By Lê Hương & Hồ Hoàng
Hundreds of boats wait for passengers at a dock on a bright, sunny morning.
We're at Tam Cốc Wharf, in Ninh Hải Commune, Hoa Lư District, the northern province of Ninh Bình in late May.
From time to time, some visitors arrive and take a boat for a cruise, which takes some two hours on the Ngô Đồng River, through three caves along the stream and yellow ripe floating rice fields.
Normally at this time of the year, the wharf would be a bustling hive of activity, with hundreds of tourists jostling for a spot on a boat. It's the best season to visit one of the most stunning rice fields in the north of Việt Nam.
A couple of boats carrying visitors break the silence on the river among the high karst mountains. Their laughter startles some birds flying off from the rice fields.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated tourism hotspots across the world and Ninh Bình has been no exception, with visitor numbers and revenue down.
But with the pandemic largely controlled in Việt Nam and domestic travel possible again, recovery is the word on everybody's lips.
Very few boats are carrying passengers to a cruise on the Ngô Đồng River these days compared to the past. VNS Photos Đoàn Tùng
Boats float amid the fragrance of ripe rice on the cool immense space that has no sounds but the birds twittering, frogs croaking and oars splashing, making visitors feel as if they were flying above clear water full of green moss.
Climbing up on a karst mountain just above the first cave, Nguyễn Hồ Việt, a tourist from Hà Nội, takes a rest with his friends. From the high peak, he can see the whole rice field zigzagging along the stream. The floating rice field painting is bordered with mountains that run to the end of the blue skyline.
The spectacular scene of yellow floating rice fields in Tam Cốc. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng
“This is an ideal place to take photos both in the morning and in the afternoon,” he tells Việt Nam News. “From this point, we can see the S-line of the river, a stunning view like that in many posters advertising Việt Nam’s tourism.”
Việt says he departed with a friend from Hà Nội at 2am to reach the site in time to catch the sunrise. They then toured around the area and now wait to see the sunset before returning late in the evening.
“This is my first time here in Tam Cốc,” he says. “I have been to many other places in the north to take photos of the rice fields. I see it’s spectacular here in Tam Cốc when the rice gets yellow as this is water pouring season on terraced rice fields in northern mountainous provinces.
“I highly recommend people to come here to see this stunning beauty.”
Locals start to harvest rice. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng
Việt also says he is impressed with locals’ enthusiasm to welcome visitors.
“I have no way to compare the number of tourists this period this year against the same period before COVID-19 as I am here for the first time,” he says.
“But I see the locals all warmly welcome tourists. Especially the way they indulge us, photo hunters. The boat people are so helpful by telling us where and when to go to take the best pictures.”
Lê Hồng Luyến, another visitor from Hà Nội, chose a mid-week day to take her whole family to Ninh Bình for a holiday.
“My family, adults and children, enjoys the trip very much,” she says.
“The scene is so beautiful as harvest season is approaching. The atmosphere is so fresh. We're staying in a nearby homestay. The hosts treat us so warmly, like family members.”
Việt and Luyến are among the hundreds of tourists who have come to visit Ninh Bình after social distancing was eased.
Break to serve better
Nguyễn Thị Dịu, who runs the five-room Tam Cốc Riverside Homestay, welcomes her first guests after closing for nearly two months due to COVID-19.
“We closed right after the outbreak of the pandemic in Việt Nam,” she says.
“During the break time, we cared for the garden again, planted more flowers and improved our facilities to get ready for re-opening. Now, there are more and more Vietnamese visitors flocking to see the ripe rice fields."
Dịu now offers a special price of VNĐ500,000 (US$22) per room per night including breakfast, half the price before the pandemic.
She also offers a free foot massage service at night. She says she intends to build a swimming pool in her garden to perfect her facility.
Dịu strongly believes that tourism will recover soon in the near future.
