Riverine charms

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Riding a jet-ski on the Saigon River

On my earlier boat trips from HCMC's center to outlying Nha Be, Cu Chi and Can Gio districts, or to neighboring provinces like Binh Duong and Dong Nai, to check out the latest tourist offering, it was always a delight to see the poetic and familiar scenery of the local waterways.

However, a recent excursion when I followed the crew from Binh Quoi Tourist Village on a new tour from downtown to District 9 gave me a chance to discover interesting things beyond the familiar rivers.

We gathered in District 1 at the Thu Thiem Domestic Wharf, which was commissioned in February last year. Boarding a motor boat with 12 seats, we were clueless about our intended route and destination as our guide and steersman Nguyen Thanh Lam refused to tell us anything.

"Don't worry, you'll see," he said. "The trip will not let you down."

He fired the engine and headed for Nha Be District, passing numerous ports like Saigon, Ben Nghe and Lotus before entering the confluence of the Nha Be, Dong Nai, and Saigon rivers.

Then Lam steered the boat into the Tac River, which flows between District 9 and Dong Nai. Only then did I realize how the surrounding area had changed, especially on the city side: many villas with large gardens and farms had been established along the riverside for the purpose of eco-tourism.

First, we visited Nha Viet Nam (Vietnam House), a ten-hectare area that offers visitors outdoor games like paintball as well as more adventurous activities like canoeing and kayaking.

Nearby is the Long Thuan Eco-garden that famous fashion designer Sy Hoang built on a deserted, saline two-hectare area about ten years ago.

At first, Hoang intended Long Thuan as a place for his friends and family to gather and relax, but gradually he expanded it into a complex of buildings and other structures with Vietnamese and Zen characteristics.

One of the garden's highlights is a 5,000-square-meter lake that was named after Hoang's religious name, Chan Lac, meaning "until the very end of happiness." Across the lake is a bridge decorated with lotus details dating back to the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) and named An Lac, which means "peace and contentment."

The most impressive thing about the lake is a 40-square-meter submerged wooden stage. When it is needed, Hoang lowers the lake's water until the stage emerges and is ready for use.

Then, there is an open house next to a lotus lake where Hoang organizes meditation sessions and "life-skill" discussions, and a place for visitors to drink tea in the moonlight or watch ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) fashion shows.

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One of the commonest ways to see the Saigon River close-up is to dine on one of the ten floating restaurants at Bach Dang Wharf in District 1. They also provide an excellent vantage point for watching the fireworks at Christmas and the New Year.

After being absorbed in Zen and the artistic lifestyle at Hoang's place, we headed to Long Phuoc Garden, 15 minutes away by the motor boat.

A total contrast to Long Thuan, Long Phuoc with its four hectares of fruit and other trees, vegetable plots and fish ponds was built to bring tourists close to the original flavors of a Vietnamese garden.

Here, the visitor is free to roll up his trousers to catch shrimp and fish from the ponds and grill them on burning coals for a simple meal, just like any farmer in the Mekong Delta would do. Or he can follow a local angler to catch fish with a rod or net from the river, which is said to have the tastiest shrimp and fish in the whole area.

Guests should be aware that they are not allowed to freely pick fruit. Instead, they can enjoy it on a plate from the garden's owner right from the time they arrive. Explaining the rule, owner Long said he was not a tourism professional, just someone who wanted to do things in a "simple but steady" manner.

Also not allowed is the use of microphones in the performances of the traditional southern music known as don ca tai tu as the presence of the advanced equipment along with the supporting amps and electrical wires would stain the pure garden.

Moving from District 9 to District 2, the public can visit a village and gardens that cover over eight hectares and was built by more than 30 artists and artisans.

All the dozen or so houses and structures are in the Vietnamese style. One is the Nguyen Art Garden, which was inspired by the gardens of Hue. Vietnam's old capital was also the source of a house, more than a hundred years old, which the artist Duong Dinh Hung brought from the central coast city to the village.

Throughout the villages, there are also galleries of the artists' sculptures, oil paintings and other works.

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