Six years ago, hundreds of people in Triem Tay village on the banks of the Thu Bon River in central Quang Nam province had to evacuate quickly after long-term erosion presented an imminent risk to their livelihoods. But the French - Vietnamese architect Bui Kien Quoc saw this both as a challenge and an opportunity. For Mr Quoc, 71, whose hometown was not far from the source of the Thu Bon River, the winding waterway, which runs nearly 200 kilometres from its origin to the Cua Dai Estuary on the coast, provided the inspiration for a new type of river-based tourism.
Over the next five years Mr Quoc designed and built a bio-dyke of vetiver and various domestic grass varieties that function as a green barrier that prevents any ravaging of the landscape by flooding. ‘Different from concrete dykes, this soft dyke keeps everything in harmony with the river and its surrounding landscape,’ he said. ‘It gives an impression that everything is untouched. It’s still the same old waterfront village, but erosion has now been contained.’
Visitors to nearby Hoi An ancient town can take a scenic boat ride on the river before arriving at his Triem Tay Gardens eco-resort and enjoy the quiet serenity. ‘The boat ride is important, as it is a different way of seeing things,’ Mr Quoc said, emphasising the appeal of a trip along the river.
Set upon a stunning promontory bordering lush vegetation, his quaint lodge is ideal for anyone looking for a rural, tranquil retreat. Rustic charm paired with awe-inspiring views makes this the perfect getaway, with four individually-designed bamboo and wooden cottages - the Guru, the Village, the Sunset, and the Yoga.
But what this place sells best is not its rural cottages or modern amenities - it is the glowing sunset at the end of the day, when the sun drops down on the other side of the river, the water becomes completely still, and one can feel immersed in nature.
Vietnam has a lot of potential to develop river-based tourism, Mr Quoc believes, utilising the great natural network of rivers and canals. ‘We have a coastline of more than 3,000 kilometres and also thousands of kilometres of rivers,’ he said.
Vietnam’s dense river network, of which 2,360 rivers are more than 10 kilometres in length, together with many international rivers, constitute a significant cultural and natural tourism resource that makes the country a dynamic destination that is difficult to find elsewhere.
A river cruise is a pleasant sightseeing alternative for those wanting to experience the real Vietnam and see the daily life of people outside of the big cities. There are a variety of small-vessel itineraries to choose from, whether it is a tour on the Ngo Dong River in northern Ninh Binh province to visit magnificent limestone caves, or a foodie cruise on the Saigon River. For those who are short on time yet keen to get away from the centre of HCMC, a boat ride to The Deck Saigon, situated on the banks of the Saigon River, is one of the city’s most elegant sunset cruises and a real fine-dining treat with picturesque views.
For romantic souls there is a more peaceful journey in a traditional dragon boat along the gentle Perfume River in the former imperial capital of Hue, where royal tombs, wooden houses, magnificent temples, and a thriving landscape are mingled together.
With water snaking through different cultures with distinctive cuisine, Vietnam’s river-based tourism presents travellers with a different perspective and the chance for quiet reflection.
The name of the mighty Mekong River itself, for example, is a magnet that attracts an influx of international visitors to the region. With its unique natural scenery and rich cultures, a wide variety of tourism products have been developed, from dinner cruises to deluxe cruises that are ready to cater to the different needs of domestic and international travellers.
The Aqua Mekong cruise is one of those that offers luxury sailing up and down the epic river between Vietnam and Cambodia, with a fully-equipped fitness centre, an indoor cinema, an outdoor evening cinema, an observation deck and a top deck, and a pool on the bow.
Even for travellers on a shoestring budget there are a host of options to explore this fascinating region. Having walked the tourist-hungry streets of HCMC, going down to the watery Mekong Delta is a change of pace and a connection to a world of the past. My Tho, Vinh Long, Tien Giang, Can Tho, and Ben Tre are some of the traditional gateways to the Delta.
My Tho’s bustling waterfront provides a fascinating insight into the region’s rich agricultural sector and where you can cruise by lush green rice fields and orchards. In Tien Giang and Can Tho you will find the busiest floating markets in Vietnam - Cai Be and Cai Rang - where you can experience their bustling sights and sounds and hundreds of hawkers in sampans selling mountains of watermelons, mangos, jackfruit and other fresh local produce. Cai Rang is especially delightful around the Lunar New Year, when the river takes on even more colour than usual with flat-bottom boats full of flowerpots ready for delivery.
It is sometimes not the river itself, however, but the communities living on the waterfront that attracts keen visitors. For people like Alex, who comes from a mountainous region of Scotland, seeing the daily life of local people and houses on stilts lining the banks of the river is simply fascinating. As he said, ‘culture is a way of life and the river gives you a touch of real life.’
So get onboard a boat somewhere in Vietnam and embark on a whole new adventure. The river is calling!