|Young learners: A teacher takes a class at a primary school in Tan Thong Hoi Commune.
|How green is my garden: A farmer waters vegetables in Tan Thong Hoi Commune.
|Lucrative business: Raising dairy cows is a profitable undertaking in Tan Thong Hoi Commune. VNS Photos Thanh Vu
|IT training: Farmers learn computer skills at the commune's Culture House. — VNS Photos by Phuong Vy
|Cake work: Women in Tan Thong Hoi Commune make rice cakes. — VNS Photo Manh Linh
|Flourishing business: Farmers tend their orchid garden in Tan Thong Hoi Commune.
As part of the country's rural initiative, several communes outside HCM City have paved roads, expanded farms, improved literacy rates and reduced poverty – all in just three years. Thien Ly
Approaching Tan Thong Hoi Commune on a recent sunlit afternoon, I was struck by the verdant landscape and pristine paved roads leading to cosy hamlets.
I was heading towards the commune's Chanh Hamlet, which is located in HCM City's rural Cu Chi District, where Hoang Thi Thu Hong, 56, was waiting for me. As I arrived, Hong greeted me with a cheerful smile.
After taking some tea, we toured her luxuriant garden and spacious breeding facilities, where she grows more than 2,000 orchids and raises 12 milk cows and four sows.
"Every five or seven days, I earn nearly VND1 million (US$50) from the orchid garden, and my family also benefits from the breeding facilities," she told me.
We walked to an underground tank built next to the breeding facilities.
"This is a biogas tank that contains all the waste water and droppings from the breeding area," she said. "Thanks to the tank, my family has enough gas for cooking, which has helped us save a significant amount of money."
"In the past, each month we spent VND400,000 ($20) for cooking, but now this isn't necessary. And the environment around my house has become much cleaner and fresher."
Hong and her family are one of the many beneficiaries of a new rural area programme that the city government has carried out in Tan Thong Hoi Commune.
"In the past, my family did not have enough money or the necessary farming techniques to develop a large orchid garden and breeding facilities, so our income at that time could not cover our costs. But I was able to borrow VND70 million ($3,500) from the bank because of the new programme, and I attended a course in orchid growing, too," she said.
After visiting Hong, I drove to the house of Dang Van Cu, one of the thousands of farmers benefiting from the new rural development programme.
"We now have access to bank loans and can increase our incomes," said Cu, who lives in the commune's Trung hamlet. He owns a 1,500-sq.m bitter melon garden that yields 318kg of bitter melon each harvest.
"I can earn at least VND10 million (US$500) a month now," he told me.
Another farmer benefiting from the programme, Nguyen Thi Tram, who lives in Tien hamlet, has a large garden with around 4,000 orchid plants.
Previously, she could grow only 400 plants because of limited capital, but now her family earns nearly VND12 million a month.
Tram said the new programme had provided funds, new jobs and professional training, especially for young people.
Indeed, a new prosperity can be seen in Tan Thong Hoi Commune, with its solidly built houses bordered by orchards laden with fruit, clusters of flowers growing along the roads, paved inter-hamlet roads, and even more significantly, the bright smiles of its residents.
Tan Thong Hoi Commune is known as the "heroic iron land", a formerly poor area once heavily damaged by war.
Today, it is a bright spot in the city's campaign to build new rural areas.
It was one of the country's first 11 communes to participate in the Government's pilot programme for the development of new rural areas, which began in 2009.
The main focus of the programme is to increase the prosperity of rural people in Viet Nam.
The emphasis is on improving infrastructure, production, environmental protection, livelihood and culture, as well as the creation of a basic political system.
Each commune needs an average of VND150 billion ($7.5 million). Seven to 10 per cent of that amount is mobilised from the local community, 20 per cent from businesses and co-operatives, 26 per cent from production development credit loans, and 45-50 per cent from Official Development Assistance (ODA) from foreign donors.
Among the 11 projected communes, Tan Thong Hoi has taken the lead with several successes.
Tran Van Chi, chairman of the commune's People's Committee, said that after three years of implementing the pilot to build a new rural model, the commune had completed 18 out of 19 programme goals.
The goals involve work on planning, transportation, irrigation, culture and telecommunications infrastructure as well as power, housing, labour structure and poverty reduction.
The commune now has 50 out of the 51 planned roads, with a total length of 32.6m. Eight irrigation channels totalling 7,886m have been built, watering nearly 400ha of cultivated land.
In addition, all households in the commune now have access to the national grid.
