|Growing together: Visitors to My Hoa Hung Village pick maize during their homestay with a local farming family. — VNS Photos courtesy of Nguyen Thanh Tung
|Rural ramble: A local guide-cum-farmer takes visitors on a tour of My Hoa Hung Village.
|Splashing time: Travellers take a refreshing dip in the Tien River.
|Going with the flow:A riverboat takes travellers down the Hau River, which flows through An Giang Province's Tinh Bien and Tan Phu districts.
The tourism project in An Giang in which visitors to the province live and work with local families has proved such a success that the Netherlands Farmers Association plans to extend it for several more years. Ha Nguyen
Farmer Ho Quoc Tuan stands to earn up to VND20 million (US$1,000) a month from an agriculture homestay project funded by the Netherlands Farmers Association.
Tuan, who lives in My Hoa Hung Village, was among the first households in the southern province of An Giang to join the tourism project in 2007.
"Each project participant was given VND15 million ($750) to invest in building toilets and renovating bathrooms and my family invested our own money to repair our boats and ponds and upgrade bedrooms to be ready to welcome tourists," Tuan said.
Before the project began, villagers had no idea how to merge tourism into their basic infrastructure of beautiful farms, gardens, ponds and canals.
"The project equipped me with a knowledge of tourism and how to manage it around our farms. We were trained in how to serve visitors and learn English for basic communication with foreign travellers," Tuan said.
With the initial fund from the project, Tuan borrowed money from his relatives to build spacious rooms for homestay visitors, serving them with countryside dishes cooked by his specially trained family members.
"Most domestic and foreign visitors were interested in acting as farmers during their tour. We guided them to harvest paddy in the field or catch fish from our ponds, to cook for themselves.
"All my six family members have learned cooking techniques, food hygiene, sales and marketing. Now we all know how to cook to meet the different tastes of visitors.
"During the peak tourism season, I often employ a dozen villagers to help us serve travellers," Tuan said.
Vo Van Tung in Van Giao Village, of An Giang's Tinh Bien District, and Le Van Mang, in Phu Tan District's Tan Trung Village, are also project beneficiaries.
Mang said his family now earned between VND6-10 million ($300-$500) a month from tourism compared with VND1-1.5 million ($50-75) from farming.
"Apart from the homestay, we guide visitors to beautiful places, like the Tra Su cajeput forest, and help them catch fish in rivers and canals," Mang said.
Thanks to the project his family has escaped from hunger and poverty.
"In the past we were often faced with at least two months of hunger; now our living standards have improved, we have money to invest in raising chickens and pigs to serve visitors," Mang said.
Tourist Manh Hoang, from Ha Noi, said farm tourism was great.
"I took five-day leave to join my Korean friends on tour. At My Hoa Hung Village we travelled along roads with trees lining both sides and lay in a large garden under the trees, talking with each other.
"I would never have imagined that we could have enjoyed so much such an agricultural life," he said. "It was such fun picking fruit, watering vegetables, feeding fish and fishing in the rice fields, waist-deep in flood water."
He also enjoyed the fresh air and rural dishes cooked by the host families, he said.
"I particularly liked chicken raised by local households, which is much more delicious than chicken sold in urban markets," Hoang said.
Hoang's Korean friend, Lee Chong-min, said he was pleased with the clean toilet and local people's friendly behaviour. He also liked the food, especially the fish speciality of his host family. He said he would encourage his parents and his relatives to visit the farm.
However, Lee did have one minor suggestion. He wanted to buy several souvenirs but none were available. "It's a pity," he said, adding that An Giang tourism authorities should promote a souvenir industry to meet increasing demand.
Viet Nam Farmers Association member in An Giang, Nguyen Thanh Tung, is director of the project. He said the Agriculture Tourism project's first phase in 2007-09, costing 390,000 euro ($495,000), had proved successful, bringing high and stable incomes for more than 100 households in the province.
|Catch of the day: A visitor from HCM City proudly holds up the fish he caught in a local pond.
Thanks to the project's success, the Netherlands Farmers Association had decided to inject 328,650 euro ($418,000) into the second phase, which would be completed in 2014.
Tung said the project management board planned to set up marketing, training and financial management units this year to help the board run the project smoothly.
"Apart from running basic communicative English courses for project officials, we will send agriculture experts to consult with the 100 households on how to grow organic vegetables and raise poultry in their backyard, plus cooking technique and food hygiene," Tung said.
In addition, the management board would visit farmers and boost co-operation with other tourism partners and agriculture tourism destinations in the province to better serve visitors, Tung said.
In fact, the province had recently set up an Agriculture Tourism Centre to promote links with farmers and agriculture tourism.
"The centre will help farmers build their tourism plans, ensuring service quality and protecting the farmers' interests," Tung said.
The centre has designed attractive tourism destinations. They include the late President Ton Duc Thang's home village, the Floating Market and Long Xuyen Raft Village where visitors can boat on a river, bathe in mud, tour a fruit garden and visit an ancient house, and many other activities.
Tung said the Agriculture Tourism project in An Giang had shown a increase in visitors from 1,000 in 2008 to 7,000 in 2011.
The first three months of this year had 3,000 travellers, one-third of them foreigners, Tung said.
The project's second phase was expected to benefit 150 farmer households, or 50 more than the first phase, he said.
Although annual flooding had reduced homestay incomes, they were still much higher than from farming, Tung said.
An Giang is one of three provinces chosen for the project, along with Tien Giang in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta and the northern province of Lao Cai. — VNS