|Vibrant: The Mekong River Delta boasts a variety of landscapes, but is dominated by flat flood plains in the south. Dubbed a "biological treasure trove" with unique sceneries, the region is one of the most popular destinations in Viet Nam for both local and foreign visitors. — All photos by Thien Ly
The vast natural and cultural treasures of southern Viet Nam, exemplified by unique folk traditions and festivals, lush green rice fields, forests and stunningly beautiful islands, will be the fitting focus of National Tourism Year 2016. Nhat Ha reports.
Mother Nature seems to have a soft corner for the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam.
It is one of those places you can never tire of visiting. No matter how many frequent-road-miles you accumulate returning to this verdant outpost of 13 provinces and a city, there is always a "new" island or village to explore or a "mind-blowing" vista to discover.
|Floral treat: For over 100 years Sa Dec Flower Village near the Tien River has been renowned as the land of thousands of varieties of exotic flowers and plants.
For instance, if you were to visit the Lang Sen Wetland Reserve in this time, in the last quarter of the year, the high-water season, the sight of trees meditating in "knee-deep" water, undisturbed by the lushness and colours they take on, or, for that matter, the fragrance of the cajeput flowers, the pleasing cacophony of birds and other creatures that inhabit the area, can send you into a trance of your own.
You can choose to remain in that trance for all the seven hours that a motorboat round-trip takes through the reserve.
If your eyes do not close in the contemplation encouraged by the trees, you will notice that the waters themselves are putting on a show for you, displaying a surprising range of colours, including blue and turquoise interspersed with flashes of silver and purple patches, thanks to the diverse marine plant life that the reserve is home to. You can imagine a photographer's eyes light up at these colours, rendered even more magical as the setting sun decides to get into the act, inserting its own multi-hued glow into the proceedings.
It is also well worth the effort to keep a close look out for bird's nests. If you are fortunate, you can spot some holding small eggs or even hatched chicks being fed by their mothers.
|Hidden away: Khmer pagodas can be found across the Mekong River Delta.The Hang Pagoda in Tra Vinh Province is one of the most spectacular, but is not often mentioned in travel guide books.
Adding to the enjoyment of nature at the reserve are several typical food specialties of the Mekong Delta, including boiled snails, fried catfish, grilled snakehead fish rolled in young lotus leaf, ca linh (henicorhynchus fish) sour soup and dien dien flowers.
The Lang Sen Wetland Reserve has been described as a wetland complex in Dong Thap Muoi (the Plain of Reeds), comprising "a mosaic of seasonally flooded grassland, open swamp, riverine Melaleuca and mixed forest".
The Lang Sen Reserve, sprawling over 4,800 hectares in Long An Province, was established in 2004. Its flora and fauna, estimated at 60,000 animals and plants, includes 156 species of plants and approximately 149 species of water birds, particularly around 25,000 storks.
|Beauty of youth: Bashful smiles of Khmer children.
Sadly, several of these birds are listed in Viet Nam and the World's Red Book of rare and threatened species, but a recent increase in the variety of birds spotted in the park is said to be a positive sign.
Last November, the reserve was recognized as the 7th Ramsar site (wetland holding significant international importance in terms of biodiversity and conversation) in Viet Nam and the 2,227th in the world.
As noted earlier, the Lang Sen Reserve is only one of the striking examples of Mother Nature's bounty that the Mekong Delta enjoys.
Two other Ramsar sites -, the Ca Mau National Park in the eponymous province and the Tram Chim National Park in the Dong Thap Province, are also located in the delta, drawing increasing numbers of tourists, scientists and researchers.
Among the islands that the Delta boasts, the province of Kien Giang enjoys the lion's share, with Phu Quoc, Nam Du, Ba Lua, Hon Son, Hon Tre, Hai Tac and Phu Tu each laying claim to unique charms.
Of these, the heart-shaped Phu Quoc Island is the largest, and has already become famous for its stunning beaches, friendly locals, and superb scuba diving and snorkeling locations.
Why it's unique
Just a 45-minute flight away from HCM City, Phu Quoc is inarguably the jewel in the Mekong Delta's crown.
What makes this island unique is that its stupendous beauty is accompanied by a dark history redeemed by heroic resistance to oppression.
|Island paradise: Phu Quoc Island has something for everyone. It is ringed by over a dozen bays and beaches, some with yellow sand, others with brilliant strips of white, an archipelago of islets off its southern coast, a jungle-covered interior and a handful of fishing villages. — Photo baoxaydung.com.vn
Sadly, it is its pristine mountains and jungles, not to mention its relative isolation as an island that made it a notorious site for jailing political prisoners. The prison, which once held up to 40,000 inmates (1973), was first built in 1949-1950 by the French. It became infamous for routine, inhuman torture of prisoners.
