“Who wants to kill the chicken?”
The question came as a bit of a jolt to the four vegetarians amongst the tour participants (myself included). However, this was a grand gesture. Killing a chicken is an honour in Vietnamese culture and, although not carnivorous, I couldn’t help but appreciate the sort of raw authenticity that I had never seen on any other tour in Vietnam.
As a Hanoi resident, I have taken many a tour with visiting friends travelling on a shoestring. Accordingly, I have experienced my share of horrible tours. I’ve also seen the detrimental effects of tourism done wrong – a faulty sort of Reaganomics whereby the big guys get richer and little money trickles down to the local suppliers (leaving disgruntled staff members and consequently unhappy travellers). Over the years though, a few responsible tour operators have sprouted up in a sincere effort to offer better travel alternatives. However, every street corner in the Old Quarter continues to be dominated by the same open-tour agencies catering to penny-pinching backpackers, who, while well meaning, are too happy to pay bargain-basement prices for tours to Sapa and Halong Bay.
So when we noticed a humble poster hanging on the wall of our local watering hole that advertised a microfinance tour in Vietnam, we were definitely curious. What is a microfinance tour?
Microfinance and Beyond
Muhammad Yunus won a Nobel Peace Prize for breaking new ground with microfinance in Bangladesh. Now the idea has become a global cynosure – alleviating poverty throughout the world. The concept is actually quite straightforward: provide poverty-stricken people with the kind of very small loan that would normally be unattainable from traditional banks, who either don’t deal in such small amounts or would need some sort of collateral as security against larger amounts.
Unfortunately, due to scarce funds and wide-reaching poverty in the world, microfinance institutions are unable to provide for everyone in need. Which is where microfinance tours come in: they can reach deep into communities and help people that are generally too far on the periphery to have access even to microloans.
The tour that we attended visited the borrowers of the Microfinance and Community Development Institute (MACDI). The microloans are usually very small – just enough for someone to buy a few chickens or a pig – but providing people with vital boosts taking them from having nothing at all to being able to make substantial improvement in their lives. Each tour focuses on a group of five or six borrowers at a time; when sufficient funds for loans have been raised for that group, the tour moves on to fund loans for a new group. In this way, because the tour only goes enough times to meet loan requirements – for every tour participant, a large portion of the proceeds goes directly to MACDI, so it takes only two tours of 12 people each to meet a loan – it maintains the integrity of a destination (which doesn’t become touristic) and inherently provides a completely authentic experience for travellers.
Of course, in keeping with the practice of microfinance, when a loan is repaid by one group of borrowers, it is used again for a new group. Importantly, it is a model that is completely scalable.
Our first stop was Giong’s House, a beautiful complex with ancient pagodas. Even though it was pouring rain, the hazy fog made the place even more magical, and unlike at the Perfume Pagoda, there were no tourists. Inside, we were given a tour by a local monk, who told us the legend of Thanh Giong (Saint Giong), translated into English by one of the tour guides. The story was a perfect preface to time we would later spend at Soc Son, where Saint Giong flew back to heaven after defeating the An people.
After roaming about freely for a short while, we headed to Soc Son, where we helped prepare lunch with Ms. Tuyen, a microfinance success story. While sitting on her floor in traditional Vietnamese style and eating our fill of fresh vegetables, chicken, tofu and rice, she told us her story.
The initial loan she received was for only 500,000 Vietnamese Dong (roughly US$30), enough for her to purchase a few chickens. With this small leg up, she was able to sell eggs and chicks and eventually make enough money to buy other animals, including ducks and pigs, and then even some farmland. When we met her, she was self-sustaining and had even put her two children through school and university. Looking at everything that she had now, I was amazed at what such a small loan could do for her and her family.
After lunch, we met the other borrowers – all women. After greeting us with fresh guavas from her tree, one woman brought us out o her rice fields, where she explained to us the back-aching process of harvesting the rice by hand. We also met another woman who lived with her four children, while her husband worked far away from home. She only needed a loan to buy 50 chickens, for a total of about US$60.
As we headed back to Hanoi, we stopped at a small lacquer-ware and jewellery craft shop that employed disabled people who couldn’t normally get a job. Many of the products they created are now sold in a Fair-Trade shop in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. To crown an already superb day, the owner invited us to drink rice wine and smoke tobacco out of a traditional water pipe.
We all agreed, Bloom Microventures was certainly the best Hanoi-area tour we have ever been on.