Instead of taking conventional tours with professional guides and pre-chosen spots, green-fingered tourists can now design their own excursions along shady canals in a Mekong Delta province.
Conventional eco-tours typically adopt fixed itineraries, leaving tourists with few chances to explore the most inaccessible nooks and crannies and behold less-seen, pristine scenery.
Visitors to Vinh Long Province are no exception, as they are taken to much-frequented orchards and eco-tourism sites by guides or boat steersmen.
Steersmen can even carry two or three groups of visitors to the same site at or around the same time.
Minh Uy, a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper contributor, recently roamed into “uncharted” waters for three hours on a motorized sampan.
He and his companions hired a lidded sampan capable of seating more than 10 passengers at a wharf at Tien River Park, which invariably teems with commotion from scores of tourist-laden boats.
The Tien River is the main northern branch of the Mekong River that starts in Cambodia and snakes through a number of Vietnamese provinces in the southern region before entering the East Vietnam Sea.
Having had enough of conventional eco-tours, Uy asked his steersman to keep his boat running freely on canals so that he and the other tourists could regard the rustic landscape with composure and unwind to the refreshing breezes.
One of the helmsmen revealed his clients sometimes ask him to manipulate his sampan into less-frequented ditches which boast shady canopy and stunning scenery.
“There’re canals which I had never rode through, until my clients asked me to. We steersmen generally take the major waterways to save time,” he admitted.
He once chanced upon a luxuriant bush of cypress, the dappled shade of which appealed so immensely to his clients that some of them failed to return to his boat on time.
His boat was thus grounded for a few hours to the other tourists’ delight.
“I was on edge then as the delay meant I would not be able to carry more holidaymakers and thus would earn much less that day. Luckily, the greatly amused tourists gave me generous tips,” he added.
Sampan rental costs only VND400,000-500,000 (US$17-22) for a waterway excursion to villages making candy and com (green rice flakes) and fruit gardens.
Meanwhile, it costs tour-goers around VND1 million ($44) to hire a sampan for a ‘roaming’ river trip and get ready for its singular offers.
A wide array of dishes, particularly specialties, are readily available at Vinh Long Market or prepared in advance by some fruit garden owners.
Sometimes groups bring their own cooked food, beer and ice and throw party-like get-togethers on the hired sampan.
Minh Vuong, a patron tour-goer to Vinh Long Province, recalled the difficulties he had persuading local steersmen to give him rambles instead of stopping at fixed tourist spots.
The steersmen showed initial reluctance over concerns that tourists would make a mess on their boat and they would not earn as much as they do with conventional eco-tours.
Vuong finally got their nods.
Xuan Trong, another regular taker of such tours, also reveled in the idea of singing their hearts out while wandering afloat that his friends came up with.
Uy, the Tuoi Tre contributor, recalled he and his high school classmates hired a sampan for their first waterway outing quite a long time ago.
The eye-opening excursion led them to relics across Vinh Long, their hometown, including former landlords’ edifices, century-old pagodas perched along the river and Vinh Long Van Thanh Shrine.
To their amazement, the students realized the readily accessible relics by road could also be reached by waterway.
Minh Tri, owner of a dental clinic chain in Ho Chi Minh City, has purchased a 2.2-hectare plot on Tan Tao Islet in Long Ho District out of his ceaseless passion for such tours.
“It’s like destiny. Once I dozed off in a hammock hung under the leafy canopy along a canal. When I got up, I was amazed at the house owner’s hospitality and bustling homestay services for foreign tourists in the neighborhood,” he explained.
His garden is now where steersmen drop by for food and drink supplies and also where city dwellers can immerse themselves in pastoral delights and become one with nature.
Most eco-tour goers and steersmen agree that food savored on the river tastes different than when eaten on land.
“We asked the steersmen to take us to My Thuan Bridge [on Vinh Long’s side] before letting us ramble for a few hours to reach Ben Tre Province,” a group of tourists told Uy.
“We had the engine shut down and unwound to the melodious vong co [traditional southern music] pieces in the absence of its purrs,” they added.
The pastoral waterway landscape also makes a striking backdrop for bridal photos.
Thum, another local steersman, disclosed many couples have hired him and his sampan for bridal photo shoots.
“I kept running my boat around and around on the canals to scour for lovely spots for their photos. They asked me to stop at some which I initially found not alluring enough but later looked dazzling in their photos,” he shared.
Some years later, some of these married couples returned and asked him to get them back to their photo shoot settings.
“I couldn’t remember all of the spots as several of them have changed beyond recognition. So the couples went on a new tour,” Thum added.
Nguyet Cam takes immense pride in her original bridal photos which accentuate the unique aquatic setting and locals’ hospitality.
“Some cheery residents even volunteered to ‘act’ in the shoot, resulting in one-of-a-kind bridal photos,” she noted.
“It is a lot of fun riding for such shoots. The brides and grooms often give me tips,” Thum added.
He was, however, reluctant to carry photographers who often wade in mud to search for vantage points to take photos and leave dirty footsteps all over his sampan.
Green-fingered tourists can hire sampans in Cai Be Town in Tien Giang Province and take three-hour rides all the way to Vinh Long Province.
All tourist boats must be armed with life jackets and buoys as stipulated by law.
Tourists should request that steersmen show them how to put on the jackets and buoys properly to make sure their trips are fun-packed and safe.