Journey to the south

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Despite the global economic downturn, tourism in the Mekong Delta continues to flourish

According to the latest reports from the departments of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Mekong Delta cities and provinces have welcomed more than 400,000 foreign tourists since early 2009, a 40 percent increase over last year.

While other established tourist hotspots have struggled to maintain business, Dang Hoang Kim of the Can Tho municipal Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism said the revenue generated from international and domestic tourists to the Mekong in the first six months of 2009 was approximately VND283 billion ($US15.71 million).

Of the total number of tourists, 85,300 visited the region's central city of Can Tho while other popular destinations included the Delta provinces of Tien Giang, Ben Tre, and Vinh Long.

Famous floating markets

A trip to the Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho City is an ideal way to learn about daily life on the Mekong River.

Cruising through the small, picturesque canals in a rowboat, local vendors conduct all their business right on the water.

"You can't say you've been to Can Tho City until you've visited the Cai Rang floating market," says tour guide Hung Lam.

One of the largest of the Mekong's floating markets, Cai Rang opens from sunrise until evening and the busiest time is from dawn until 9 a.m.

Canoes and small boats offer the most efficient mode of travel along the myriad waterways that snake around the entire Delta region

A panoramic view of a floating market in the Mekong Delta, where vendors and buyers engage in a flurry of daily activities

Visitors can play with pythons while visiting Dong Tam snake farm in Tien Giang Province

The Mekong Delta is also home to many flower farms, including daisies

The main items for sale are primarily farm products and specialties of Cai Rang Town in Chau Thanh District, along with a vast array of items from other nearby communities.

It is essential for each boat to display a long upright pole at its bow on which samples of the goods are hung. Normally, vendors shout out to advertise what goods they're selling, but on the open water and amongst the noise of boat engines, their cries are difficult to hear. By using a display pole, however, buyers can see what items are on sale from a distance.

During the early morning market hours, larger sized boats anchor and create lanes that smaller boats weave in and out of.

The waterway becomes a maze of hundreds of boats packed with mangos, bananas, papaya, and pineapple. Smaller boats sell beer, soft drinks, wine and even cigarettes.

Trading activities at the market are also an occasion for tourists to learn more about the local peoples.

"The [warm greetings], friendly smiles, and welcoming gestures all make the place really special," said a tourist from Singapore.

"From the kids to the parents, [Mekong Delta residents] are always friendly and helpful. It is one of the friendliest places I've visited.

"Once you look at how people depend on the vast river system for their livelihood - food, water and transport - you see it is the very essence and sustenance of life," he added.

There are also a host of handicraft villages to visit along with a rice-husking mill and the Can Tho Museum. Visitors may also want to take in a traditional tai tu (southern folk) music performance.

Tour guide Hung Lam says more than 500 tai tu clubs, whose members range in age from 20-70 years old, are now running in Can Tho City.

"They all share the same wish to preserve this aspect of the country's traditional music," he adds.

On the way to Can Tho, visitors can stop to visit Tien Giang Province's My Tho Town and take a boat trip to visit orchards, bee farms and coconut candy shops in Ben Tre Province.

The Mekong Delta also boasts some of the country's best fruit orchards and national parks including Tram Chim National Park I in Dong Thap Province and U Minh Forest in Ca Mau Province.

Phu Quoc Island and An Giang Province's That Son and Sap mountains are also popular destinations for travelers.

Developing sustainable tourism

According to Le Thanh Binh from the Diem Hoan My travel company, the global economic crisis has yet to affect tourism in the Mekong Delta.

However, the biggest threat to tourism in the region, Binh says, is the current lack of coordination and organization between the government, tour companies, and local residents.

Sustainable tourism is needed to protect both the environment and local peoples from exploitation. In addition, regulations are needed to prevent unhealthy competition between the Delta's inhabitants and local tour companies since tourism exploitation can negatively impact daily life in the delta.

The Mekong Tourism Association (MTA) last month discussed implementing more diverse and higher quality services for tourists and encouraged travel companies to set up tours in conjunction with local residents to help generate sustainable income for them.

A co-operation program to develop sustainable tourism through 2010 has also recently been established by the provinces of Kien Giang, An Giang and the city of Can Tho.

Vinh Long Province and Can Tho City, meanwhile, are working to promote ecotourism, cultural and historical tourism, and home-stay tours.

Authorities have spent around VND98 billion ($5.3 million) to upgrade some 50 tourism sites in the region to attract more visitors.

Can Tho, for instance, has invested VND16.6 billion in transport infrastructure and the restoration of the century-old Binh Thuy house, a national relic in Binh Thuy tourism village. It has also upgraded several tourist attractions along the Hau River.

Agencies are also focusing on training tourism service providers to increase the overall quality of the local industry.

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