Ngoi Village: A New Discovery

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For a long time, Ngoi Village was unknown to the world. Nestled inside Hoa Binh Lake which was tapped into a reservoir to provide water for a hydroelectric power plant in the area, it lived simply and quietly on its own, relying on fishing and farming for its primary livelihood. But on May 2017, everything changed when a community-based tourism project catapulted Ngoi Village into the world for the first time, making it a sudden tourist destination and forever improving the lives of the locals.  

Ngoi Village is situated among limestone mountains and composed of 79 households, all of them Muong. It is one of the oldest villages of the Muong ethnic group in Hoa Binh believed to be at least 1,000 years old. It used to be named Bua Dam which meant “a vast flat area on the mountain that is shaded with abundant tall trees” in the Muong language. And true to its old name, Ngoi Village is filled with maize fields, orchards and primary forests, the latter being home to a lot of precious medicinal plants and many kinds of animals such as monkeys and deer. There are also many caves, only five of them discovered and dozens of primitive karst caves. There is also a lake called the Fairy Lake which is surrounded by limestone mountains. Hoa Binh Lake itself where Ngoi Village is situated is a man-made lake which is compared to Vietnam’s natural wonder, Ha Long Bay. It has more than 50 islets of varying shapes and sizes which slowly rose through time from the deep, vast jade green water of the lake. There are many other “natural wonders” in Ngoi Village which are still generally hidden and just waiting to be discovered.

Before arriving at the village, the sight is already something to behold. The Dao, Thai and Muong ethnic groups can be seen living on the islands. Vast lands of green maize fields on the mountainsides and small fishing boats by the shore provide a relaxing view. It takes an hour to trek through Ngoi Village but the trip is all worth it as one gazes upon a peaceful scenery of children playing while herding the cows at the foot of the hill and villagers coming back from working in the forest carrying edible plants or wood in baskets on their backs. They are all friendly as they greet visitors with big smiles and welcome them into their community with accommodating arms.

Visitors are brought to the village shaman Bui Van Tan, who has the important duty of preserving the local culture and history of Ngoi through his prayers. He also performs rituals during special ceremonies. Tan teaches about the Muong rituals, wisdom and most especially the Mo Muong, one of Hoa Binh’s national intangible heritages, all explaining the deep spirituality of the Ngoi people.  

Visitors can stay in the residents’ homes where they can have a firsthand experience of life in the village, including helping in cooking local dishes like cha cuon la buoi (grilled pork wrapped in grapefruit leaves), grilled chicken, fried fish, rice wine and a soup with wild plants. Sunset at Ngoi Village is a breathtaking sight. Visitors can also be treated to an arts programme which displays Muong’s culture including drinking tube wine and dancing with the locals using bamboo poles to the sound of gongs.

This opening up of Ngoi Village to the world was a community-based tourism project created by the Hoa Binh Tourism Investment Joint-Stock Company in 2004 which saw tourism potential in the place because of its rich culture and beautiful natural landscapes. Its first phase included preparing seven homestay accommodations for guests who will be able to have a direct experience of life in the village even for a short time.   

Muong families who decided to offer homestay services to visitors were given a financial support of VND200 million (US$8,800) by the investment company payable within five years without interest. The money would be used to renovate their stilt houses, including building of new toilets and buying facilities like heater and hand sinks. The hosts also required a 15-day training on how to welcome and treat guests in a proper, professional way including keeping the house clean; preparing mattress and blankets; and cooking. Lifeguard training was also provided. The provincial government in turn provides VND30 million (US$1,300) in cash loan to the homestay family to be repaid in less than five years. Aside from infrastructure, other investments which entered Ngoi Village are in facilities like a waterpark, kayaking, high-speed cruises and a floating restaurant.

But being in an isolated location and living an ancient lifestyle for a very long time and then suddenly hurled into civilization is not an easy task. In fact, The Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism in Hoa Binh Province stated the difficulties in investing in tourism in such a unique situation. Building infrastructure is not without challenges, while the villagers have no idea what tourism is or how it will affect their lives. It took intensive training and education to teach the locals the benefits of tourism, how it will bring income to their place and personal households, how it will improve their lives in general while maintaining the cultural integrity and natural beauty of Ngoi Village. But after seeing the results even in just a short time when the place started receiving tourists, the local residents felt the positive effects of tourism in their village right away, greatly improving their economic status and opening their eyes to the outside world.

The community-based tourism project prioritizes three issues: “1. Identifying Muong’s cultural identity as an attraction that needs preserving; 2. Enhancing the locals and authority’s awareness about sustainable tourism development without affecting the environment; and 3. Equipping locals with necessary skills so that they can confidently provide services and gain tourism benefits.”

Ngoi Village is called “a sleeping beauty who has recently awakened.” Aptly so because of its recent opening up to the world in the field of tourism after being isolated for a long time while holding a giant gem of rich culture and natural beauty. In the near future, all households in Ngoi Village will follow the community-based tourism project model and transform their house into a homestay service. This will also make their stilt houses an architectural masterpiece and an integral part of the Muong culture.