However, the island is also seen by all Vietnamese as a symbol for unwavering resistance against colonialists and imperialists, and a monument for the nation's never-say-die spirit.
Today, decades after the clouds of war have dispersed, Phu Quoc lures visitors with soothing ambience of peace, romance and discovery.
It is estimated that the island is home to virgin forests of over 37,000 hectares. Its white sandy beaches, offshore coral gardens and diverse flora and fauna, make it an ideal eco-tourism destination.
A good place to explore, discover and enjoy the island's special treats is the Phu Quoc National Park, which is a part of the Kien Giang biosphere reserve, recognised as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2006.
One of the most attractive places in the island district that teems with natural attractions, the park is a place where one can enjoy the experience of being a part of pristine forests, mountains and the sea.
Phu Quoc is also famous, within and outside Viet Nam, for traditional products like fish sauce and relatively new ones like black pepper and cultivated pearls.
The island's growing popularity is reflected in a robust 30 per cent annual increase in the number of tourists over the last three recent years.
In the first nine months of last year, the island welcomed 1.2 million tourists, exceeding annual plans and contributing significantly to the province's yearly tourism income of VND1.3 trillion a year.
The National Tourism Year 2016, which has adopted "Exploring the Southern Land" as its theme, will be hosted by Kien Giang Province in co-operation with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Mekong Delta region and six other provinces and cities.
A total of 65 programmes and events will be held through the year, highlighting eco-tourism, sea-island packages, tours to craft villages, tours to festivals and religion sites, MICE tours and tours connecting Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam.
In January, a ceremony will be held in Kien Giang to announce the National Tourism Year. On this occasion, the U Minh Thuong National Park will be awarded a certificate recognising it as the fourth Ramsar site in the Mekong delta region.
Festivals commemorating local heroes and historical events will be held in the following months, including a ceremony marking the death anniversary of the nation's legendary founders and national heroes - the Hung Kings and Nguyen Trung Truc. Other cultural and sports activities including an industrial trade fair, an international semi-marathon race and a cycling race will also be held in the southern region.
The official launch of the National Tourism Year will be held on April 9 in the island district of Phu Quoc. VNS
It was also worth noting that 30 per cent of the visitors to the Island this year were foreigners.
Phu Quoc aims to attract 2-3 million visitors annually by 2020, and to increase the percentage of foreign tourists.
In a master plan approved by the Prime Minister, the island is to be designated as a special economic zone with a centre for high-quality eco-tourism, a trade and luxury services area, and a high-tech area.
Janathan Tizzard, head of the Valuation and Research Teams at Cushman & Wakefield, Viet Nam, was cited in a report released early this year as saying that with its natural beauty and proximity to HCM City and other populous urban areas, Phu Quoc has great potential as a tourism hotspot.
Le Van Thi, chairman of the Kien Giang Province's People's Committee, said: "Since the Prime Minister issued Decision 80 in 2013 on a special development mechanism for the Phu Quoc Island, the district has been upgraded to a grade-two town. It now has a seaport, an airport and clean water supply facilities, access to the national power grid; and a north-south road.
"The island has been offering investors incentives on corporate tax and personal income tax, among others. It has also exempted value-added tax for tourists at the Phu Quoc International Airport while providing them with a 30-day visa exemption."
Thi said he was confident that the island would attract more investors who would fuel its tourism growth.
Statistics back his confidence. As of last September, Phu Quoc had attracted nearly 200 projects with a combined investment capital of VND168 trillion (approximatedly US$8 billion), including 21 foreign invested projects.
Of these, 23 worth VND25,811 billion have begun operations and 14 others worth VND11,383 billion are under construction.
Nguyen Van Tuan, director of the Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism, said that the presence of many large investors like Vingroup, BIM Group and Sun Group emphasises the island's potential.
To date, Vingroup has taken the lead with VND9trillion ($400 million) in investments. Sun Group comes next with more than VND8.62 trillion ($383.4 million), followed by Milton with VND5 trillion ($222 million), BIM Group with VND1.26 trillion ($56.3 million) and CEO Group with VND1.25 trillion ($55.91 million).
"Most of these high profile tourism projects are involved in construction of resorts, restaurants, hotels and entertainment centres of 5 or 6 star standards," said Huynh Quang Hung, vice chairman of the provincial People's Committee.
With all these grand plans, it is not surprising that Phu Quoc will be at the heart of National Tourism Year 2016, which will focus on the southern region in general. — VNS