|Traditional occupation: International tourists visit a Cham brocade weaving village in Chau Phu District. An Giang Province received 2.4 million visitors in the first six months of this year, an increase of 22 per cent over last year. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan
by Trong Binh and Trung Hieu
Ali Dal, deputy chief priest of Eh San mosque, in the southern province of An Giang's An Phu District, is a happy man today.
His village and mosque are making a name as tourist hubs with more and more foreign tourists coming to his village, and to study Cham culture.
"We feel very proud of our mosque and culture," he said.
An Giang Province has nine villages with nearly 20,000 people with the Cham origin living here.
An Phu District alone is home to five Cham villages, of which Cham Da Phuoc Village in Da Phuoc Commune, where the mosque is located, is famous as a tourist site.
The Cham people in general and the Cham in An Giang in particular, earlier, led a quiet and secluded life, as they were influenced by numerous regulations in Islam.
The event where Cham girls performed on stage for the first time in 1982 was seen as a breakthrough in the mindset of the Cham in An Giang on the path to integration and development.
Ali Dal said, now every resident wants to actively introduce the community to visitors, and many youths voluntarily play guide to tourists who come there.
"This is also an opportunity for cultural exchanges and contributing to community development for the Cham," he said.
"My children have also opened souvenir stalls to sell products made by Cham people and also to increase our family income," Ali Dal said.
"Now nobody demeans us, but initially when we had just become tourist guides, many said we should not do so as these activities harm the traditional beauty of the Cham," Mah Ro Liep, a souvenir seller, said.
"When receiving tourists, I still wear the traditional costume and the Cham men's hat. I also tell visitors about our costumes," Liep said.
To woo tourists and introduce them to the intricacies of the Cham handicrafts, numerous families have set up looms alongside the stalls so tourists can watch them working.
Ay Sah, a woman owner of a souvenir stall in the village, explained the reasons for that.
"I have been promoting tourism here for almost 20 years now. I recognise that tourists would love to buy Cham textile products but they are afraid of fake goods from other places," she said.
"That's why we have arranged looms right next to the stalls with women sitting and weaving, so tourists are not afraid to purchase our textile products," she explained.
In this village, there are no negative reports or complaints from tourists about being treated badly, said deputy chief of the commune police, Doan Van Chol.
Visiting Cham Da Phuoc Village, people will also hear stories about the family of Sim Ta Lot.
According to the people here, Sim Ta Lot was very rich and was one of the few Vietnamese living in the US. He found that his people were still poor but his homeland had the potential to become a tourist destination, so he invested a lot of money for his descendants to do that.
He spent money on building roads and bridges and buying looms to weave Cham fabrics. Thanks to him, this village is widely known around the world.
"The old bridges were built with Sim's money so visitors could walk from the lower wharf to the mosque without getting wet and dirty from the mud, even during the floods. And the new bridges have been built by his descendants for international visitors from Victoria Hotel in Chau Doc for convenient access," Sa Mi Roh, a woman who owned a souvenir shop, said.
Most of Sim's children and grandchildren are doing tourism business.
Mah Ro Liep, who is also one of Sim's grandsons, said, "We are only interested in introducing visitors to the Cham culture, so they feel happy and help promote the image of the place when they leave, telling many more people to visit."
New promotion plans
Recently, with funds from the Dutch Farmers Association and the Farmers Association of An Giang Province, a cooperative for tourism development of the Cham in Chau Phong Village of Tan Chau Town was established, with many products on sale to attract visitors.
|Souvenir shopping: Visitors examine Cham handicraft products. — VNA/VNS Photo The Duyet
With a VND150 million (US$6,900) fund by the Dutch association and VND100 million ($4,600) from the An Giang association, the cooperative has been doing on the "versatile" model.
"Versatile means having many capabilities to connect and promote the strengths and potential of the land, the people and tourism here," said Nguyen Thanh Tung, head of the marketing unit of the Travel Centre of Farmers' Association of An Giang.
He said the project consists of combining and promoting the facilities available here like restoring the weaving village in Phum Xoai (Chau Phong Commune), which has been famous for a long time, and the rehabilitation and re-training of the performing artists of the Cham. Local residents have even set up a stage to perform for visitors.
To make it even more appealing and appetising for tourists, the bakers of the Cham will be specially selected and brought here to serve tourists.
The participants are determined to promote the potential of traditional weaving of the Cham.
"The showroom run by the co-operative will be fully equipped to teach embroidery and weaving to Cham children. That will serve two purposes. They will serve visitors who want to learn about embroidery and weaving, and also improve their own skills," said Issa-Sen, from the An Giang Muslim Community Representative Board.
"So far, towels, cloths and cakes were for the locals alone, but now these products are made for sale to tourists. We feel happy and also have more income," said a local woman, Ro Phi A.
"I have done many vocational courses on tourism and looking after visitors through the programmes funded by the Dutch Farmers Association. I would like to transfer these skills to others," she said.
"The establishment of the cooperative will be a good opportunity for locals to promote traditional crafts, which will generate more income for their families," she added.
Many woven products and cakes of the Cham were appreciated by tourists.
"The scarves I have bought from here are so beautiful and original. I have travelled a lot and bought many similar scarves from elsewhere, but those were counterfeit. And the cakes are delicious," said Nguyen Cong Son, a tourist from Ho Chi Minh City. — VNS