Fredo Bình, born in Paris of mixed French and Vietnamese parentage, came to settle in Vietnam in 1994 with a strong feeling of having returned home. He adopted the name ‘Bình’, meaning ‘peace’, to symbolize the peace that came after so many years of war.
With tremendous curiosity about the many different ethnicities and cultures here, Fredo took to the road with his Russian ‘Minsk’ motorbike and soon became a motorbike guide to support his young family. In 1997, he founded the tourist company, Compagnie Bourlingue (known as ‘Freewheelin’ Tours – Freewheeling Tours – in English). In the course of many tours, he developed warm relationships with people from different ethnic groups, mostly in the highlands of northern Vietnam, and cooperated with them to set up home stays in their villages. Despite the different ethnic cultures, they share a traditional sense of friendliness and hospitality towards guests. For Fredo, it was the right path to take: “Being of mixed ancestry myself, bringing western and Asian cultures together came naturally.”
Through Compagnie Bourlingue, the different participants met each other and began to exchange stories, skills and plans. Every year, a ‘Tet Fiesta Tour’ is organized to celebrate the Lunar New Year together. In 2010, the 14th Tet Fiesta Tour, a 10-day caravan through different villages, was held. Thus, a new shared culture has taken on a life of its own.
In 2007, together with families from Vu Linh Commune in Yen Bai Province, Fredo created the sustainable development project ‘LaVieVuLinh’. The project has three main parts :
• Educational : training local guides and providing hospitality training as well as teaching French and English
• Environmental : helping local people move towards sustainability in agriculture and agro-forestry and other forms of employment
• Eco-tourism : developing tourism in a way that respects the local culture and environment
The purpose of the LaVieVuLinh project: training and employing young people from different ethnic minority communities in such as way that they can become masters of their destiny.
Fredo Bình says, “There are many ways tourism can undermine both culture and environment and unfortunately there are operators who are willing to do so if it is profitable for them. I believe that the only solution to protecting culture and environment is to actively involve local communities in the process, helping them develop their own tools to decide and fashion the ways they meet the wider world.”
Over the past fifteen years, in cooperation with participating families, Fredo Bình has been able to carry out a number of successful development projects, including:
• Creation of a small museum featuring local culture in Cao Bang Province
• Construction of a bridge linking a village to its school during flood season in Lao Cai Province
• Setting up a small fish farm in Bac Can Province
• Establishing a nursery school and community ‘culture house’ in Yen Bai Province
• Helping to improve sanitary facilities through toilets and septic tanks at various locations
These experiences helped him to better understand difficulties and needs faced by ethnic communities throughout the Northern Highlands as well as providing a clearer sense of how tourism could be helpful to them.