A few years ago, Cơ Tu villagers in Nam Giang District could not imagine that their community’s daily activities could bring them a significant income source. By sharing their rice preparation, rattan knitting, cooking, singing and dancing with tourists, they make money while preserving traditions. Hồng Minh reports.
Significant steps: Dancers of Pà Xua Village perform the Tung tung za zá dance. The traditional dance is always performed at the Cơ Tu people’s big festivals to express their gratitude to the gods.
On a two-hour bus trip from Đà Nẵng City to the central province of Quảng Nam’s Nam Giang District, I tried to learn a few common words of the ethnic Cơ Tu language: K’rơ ka? (How are you?), Iêm (tasty), and Liêm (beautiful).
Passing through green fields and forests along National Highway 14B to reach Parong Village in Tà Bhing Commune, we were told that the Cơ Tu people appreciate it when visitors to the village can speak the local language.
The village is getting more visitors these days: It was the first stop of our trip to experience community-based tourism here, where a new project aims to improve local quality of life while giving travellers the chance to experience daily activities such as pounding rice, chopping firewood, and knitting rattan household utensils.
As the bus stopped at the village gate, a group of villagers in traditional costumes rushed to say hello and clapped their hands cheerfully to welcome us. The salutation K’rơ ka was exchanged as if we were relatives being welcomed back home.
The Cơ Tu in Nam Giang continue to struggle to make a comfortable living and provide for their families. Nguyễn Văn Phi, deputy head of the district’s culture section, said around 68 per cent of the population was still poor in 2016.
The community-based tourism project aims to change that.
The project dates back to 2012. That year, the Japanese non-governmental organisation Foundation for International Development/Relief (FIDR) tried to help restore Cơ Tu traditional brocade weaving under a project funded by the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA). They found out that only eight women in Tà Bhing Commune knew how to make brocades.
With assistance from FIDR, Zơ Ra Village has set up a traditional brocade weaving co-operative, with 40 members.
Portable: Knitting water-bottle keepers can help Parong village chief Zuông Noonh earn an income of VNĐ2 million a month.
To help the products of Cơ Tu weavers reach customers, in 2015 a community-based tourism co-operative was set up in Tà Bhing Commune with the participation of volunteer villagers.
A community-based tourism project has been implemented in all seven villages of the commune, with technical training from FIDR and sponsorship from JICA,
Briu Thương, director of the co-operative, said that the organisation distributes tasks and income across the villages, ensuring benefits for all.
“The community-based tourism in Tà Bhing commune is very unique,” Thương said.
According to Thương, community-based tourism of the Cơ Tu followed the basis of takaramono sagashi, or hunting for treasures, one of the methods used in participatory community development in Japan. Accordingly, the co-operative will research, explore and commercialise tourism products of the local area, such as restoring traditional dishes, weaving techniques and folk dance.
“Joining in tourism has gradually brought significant benefits for the Cơ Tu,” Thương said. “Young people want to learn more about the national culture, old people want to teach traditional culture to the younger generation. Cơ Tu elderly people are treasures as they know a lot about traditional customs and habits that need to be researched and promoted.”
Villagers warmly welcome guests from the village entrance.
Seven villages, seven traditions
What does all of this mean for visitors, for locals and for interactions between the two groups? I wanted to find out, so I joined a trip to visit the villages.
At our first stop in Parong Village, women showed us how to pound rice and chop firewood, which seemed to be simple but turned out to be very difficult, and an unusual tourism experience.
Village chief Zuông Noonh, though in his 70s, can weave water-bottle keepers very fast. He said each product can be sold to tourists seeking an easier way to carry their water bottles. He sells them for VNĐ50,000 each, or some VNĐ2 million in total a month, which has helped him to increase the family income beyond what they can make from field work.
At noon, we visited Pà La Village which is in charge of culinary culture. Local dishes were prepared and served at the village’s communal Gươl house, the long house on stilts in the middle of the Cơ Tu village that serves as a meeting place and site of cultural activities for the rest of the village.
Inside the typical Gươl house of the Cơ Tu people, characterised by wooden columns and walls decorated with carved figures such as birds, mammals, fishes and leaves, we enjoyed the well-cooked and tasty dishes of the forest.
These included cơm lam (sticky rice grilled inside a bamboo tube), grilled pork with forest herbs, chicken cooked with eggplant, zơ rá (local salty dishes made from meat, frogs, birds, fish, mixed with bamboo shoots and spices and then put on bamboo tube to grill) and bánh sừng trâu (buffalo horn-shaped steamed rice cake). The head of the culinary group and other guides sat with us and introduced us to each dish.
Elderly expert: Zơ Râm Rem, who is at her 70s, still weave brocades and teaches the young generation how to do so.
Sharing a meal: Lunch with traditional dishes of the Cơ Tu people is prepared for guests.
Our next stop was at Zơ Rá Brocade Weaving Village where we learned about the 12 unique weaving steps of the Cơ Tu people, the history of brocade weaving, woven geometric patterns and how to put beads into the brocade. We also got the chance to try the weaving on our own.
The day ended with the cheerful and colourful Tung tung za zá dance of young dancers in traditional costumes to the rhythm of the gong in front of the Gươl house in Pà Xua Village. The dance is always performed at the locals’ big festivals to express their gratitude to the gods.
Last year, the income from tourism was more than VNĐ900 million (US$40,000) including sales of hand-made products. Of this, 70 per cent was distributed to people in villages participating in providing services.
“Such income might be modest but the more important thing is that local Cơ Tu people can enjoy their work, appreciate their value and gradually find their own treasures from their daily life such as cooking, eating, dancing and knitting,” Thương said.
Thương said that each month the co-operative receives only three to four tourist groups, both to ensure the quality of the tour and to preserve the ethnic customs for long-term development.
"The objective of the project is to provide support to the local people who know how to serve tourists,” Nobuko Otsuky, FIDR’s representative in Việt Nam, said. “I am very pleased with the progress of the local guides as well as the initiative of the authority and the people.”
“Although the project is only half complete, I believe that the locality will be self-sufficient when exploiting tourism activities. This is a matter of livelihood of the people and if maintained well will be a solution for sustainable development.” VNS