"The results in some cases have been really satisfactory, or have even exceeded targets. To date, everything has been met, except we need to build more schools," Chi said.
To implement the rural development programme, Tan Thong Hoi restructured its economy, adjusted land-use planning and built infrastructure to develop agriculture and industry as well as handicraft and service industries.
The result is that the number of local people participating in agricultural production fell 33.6 per cent in 2008 to only 14.8 per cent of the commune's total population of 24,392.
The remainder are involved in industry (52.6 per cent), handicrafts, services and trade areas, according to Chi.
In an effort to restructure the economy, the commune set up four new co-operatives specialising in orchid-growing, ornamental fish-raising and milk-cow and python breeding, which created 500 new jobs, with incomes averaging VND1.8 million ($90) to 2.5 million ($125) per month.
As a result, the commune's unemployment rate fell from 6.7 per cent in 2008 to 2.4 per cent.
The commune's efforts in restructuring animal and crop systems have also improved the effectiveness of land use.
In the past, each hectare in the commune could generate only VND26 million ($1,300) a year for farmers, but now that has risen to VND182 million ($9,100).
The living standards of people in the commune have soared, with per capita income averaging VND28.6 million ($1,400) per year, up 1.54 times compared with VND18.6 million ($925) in 2009. That figure is 1.15 times higher than Cu Chi District's per capita income.
The number of poor households with an average income of less than VND12 million ($600) per year has fallen from 22 per cent in 2008 to nearly 8 per cent.
Today, no makeshift or dilapidated houses can be seen in Tan Thong Hoi.
Environmental beautification and protection has also improved. About 7,100 trees have been planted along roads and at public places, and 84 biogas tanks and 1,053 composting toilets have been built. And all households have fresh water to use.
Most of the roads are now paved with asphalt. The commune has 125 small and large roads with a combined length of 81km. They include 13km of asphalted inter-commune roads and 58km of asphalted and paved inter-hamlet roads.
To complete all of the work, the commune encouraged local residents to donate time during their normal working days to help build infrastructure projects or donate land for new public utilities.
To enable the building of roads, local farmers donated 34,000sq.m of land and some of their facilities (including buildings) valued at a total of VND60 billion ($3 million).
Although the commune still needs several new schools, it has an excellent education system, with all of its schools meeting national standards. It also has a national-standard clinic with 10 beds and seven health workers.
To date, all children of school age attend school. About 6,760 children who were once illiterate can now read and write.
Around 51 per cent of the commune's total labourers have been trained professionally, and 76.1 per cent have access to health insurance.
"We achieved all of this because we fully tapped all our internal sources as well as the community's strengths," Chi said.
Significantly, the total cost to implement the rural-area programme over the last three years was VND613 billion ($36 million), with VND118.2 billion ($5.88 million) contributed by local enterprises and individuals.
"The commune residents gave active support to the Government and the city's programme to build new rural areas," he said. "Additionally, local cadres and the public have seriously followed the guidelines of the government and city on building new rural areas."
During a working visit to Tan Thong Hoi, President Truong Tan Sang praised the commune's achievements and the endeavors made by its Party Committee, local administration and people.
He said the success was partly due to the Party and administration members, who closely monitored programme activities and listened to the residents who were active participants in the programme.
The entire political system had put its strength behind the programme in an attempt to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas and cities and localities in the country, he added.
Ho Xuan Hung, deputy minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the new rural areas (NRAs) in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta differed somewhat from those in the northwestern region, or in suburban areas and provinces in the central region.
But they all share the common feature of improving rural areas to help farmers earn a comfortable living.
Most of the farmers are willing to join the NRA effort because they are aware of the differences from the traditional, old-style rural areas. In addition, they know what farmers must do to create NRAs, and how they can benefit from them.
Nguyen Dang Khoa, deputy minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, said that "local farmers have a full understanding of the benefits the programme can bring, so they voluntarily participate in it with all their available sources".
Le Thanh Hai, secretary of the Municipal Party Committee, said the development of new rural areas in six communes in the city, with Tan Thong Hoi being the pioneer over the last three years, has proven to be an appropriate policy.
"It has contributed to creating a new face for rural areas and a better life for rural people," he said. "It also shows that the city has enough resources and conditions to replicate the new rural-area models in many other localities, thus contributing to the city's sustainable development," Hai said.
Following my day-long visits to local farmers in several communes, I returned to a newly asphalted inter-commune road, breathing the fresh air scented with the local flowers and hoping that all of our country's rural people can live in areas like Tan Thong Hoi and enjoy a happy life there. — VNS