Hidden attractions and a way of life

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 A foreign visitor tries his hand at plowing a paddy field in Hoi An's Cam Thanh Commune

Pristine streets and houses built centuries ago by the Japanese, special lanterns and tailors offering to make silk suits overnight Hoi An's attractions are well known.

As visitors to this quaint town explore its surroundings further, they are likely to discover the secrets of this historic spot. One of them is a coconut forest.

Just three kilometers away from the town, the Bay Mau Coconut-Palm Village in Cam Thanh Commune is a lesser-known tourist destination that is becoming increasingly popular among visitors to Hoi An, especially among those who like first-hand experiences of life in the Vietnamese countryside.

The green palms, growing along the banks of Thu Bon and Truong Giang River, form a "forest" in the marshland, serving the village with refreshing breeze and cooling cover.

The da nưá»›c (roughly translated as "water coconut palm") grow in soft mud and slow moving tidal and river waters.

Visitors can row a basket boat by themselves or leave the oars in the hands of skilful locals, enjoying the fresh air and picking up water coconuts along the way. Those inclined to do so can bring fishing rods, pick a spot and park themselves there until the sun gradually sets, bringing the day to a glorious end.

After a rowing trip through the palm groves, a sumptuous dinner of fish or shrimp awaits.

GETTING THERE

From Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, you can fly to the Da Nang International Airport, or take a train or bus to Da Nang City. From there, take a bus or taxi, or ride a motorbike to Hoi An Town, about 35 kilometers away. You can get to Cam Thanh Commune by boat from there to tour the Bay Mau forest of water coconut palms.

From Hue, you can easily reach Hoi An by bus, a trip that takes two to three hours.


Rowing through the water coconut palm forest in Hoi An

The forest now covers an area of 58 hectares, protecting a diverse seaweed ecosystem where various crustacean species thrive, supplying locals and visitors with fresh shrimp, crab and other seafood.

The next stop after the forest exploration is a craft village where most houses are built with palm leaves.

Villagers say their traditional craft of making palm-thatched houses was all but extinct a few years ago, with most of the inhabitants quitting their jobs because there was no demand for their product.

Over the last two years, however, it has revived thanks to rising demand from newly-built beach hotels and resorts in the country. One feature of modern life is that it turns aspects of a previous life into cultural and aesthetic attractions that people are willing to pay extra to access.

The craft has since improved the livelihoods of villagers, many of whom are now well-off.

Once a place where Vietnamese militia and guerillas took shelter during the resistance war against the French, the Bay Mau palm forest is considered a national historical heritage.

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted world biosphere reserve status to Cham Islands-Hoi An, including the Bay Mau palm forest.

In Cam Thanh Commune, tourists can try their hand at local farmer activities like plowing rice fields, rice harvesting and fishing.

Tran Van Khoa, director of the Hoi An Eco-Tour Company in Cua Dai Commune, said he has been offering "one day as a farmer" tours since 2005. Last year, his company organized such tours for more than 4,000 foreign tourists.

After enjoying one such tour, Fenny Seto of Hong Kong said: "We caught a lot of fish and enjoyed the delicious dishes made with them. It was fun to explore the riverside palm forest and hear stories about wartime exploits of the local people."

Heidiband from New Zealand put it very simply. "I was very happy to be a farmer in such a beautiful country like Vietnam."

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