|The Ham Rong Bridge crossing the Ma River has become a symbol of Thanh Hoa.
by Vuong Bach Lien
Contemplating the immense pine hill surrounding the new Zen Buddhist temple (Truc Lam monastery) on Ham Rong Mountain, Nguyen Thi Xuan experienced the most peaceful moment of her life.
Ham Rong Mountain is some 3km from Thanh Hoa city centre,
"This is the first time I'm visiting the monastery. This time I have come with my big family. Several members of my family live in different cities. I live not far from here, so I'll often come back here," she said.
Her big family took beautiful pictures at the monastery to preserve them as the souvenirs of their trip. They said they will also take time out to travel to other regions in Thanh Hoa Province, to know their native land better.
Land of cultural heritages
Thanh Hoa Province, located 150km from Ha Noi, has been selected to host the 2015 National Tourism Year, themed "Connecting World Heritage". The province is known for its famous historical sites and stunning natural landscapes. It has 1,535 historical and cultural sites, 145 of them are national heritage sites, and 200 traditional festivals.
|The biography of King Le Thai To was written on the Vinh Lang Stele at the Lam Kinh historical relic in Tho Xuan District .
At the dawn of human life, the province was home to ancient people. Several excavations here have suggested that primitive people, the earliest ape-men, lived in Do Mountain and in Con Moong Cave since the Old Stone Age, dating back to 18,000 years ago.
Later, the discovery of archaeological objects here dating back to the Dong Son civilisation (2,000 years ago) once again proved the long existence of this historic land.
Located in North Central Viet Nam, Thanh Hoa is also known as "the place of holy land" and "the land of kings," where many outstanding people were born.
Tourists can discover the native land of Ba Trieu (Madame Trieu) (born in AD248) who fought against Chinese invaders in the 3rd century. They can visit a temple dedicated to this national heroine on Gai Mountain, Hau Loc District.
Local people are also proud of the Lam Kinh historical relic in Tho Xuan District, which is a sacred land called "the miraculous land of outstanding persons". It is the native land of national hero Le Loi, leader of the Lam Son uprising that chased away the Chinese Ming invaders after 10 years of struggle that was full of hardships (1418-27). The historical relic is now an eternal resting place of the royal families of the Le dynasty.
Six hundred years have passed. With many upheavals in the country's history and nature, the site was downgraded. Since then, many relics have been reinstated, restored, and repaired to somewhat re-establish the original appearance of Lam Kinh historical relic. Some ancient trees dating back to 500 years can be found here. In 1962, the site was classified as a national heritage and as a special national heritage in 2012.
The province is also home to the World Heritage Ho dynasty's citadel. Constructed using massive granite blocks by the Ho dynasty (1400-07) in Vinh Loc District, it is considered as the only stone citadel remaining in Southeast Asia and is one of the few remaining ones in the world. More than 600 years ago, the Vietnamese people mastered the skill of cutting and assembling stones, and built the citadel to an average height of five to six metres by overlapping block granites without using any adhesive.
Back to Thanh Hoa City in the province, tourists can discover the 600ha Ham Rong cultural historic area that houses several well-known sites. The most easily recognisable one is the Ham Rong Bridge, which is famous for being a lifeline for transportation, connecting the North and South during the anti-American war. The US aircraft tried hard to destroy the bridge, to prevent the flow of supplies for the liberation force in the South.
|Sam Son beach, located 16km from the city centre, has become a popular destination and attracts a number of Vietnamese people in summer.
The Hill C4 battlefield on Dragon Mountain is well-known for its many glorious victories with Thanh Hoa's people and armed forces protecting the Ham Rong Bridge during the war. The hill has been ranked as a national monument.
The province is not only rich with historical heritage, but also with beautiful, natural landscapes.
They include the romantic Rong (Dragon) Mountain, overlooking the city centre and the Ma River; the 50-ha picturesque Ben En National Park covering primitive forests, hills, streams, and rivers; the Cam Luong "holy" fish stream; the Tu Thuc Grotto, and Tinh Gia and Sam Son beaches.
The region is also famous for its craft villages known for bronze tambours, mat weaving, silk, and delicious specialities such as Nga Son wine, Sam Son raw fish salad, and fermented pork rolls.
