Hundreds of boats wait for passengers at a dock on a bright, sunny morning. We're at Tam Coc Wharf, in Ninh Hai Commune, Hoa Lu District, the northern province of Ninh Binh in late May.
From time to time, some visitors arrive and take a boat for a cruise, which takes some two hours on the Ngo Dong River, through three caves along the stream and yellow ripe floating rice fields.
Normally at this time of the year, the wharf would be a bustling hive of activity, with hundreds of tourists jostling for a spot on a boat. It's the best season to visit one of the most stunning rice fields in the north of Vietnam.
A couple of boats carrying visitors break the silence on the river among the high karst mountains. Their laughter startles some birds flying off from the rice fields.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated tourism hotspots across the world and Ninh Binh has been no exception, with visitor numbers and revenue down.
But with the pandemic largely controlled in Vietnam and domestic travel possible again, recovery is the word on everybody's lips.
|Very few boats are carrying passengers to a cruise on the Ngo Dong River these days compared to the past. VNS Photo Doan Tung|
Boats float amid the fragrance of ripe rice on the cool immense space that has no sounds but the birds twittering, frogs croaking and oars splashing, making visitors feel as if they were flying above clear water full of green moss.
Climbing up on a karst mountain just above the first cave, Nguyen Ho Viet, a tourist from Hanoi, takes a rest with his friends. From the high peak, he can see the whole rice field zigzagging along the stream. The floating rice field painting is bordered with mountains that run to the end of the blue skyline.
|The spectacular scene of yellow floating rice fields in Tam Coc. VNS Photo Doan Tung|
“This is an ideal place to take photos both in the morning and in the afternoon,” he tells Việt Nam News. “From this point, we can see the S-line of the river, a stunning view like that in many posters advertising Vietnam’s tourism.”
Viet says he departed with a friend from Hanoi at 2am to reach the site in time to catch the sunrise. They then toured around the area and now wait to see the sunset before returning late in the evening.
“This is my first time here in Tam Coc,” he says. “I have been to many other places in the north to take photos of the rice fields. I see it’s spectacular here in Tam Coc when the rice gets yellow as this is water pouring season on terraced rice fields in northern mountainous provinces.
“I highly recommend people to come here to see this stunning beauty.”
|Locals start to harvest rice. VNS Photo Doan Tung|
Viet also says he is impressed with locals’ enthusiasm to welcome visitors.
“I have no way to compare the number of tourists this period this year against the same period before COVID-19 as I am here for the first time,” he says.
“But I see the locals all warmly welcome tourists. Especially the way they indulge us, photo hunters. The boat people are so helpful by telling us where and when to go to take the best pictures.”
Le Hong Luyen, another visitor from Hanoi, chose a mid-week day to take her whole family to Ninh Binh for a holiday.
“My family, adults and children, enjoys the trip very much,” she says.
“The scene is so beautiful as harvest season is approaching. The atmosphere is so fresh. We're staying in a nearby homestay. The hosts treat us so warmly, like family members.”
Viet and Luyen are among the hundreds of tourists who have come to visit Ninh Binh after social distancing was eased.
Break to serve better
Nguyen Thi Diu, who runs the five-room Tam Coc Riverside Homestay, welcomes her first guests after closing for nearly two months due to COVID-19.
“We closed right after the outbreak of the pandemic in Vietnam,” she says.
“During the break time, we cared for the garden again, planted more flowers and improved our facilities to get ready for re-opening. Now, there are more and more Vietnamese visitors flocking to see the ripe rice fields."
Diu now offers a special price of VND500,000 (US$22) per room per night including breakfast, half the price before the pandemic.
She also offers a free foot massage service at night. She says she intends to build a swimming pool in her garden to perfect her facility.
Diu strongly believes that tourism will recover soon in the near future.
“Our Government has applied very effective methods to curb the spread of the virus,” she said. “Now, when we receive guests, we ask them to fill in a health report form so that the local authorities can get the information and travel history of the visitors.”
