If you ignore the trees and sugar cane crops, Pham Van Ho’s stilt home looks like it rose up out of the middle of a river.
The monsoons swallowed De islet (which props up his modest stilt home) weeks ago, ushering in the annual fall migration of curious tourists.
Agricultural tourism became an essential part of An Giang Province's economy around six years thanks to help from the Dutch farmers’ association (Angriterra).
Tourism now peaks every time the water rises.
Visitors come to enjoy the delicacies that spring out of the vast flooded paddy fields--everything from white fish to water chestnuts.
A Thanh Nien reporter was recently on hand while a group of tourists sipped coffee at a duck farmers house, waiting for Ho’s son to pick them up in a rowboat.
Ho, a skillful fisherman, arrived at the farm with a group of departing tourists who had loaded up on water chestnuts and the bright yellow, edible “dien dien” flowers.
After they'd climbed out, he immediately invited the other group to join him in pulling up fishing nets around his home.
Everything they caught, they ate for lunch.
Tourists help locals harvest water chestnuts in a flooded paddy field in An Giang Province. Photo: Tien Trinh
“You don’t have to think hard about what to eat here. Just step out of the house,” Ho said as he ran around the kitchen with his wife, leaving his guests to wade and wrangle for fish and water chestnuts.
Soon afterward, they all sat down to a hot pot of fermented fish and “dien dien" flowers.
Lunch included “linh,” a common white fish that's most abundant during the floods, boiled snails, and water chestnuts fried in fish sauce.
A neighbor arrived with a guitar to teach the tourists some southern folk songs.
Nguyen Thanh Tung, an official in charge of economic issues at the An Giang Farmers’ Association, said Ho is one of several farmers who received tourism training on hygienic cooking and guest reception.
Afterward, the association gave Ho and the other program participants funds to refurbish their homes.
The hospitality, which determines the success of such tours, is their own, Tung said.
Spontaneity is bliss
Tung connects travel agents to the farmers. But they never design tours.
“No plan could ever be as good as the enthusiasm these farmers exude,” he said.
“No tour itinerary could generate as much genuine fun as the southern farmers themselves,” Tung said.
A tourist holds a giant white fish he caught with locals in An Giang Province during a flood season tour. Photo: Nguyen Thanh Tung
Because nature treats them so nicely, farmers in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta are famous for their easygoing nature.
The “just step out of the house” motto serves as a kind of mantra for Ho and his neighbors.
The living is so easy, they don’t bother to make plans. They’re okay with spontaneity, and they’ve made the heart of the tour, officials said.
The duck farmer’s café was not part of the plan, for example. The neighbors' folk music was not either.
A rural wedding was another unplanned part of the tour, Tung recalled.
He was taking a group of westerners to the house of Chao Kim So Ry when he stumbled into his neighbors' wedding party.
The group invited all the tourists to join the party and their “lam thol” ethnic dance without asking for gifts or money.
The atmosphere was so genuine that some in the party assumed the wedding was part of the tour, Tung said.
Another official said many farmers in the province greet tourists with everything they’ve got.
“They put fun first and sometimes they don’t care to calculate how much it costs,” the official said.
Ho once asked the officials to bring less tourists because he wanted to serve them better.
"Most of the time the farmers forget that they are receiving strangers and treat the guests as close friends." - Nguyen Thanh Tung of the An Giang Farmer's Association speaking about how southern hospitality has been turned into a commodity.
“Having around five guests a day allows them to have fun and gives me the time and space to serve them wholeheartedly,” the farmer said.
Ho walks the walk.
During the recent visit, he invited his guests to stay overnight though they were scheduled to leave in the evening.
The spent the afternoon following his neighbors out to catch frogs and field rats.
They had so much fun enjoying their roasted catches with rice wine they did not want to leave.
Ho offered to keep them and sang and chatted with them about the flood, the lives of fish and men all night long.
“They came as tourists and they left as friends,” Tung said.
“Most of the time the farmers forget that they are receiving strangers and treat the guests as close friends.”
The chemistry between the hosts and guests once forced a local man to admit he was in love with his neighbor. She was having so much fun with the “well groomed” tourists he became afraid he’d lose her, the man said.
Tung said the man ended up spilling his guts in front of the entire group, pronouncing his feelings for the woman for the first time.