The sleeping princess
According to the statistics of Thanh Hoa Province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, last year, the province attracted 4.5 million tourists and only 100,000 of them were foreigners, a number that is still modest in comparison with the importance of the historical and cultural values of the province.
The province is still a "sleeping princess" who needs to be awakened by more tourists.
When talking about Thanh Hoa, many Vietnamese people only know about the popular Sam Son beach. They rush to the beach in summer.
|The Cam Luong "holy" fish stream at the foot of Truong Sinh Mountain in Cam Thuy district is at its most beautiful in spring and summer,
Several foreign tourists did not know about Thanh Hoa when they planned their trip to Viet Nam. Some others heard the name but did not know it was an interesting destination.
"I've never heard of the name Thanh Hoa. I didn't see the name in Routard, [a French travel guide]. I'll search for it on the Internet and plan a trip there if I find something that interests me," says Julien Desrousseaux, a French man who has been living in Viet Nam for six months.
Trinh Dinh Duong, head of Lam Kinh Historical Heritage Managing Board, says the site welcomes on average 100,000 tourists per year, but the number of foreign tourists is still very modest.
"During the first five months of the year, we received 45,000 tourists, mostly Vietnamese. We have guides who speak English and hope to welcome more foreign visitors who are curious to discover Viet Nam's history," says Duong.
According to Vuong Hai Yen, deputy director of the provincial tourism department, the lack of professionalism in the province's tourism promotion explains why the site and other tourist spots are still unknown to many foreign tourists and cannot attract many Vietnamese people.
"Some of the people working in the tourism sector have not recognised the importance of tourism in the socio-economic development of the region and have not considered tourism as an economic sector. So they have not thought much about the ways to promote tourism. The province started thinking of promoting its tourism only in the last few years, so it has not been able to create a trademark yet," Yen remarks.
The other reasons for the province's poor tourism performance is unattractive features such as limited infrastructure and the limited professional knowledge of people working in the business.
She adds that to connect tourist spots in the region is also a challenge because of the large area of the province (11,000sq.km).
"This is one of the largest provinces in the country. The most remote village is some 300km from the city's centre. The tourist sites are situated far from each other, so it's not easy to connect tours between the sites," she notes.
Many Vietnamese tourists also complain about some unfriendly practices of local people, especially vendors and salesmen who often raise their prices too high for tourists from other regions.
"In Thanh Hoa City, I had to pay a high price for meals. The price was doubled. The sellers recognised I was not from the region from my accent," reveals Nguyen Binh Minh from Bac Ninh Province.
New face, new image
To attract more tourists to the province, Yen suggests that people working in the tourism sector should be trained how to serve tourists. Over the last five years, the province spent 400 billion dong (US$200,000) for restoring 200 heritage sites.
In April, the provincial culture and tourism department launched a new Ma river tour.
Tourists can enjoy landscapes along the river banks and visit historic and cultural sites as well as listen to traditional music on boats.
|Cha tom (shrimp cake) is one of several local specialities.
The tours, which start from the Ham Rong Tourism Boat Wharf in Hoang Hoa District, will take tourists upstream or downstream the Ma.
More over, the province will cooperate with established tourist cities, such as Ninh Binh, Hue, Quang Nam, and HCM city, to create new tours and attract more tourists to the region.
Pham Hung Hau, head of Cam Luong holy fish stream managing board in mountainous Cam Thuy District, is planning to create new tours for adventurous tourists to discover remote villages from the fish stream.
To attract more tourists, the province is also planning to create a new image.
Work will begin in June in the Truong Le Mountain ecotourism area, 16km from Thanh Hoa city centre.
The 5,500-billion dong project will consist of a golf course and an international luxury resort. According to an approved plan, Truong Le Mountain ecological-cultural tourism zone covers about 230 hectares and will be developed into an attractive tourist destination and a world-class resort.
Yen says that the province expects to attract five million tourists in 2016, bringing in a revenue of US$158,6 million.
The province hopes to turn tourism into a key economic sector by 2020 and draw as many as 230,000 international visitors and 9 million domestic travellers by 2020.
The National Tourism Year is expected to be a golden occasion offering the Thanh Hoa tourism to renew its image in the eyes of tourists. — VNS