going to Lao Chai in Sapa, that means learning some Hmong (not only Vietnamese). Research about the tour companies and service providers so that you know if they are local and if they support local initiatives. Plus, research about what kinds of things you can do to increase the positive impact of your visit. For example, staying at a homestay!

Once you are on your trip, be sure to follow through and use your research! Don’t let wanting to squeeze in another day-trip get in the way of experiencing a longer trek and an over-night stay in a local community.

Finally, be sure to follow up with all of those meaningful relationships you made while you were away. Reconnect with your new friends via Facebook. Make the effort to print off a few and send or to share some of your pictures you took with the people you met on your travels. It’s little things like this that not only make travel more responsible, but also makes the experience that much more life changing for you and for the communities you visited.

 Ask the Buffalo Tours travel team how to include homestays on your next trip to Sapa, many of which were set up in partnership with CBT Vietnam!

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