Tam Coc is home to more than 200 homestays and hotels, most offering 5-10 rooms.
|The cruise takes visitors to three caves on the Ngo Dong River, passing karst mountains and floating rice fields. VNS Photo Doan Tung|
According to Nguyen Van Hoat, chairman of Ninh Hai Commune’s People’s Committee, about 500 local households plant 19 hectares of rice in Tam Coc area.
“Every year, we encourage farmers to take great care of their crops so that the rice matures in all the fields at the same time, offering spectacular scenery,” he says.
He says before the pandemic, Tam Coc received some 40,000-50,000 visitors a month, most of them foreigners.
The disease has made the number drop to 10,000 visitors a month, most of whom are Vietnamese.
“Summer is normally low season in Tam Coc as Vietnamese people prefer the sea to mountains,” he says. “Yet I strongly believe that from August to the end of the year, more visitors will return. We estimate the number of visitors per month will reach 30,000 at the end of the year.”
Farmer Do Thi Van, who works in Tam Coc Tourism site as a boat rower, says her income has been seriously affected due to COVID-19.
She and her husband each earned some VND4 million (US$170) a month from working as boat rowers before the pandemic.
Her family also has a 0.1 ha rice field, which brings 500-600kg of paddy rice every year.
Still, the boats and rice don't bring in enough income for her four-member family, so she and her husband do embroidery work as well.
“Tourists flock here in harvest season, even twice as many as in normal periods,” Van says.
“We know that the paddies are an important highlight of the local scenery. So we try to care for our field so that it brings both more rice and visitors, so more income for us.”
|Tourist Nguyen Ho Viet from Hanoi takes photos of the floating rice fields in Tam Coc. VNS Photo Le Huong|
Luring tourists again
Since the end of April, the Ninh Binh Tourism Association has discussed with its members to simultaneously offer 20-50 per cent discounts for various kinds of services.
“This is a big promotion programme of the Ninh Binh tourism sector to draw domestic tourists, who reside not only inside the province but also other neighbouring areas to boost local tourism and create jobs for locals to maintain our experienced and qualified tourism staff to serve customers in the future when the country opens to foreigners again,” says Duong Thi Thanh, chairperson of the association.
Do Thi Thu Ly, manager at Hang Mua tourism site, says the site is offering discount on entrance tickets and rooms to draw tourists.
Thanh says as this season is normally low season for local tourism, the association has encouraged tourism enterprises to improve their facilities, train their staff and offer promotion packages at good prices but with the same high quality.
“We have also asked the Vietnam Tourism Association to send experts and artisans to open refresher classes to enhance the skills of local tourism staff,” Thanh says.
“I have been working in Vietnam for several years,” says Niel van Buren, from the Netherlands.
“I have been to Ninh Binh several times. It’s quite near Hanoi, so I take time to travel here to wander around. There are so many beautiful places here. Accommodations are fantastic. Last time I stay here [Hang Mua Ecolodge] and this time I pay less. The service quality remains good. Staff are warm. I’m satisfied with this trip.”
Nguyen Khac Quyet, director of Au Lac Viet Commerce & Service Co Ltd, says the company has offered a promotion combo for transport, entrance tickets and hotel rooms for families.
Quyet says rooms are on offer at 15 per cent lower than usual while entrance tickets to various landmarks in the province are cut by up to 30 per cent.
|A two-hour cruise will take tourists to the idyllic nature of northern Vietnam. VNS Photo Doan Tung|
The promotion programme in the whole province will be applied till the end of this year.
"We are trying to show people that Ninh Bình is safe and ready to welcome guests again," says Dang Tuan Vu, deputy director of Ninh Binh Tourism Promotion Centre, of the provincial tourism authority.
"We hope to receive more and more visitors," he adds. VNS
By Le Huong & Ho Hoang
The golden rice field season in Tam Coc starts in May and typically lasts until mid-June each year. This is also the best time of the year to visit this tourist site in Ninh Binh province.
Tam Coc – Bich Dong is one of the most appealing destinations of Ninh Binh. Tourists can come here at any time of the year. However, autumn may be the best time to explore its most magnificent charm.