There was a time when local people in Hoi An ancient town would get together at a field in Cam Thanh ward to gawk at an unusual spectacle: some big white people donning conical hats and toiling away in the mud behind buffaloes and ploughs. After a couple of years it’s no longer so unusual, though, and can be found elsewhere around the country. Spending a day as a farmer has become a popular attraction among travellers of all persuasions. In a lather of sweat, Hamish Weir from the US is doing his best to direct the buffalo in a straight line. It seems to just head to wherever it wants to go, though. He grabs its tail in the hope of asserting some authority, but it only results in him being pulled along and struggling to stay on his feet. Eventually its owner came over to help. ‘It didn’t look that difficult before,’ he smiled while trying to cool down with a fan. ‘I thought I could do it, just like clicking my fingers. But it was fun. I had a laugh and got a bit of ploughing done, even if the lines are a zigzag.’
As well as ploughing and planting early in the season, at harvest time tourists can also jump into the yellow fields with reaping hooks to cut the ripened rice. Then they can collect it on the paddy dike and thresh and winnow it to separate the chaff from the grain, just like real farmers. Vivian Ortner, a student from Switzerland, was born and bred in the city and had never done anything remotely like it before. Now she knows more about the wet rice culture of Vietnamese farmers from her new experience.
Such ecological tours help foreign visitors enjoy the natural surroundings and understand the daily life of the majority of Vietnamese people, according to Tran Van Khoa, Director of Hoi An-Eco Tour, one of the first enterprises to offer these day trips.
He’s been taking foreigners out to farms around his homeland of Hoi An since he was a university student. After graduation he opened a travel company and began cooperating with local farmers. His tours, such as ‘Being a Fisherman at Cua Dai Beach’, ‘Ploughing and Harvesting Crops’, and ‘Planting Vegetables at Tra Que Village’ have become the most popular.
Nguyen Thuy, one of the planters at Tra Que vegetable village, said that one day when she was going about her usual tasks Khoa arrived with some foreign visitors and asked her to teach them how to dig the soil and plant the vegetables. ‘It was a bit weird,’ she remembers. ‘But I lose nothing, and actually gain from the deal. I don’t have to do my regular tasks and only need to tell them about something I’m really familiar with. It’s easy money, so why not?’. Since then she and dozens of other farmers in the village have had part-time jobs as an ‘agricultural teachers’. ‘It used to take me several days of hard work to finish the digging,’ she smiled. ‘Now I have my “students” do it in one day and I get paid for it.’
The trips not only help promote tourism and offer tourists more interesting options but also increase the incomes of local farmers. Pham Nhi, a farmer from Cam Thanh ward, said that holding these short ‘farming courses’ brings in much more money than working the fields. ‘For two crops on my 1,000 square metre field each year I can earn about VND4 million ($200),’ he said. ‘Now I get VND5-7 million ($250-350) every month for “teaching” my foreign students.’
Given that climate change and the market economy have had major influences on farmers and fishermen, many have had to sell their fields or boats and find employment in big cities, Khoa said. With these trips, though, they have a better chance at a new job while staying where they are. He’s happy to connect them with his customers so all can benefit from tourism.
Other travel companies also offer similar tours, as demand is increasing.
Ngo Kieu Oanh, the owner of Ba Vi Homestead, a tourist farm in Hanoi’s Ba Vi district, said that her place is usually full of visitors, especially foreigners, on weekends and holidays. The Homestead’s tours provide not only farming work like ploughing and planting rice seeds but also other agricultural jobs such as picking tea leaves or feeding cows and goats to visitors of different ages. Many children come with their parents, as well as expats from the capital and foreign kids attending international schools, so they can learn about cultivating and breeding.
Meanwhile, in My Tho, Vinh Long, Ben Tre, and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, with its interlaced network of rivers, canals and lakes, many travel operators offer trips catching fish in ditches, which is a popular activity among Southern people after heavy rains and floods. Each tourist is given a traditional Southern outfit, a bucket and a basket before wading into the mud to bail out the water and catch fish and eels. It can get quite boisterous with the excited laughter and shouting of the ‘hunters’ when they trap a fish, no matter large or small.
After hours hard at work the novice farmers and fishermen can enjoy the fruits of their labour, as some tours allow them to eat what they may harvest or catch. Others give cooking classes in traditional dishes or serve a typical countryside meal, to wrap up a day of being a Vietnamese farmer.
Along with knowledge about farming and Vietnamese food, Vivian said, the tours are a pleasant escape from the city into green rural areas and a good time is had by all.