“Our Government has applied very effective methods to curb the spread of the virus,” she said. “Now, when we receive guests, we ask them to fill in a health report form so that the local authorities can get the information and travel history of the visitors.”
Tam Cốc is home to more than 200 homestays and hotels, most offering 5-10 rooms.
The cruise takes visitors to three caves on the Ngô Đồng River, passing karst mountains and floating rice fields. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng
According to Nguyễn Văn Hoạt, chairman of Ninh Hải Commune’s People’s Committee, about 500 local households plant 19 hectares of rice in Tam Cốc area.
“Every year, we encourage farmers to take great care of their crops so that the rice matures in all the fields at the same time, offering spectacular scenery,” he says.
He says before the pandemic, Tam Cốc received some 40,000-50,000 visitors a month, most of them foreigners.
The disease has made the number drop to 10,000 visitors a month, most of whom are Vietnamese.
“Summer is normally low season in Tam Cốc as Vietnamese people prefer the sea to mountains,” he says. “Yet I strongly believe that from August to the end of the year, more visitors will return. We estimate the number of visitors per month will reach 30,000 at the end of the year.”
Farmer Đỗ Thị Vân, who works in Tam Cốc Tourism site as a boat rower, says her income has been seriously affected due to COVID-19.
She and her husband each earned some VNĐ4 million (US$170) a month from working as boat rowers before the pandemic.
Her family also has a 0.1 ha rice field, which brings 500-600kg of paddy rice every year.
Still, the boats and rice don't bring in enough income for her four-member family, so she and her husband do embroidery work as well.
“Tourists flock here in harvest season, even twice as many as in normal periods,” Vân says.
“We know that the paddies are an important highlight of the local scenery. So we try to care for our field so that it brings both more rice and visitors, so more income for us.”
Tourist Nguyễn Hồ Việt from Hà Nội takes photos of the floating rice fields in Tam Cốc. VNS Photo Lê Hương
Luring tourists again
Since the end of April, the Ninh Bình Tourism Association has discussed with its members to simultaneously offer 20-50 per cent discounts for various kinds of services.
“This is a big promotion programme of the Ninh Bình tourism sector to draw domestic tourists, who reside not only inside the province but also other neighbouring areas to boost local tourism and create jobs for locals to maintain our experienced and qualified tourism staff to serve customers in the future when the country opens to foreigners again,” says Dương Thị Thanh, chairperson of the association.
Đỗ Thị Thu Lý, manager at Hang Múa tourism site, says the site is offering discount on entrance tickets and rooms to draw tourists.
Thanh says as this season is normally low season for local tourism, the association has encouraged tourism enterprises to improve their facilities, train their staff and offer promotion packages at good prices but with the same high quality.
“We have also asked the Việt Nam Tourism Association to send experts and artisans to open refresher classes to enhance the skills of local tourism staff,” Thanh says.
“I have been working in Việt Nam for several years,” says Niel van Buren, from the Netherlands.
“I have been to Ninh Bình several times. It’s quite near Hà Nội, so I take time to travel here to wander around. There are so many beautiful places here. Accommodations are fantastic. Last time I stay here [Hang Mua Ecolodge] and this time I pay less. The service quality remains good. Staff are warm. I’m satisfied with this trip.”
Nguyễn Khắc Quyết, director of Âu Lạc Việt Commerce & Service Co Ltd, says the company has offered a promotion combo for transport, entrance tickets and hotel rooms for families.
Quyết says rooms are on offer at 15 per cent lower than usual while entrance tickets to various landmarks in the province are cut by up to 30 per cent.
The promotion programme in the whole province will be applied till the end of this year.
"We are trying to show people that Ninh Bình is safe and ready to welcome guests again," says Đặng Tuấn Vũ, deputy director of Ninh Bình Tourism Promotion Centre, of the provincial tourism authority.
"We hope to receive more and more visitors," he adds. VNS
A two-hour cruise will take tourists to the idyllic nature of northern Việt Nam. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng