Fishman's paradise

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Each weekend, eager visitors swarm the Mekong Delta's U Minh Thuong National Park in hopes of catching a bounty of fresh fish.

The sound of a struggling boat engine breaks the silence of the otherwise serene lake. A part of the small motorboat has snagged an underwater plant and become stuck. The engine screams as the boat driver attempts to free it. The group of boat passengers, however, sits back unfazed by the commotion and watches the colorful birds and the splashing fish on the water.

The boat driver finally succeeds in freeing the vessel and the group carries on their way.

Everyone here at U Minh Thuong (Upper U Minh) National Park is eager to fish. "We come together to U Minh Thuong to fish for entertainment on the weekend after a hard working week in the city," says Minh Anh, one of eight fishermen from Ho Chi Minh City's Go Vap District.

U Minh Thuong National Park in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang always receives throngs of tourists on the weekend. Traveling mainly from HCMC, and Binh Duong and Dong Nai provinces, they jostle to line up along the park's Hoa Mai Lake. "City fishermen' often rent rooms the day before they arrive and rent boats onsite.

U Minh Thuong is a tourist hotspot in large part because of the ease with which fish can be caught in the lake. Ca ro gai (a type of anabas testudineus fish) each weighing about 200 grams are easy to catch, according to return visitors. The same holds true for ca loc (a kind of freshwater fish) weighing up to four kilograms each.

Another HCMC resident, Le Tu, comes to the park every week just for fun. He has made so many trips now that he considers himself a "professional" fisherman and sometimes catches up to 100 small fish at a time. He sells them for VND15,000 (US84 cents) each and can earn up to VND1.5 million ($84) a day.

U Minh Thuong National Park receives around 2,000 tourists a month. Most visitors arrive on Friday, catch fish on Saturday, and return home on Sunday.

A traveler shows off his first catch

The park is also home to thousands of bats

According to Vo Van Canh, a park employee, tourists have to bring their own fishing-rods and bait. They must pay a fee of VND40,000 ($2.25) a day and an additional VND30,000 to rent a canoe. "Tourists can eat the fish on the premises or take them home with them,' says Canh.

According to Le Van Trong, a tour guide at U Minh Thuong, visitors also enjoy seeing the park's thousands of bats, birds and monkeys. The 8,036-hectare park is home to more than 500 species of animals including 186 bird varieties. Nine of these, including the spot-billed pelican, painted stork and grey-headed fish eagle, are endangered. The park also boasts a special 44-hectare bird sanctuary with around 700,000 birds, often studied by scientists.

Nature-lovers will also enjoy the park's freshwater wetlands. Birds' eggs sit perched on water-lilies floating on the surface of the water and around 10,000 water fowl descend upon U Minh Thuong National Park during their reproductive season.

Besides birds and wild animals, the national park possesses a spectacular array of flora with 250 different types of vegetation including many rare and endemic species. For this reason, the U Minh Thuong forest is considered the green "lung" of Southeast Asia.

Some 226 species of non-cultivated vascular plants have been recorded in the area. Among these are duckweed and lemna tenera, which are rare in Southeast Asia but common at U Minh Thuong.

The U Minh Thuong National Park is situated in an area of freshwater wetlands, comprising a peat swamp forest, seasonally inundated grasslands, and an open swamp. The soil layer is covered by a layer of peat, one to three meters thick. The core zone of U Minh Thuong National Park is surrounded by a perimeter canal and dyke system, with a series of gates, which are used to manage the water level. Water is released during the rainy season but at other times of the year, water is retained.

U Minh Thuong, is the northern part of two extensive peat swamp areas in Kien Giang and Ca Mau provinces. The other area, U Minh Ha or lower U Minh, is situated 30 km to the south.

U Minh Thuong National Park receives around 2,000 tourists a month. It began advertising itself as an ecotourism area in 2004 and the number of visitors has been increasing ever since. Park director Le Hoang Huong said most visitors arrive on Friday, catch fish on Saturday, and return home on Sunday.

Tourists can spend the night at guest-houses or hotels in nearby An Minh Bac Commune's Cong Su Hamlet. Or alternatively, visitors may opt to camp out in the forest.

The park's canteen is always crowded in the evenings. For just VND35,000, tourists can enjoy the delicious specialties of U Minh Thuong including ca ro me fish cooked with brine and served with forest vegetables. Other tasty dishes include ca loc fish steamed with bon bon (a type of water vegetable) and rau muong dong (a type of spinach).

U Minh Thuong National Park is located 365 km southwest of HCMC. Some 60 kilometers from Rach Gia, it takes around 90 minutes to reach the national park by automobile. The trip takes the same length of time if traveling from Ca Mau Province.

To get to U Minh Thuong National Park, start from National Highway 63 (from Kien Giang Province going toward Ca Mau Province). Look for the Cai Thia Canal, which can be seen from the Tac Cau T-junction in Chau Thanh District's Minh Luong Town. Then take a ferry across the Cai Be and Cai Lon rivers to reach U Minh Thuong National Park.

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