Ly Thi Co and Thao Thi Tra, members of the ethnic minority community in Lao Cai Province, northern Vietnam, have amazed many visitors with their fluency in English though they are almost illiterate in Vietnamese.
They only know how to write their names in Vietnamese and read numbers as they did not go to school.
The two have worked as tour guides in Sa Pa, a popular tourist site in northern Vietnam, for over 10 years, leaving visitors impressed by their English-speaking skills.
Ly Thi Co, who resides in Sa Xeng Mountain Village in Trung Chai Commune under Sa Pa Town, communicates with tourists in English at work, while speaking the language of the Mong ethnic minority people at home.
Her Vietnamese-speaking ability is limited.
|Ly Thi Co introduces the traditional knitting craft to foreign visitors. Photo: Vu Tuan / Tuoi Tre
Special tour guide
One day, Co took a taxi cab to pick up two Swedish tourists to Sa Xeng Village. After having got off the vehicle, they crossed a charming valley covered by rape flowers.
During their three-hour walking trip, Co told them dozens of stories about the Mong people’s daily activities, farming, terraced rice fields, crops, and weaving that is a popular career of Mong ethnic minority women.
She also introduced her father as a shaman and her mother who can use traditional medicinal herbs to treat ill people to the two foreigners.
The tourists were interested by her stories about the spectacular Hoang Lien Son mountain range.
The young Mong woman, who has 15 years of experience, told these stories in English.
When she was a child, she worked as a vendor in Sa Pa Town to support her family.
She walked around the roads in the tourist town to sell brocade handbags and wallets, alongside keyholders.
The girl started to learn English after she saw many vendors use the language to invite foreign visitors to buy goods. They also received tips from visitors after guiding the tourists.
At that time, she was 10.
She learned English by waiting for visitors in front of hotels to invite them to purchase her products and communicate with them.
Foreigners often stayed in Sa Pa Town for a week, or even a month.
They loved hiking, climbing, and visiting mountain villages for sightseeing.
Some followed Co all day every day to ask many things about the life of the Mong people.
When she was 14, Co traveled to Sa Pa Town to settle in the place.
Thanks to her fluency in English, she was hired by hoteliers to act as a tour guide for foreign visitors.
She took them around the town and gave them camping, trekking, and climbing experiences.
The wage of her first working day was VND70,000 (US$2.85), while she had earlier earned hundreds of Vietnamese dong a day from hawking.
|Ly Thi Cha speaks English fluently during her talks with foreign tourists. Photo: Vu Tuan / Tuoi Tre
Studying for poverty reduction
Like Co, dozens of girls in Lao Chai Mountain Village shifted to being tour guides.
The village became popular with international travelers, so homestays and hotels have mushroomed there.
Tens of years back, the place was a poor village, which saw most children work hard round the year.
In the past, only households which were rich in farms and buffaloes allowed their children, mainly boys, to attend school.
Most girls stayed home to take care of their younger siblings, keep chickens and pigs away from their homes, herded buffaloes, worked on terraced rice fields, and got married.
Thao Thi Tra, grandmother of six, tied the knot when she was young. She now has four children.
After she worked as a tour guide, her family’s financial situation improved, so her children took courses at school.
She also opened a homestay to serve tourists and increase income.
“I always desired to go to school, but my family was poor and the school was far from my house,” Tra recounted.
She said that she learned English while she was vending products at Sa Pa markets and meeting foreigners.
She gradually spoke English fluently.
“I initially thought I could use English to sell more goods. However, when communicating in English and having many friends, I preferred working as a tour guide to tell my guests stories about my ethnic minority community,” she said.
Ly Thi Cha, a local in Lao Chai Mountain Village, has passed a college entrance exam to major in tourism after many months of living in despair and hopelessness.
Her father is addicted to liquor and illicit drugs.
Meanwhile, her mother traveled to China to escape him after suffering his violent beatings.
Cha has had no contact with her mother since.
Her father left her and her two elder sisters to follow another woman, so the poor girls managed to live in poverty.
Cha earned her living as a hawker, and intended to leave school.
Luckily, she was adopted and could keep studying.
She studied English and became fluent in the foreign language.
When she was in high school, she engaged in various projects run by international organizations.
Another ethnic minority woman who can speak English proficiently is Thao Thi Tra, 45.
She only knows how to write her name in Vietnamese, and cannot read Vietnamese or English.