What does the future hold for this smokeless industry, then?
The pathway starts from the jetty and is bathed in bamboo shades.
On one side are poorly guarded houses fenced with trees and replete with herbs and vines.
On the other side are lush fields of corn, sugarcane, beans, chilies, tomatoes and paddy.
Home-grown trees, whether dotted with flowers or laden with such fruits as bananas, mangoes, papayas, pomelos, rose apples and star apples, abound in the gardens, where tens of ducks occasionally trudge and lovely children clad in clean clothes indulge in their games.
Hammocks gently sway beneath stilt houses.
The villagers sometimes pause and smile at a visitor.
A 1.8-meter-tall tourist with a ruddy face and blue eyes that mask his feelings takes photos of a bunch of bananas, a loft of straw, a row of vegetables along a trench or a bridge over a fish pond.
Language barriers do not seem to matter, with locals smiling profusely at the inscrutable tourist.
The visitor appears to be pleased when the village name, Vĩnh Lạc, is translated into English as “Forever Happiness.”
This name is indeed apt since the place seems blessed with beautiful scenery and elated villagers.
Reality, of course, is much harsher.
Vĩnh Lạc is merely a small community on an islet surrounded by the Tiền River in An Giang Province.
A tanned, white-haired man with sparse teeth recalls he first arrived here as a child, about six or seven decades ago.
Vĩnh Lạc is among the Mekong Delta villages where ecotourism has recently flourished, quenching the demand of city dwellers who hanker after destinations “untouched by tourism” and relish opportunities to experience the true lifestyle of locals.
These tourists are willing to endure a boat ride that lasts several hours to reach these places, barely aware that there are much more efficient ways to get there.
The tour packages usually include opportunities to sit on rickshaws, touted as the main means of transport in these faraway places.
It is therefore an unpleasant surprise when visitors, still full of sympathy for sweaty rickshaw riders, catch sight of a humming motorbike passing by.
Even less authentic are bumpy rides on ox carts, which, much to an inquisitive visitor’s dismay, are used chiefly to carry cargo and animals.
Ultimately, these tours instill in tourists, especially those from Western countries, that the Mekong Delta is accessible by boats and other primary means of transport only.
Visitors may mistakenly think that locals are contented with extremely low living standards, engage mainly in manual and semi-manual jobs, and cook by stirring rice in a saucepan until the grains pop (some tourists probably think that villagers will marvel at pop corn machines).
Also impressive are deep-fried fish with scales intact or exotic dishes such as grilled field rats and fried scorpions, which many tourists consider as interesting themes for photo shoots rather than culinary delights.
Like performance arts, tourism products must be forever refreshing and unique.
New products soon turn obsolete under the onslaught of commercialization. Tour operators are therefore mired in an ongoing struggle to hammer out new products and identify even more remote areas.
Vĩnh Lạc is still a “pristine” destination.
Tourists arrive in and depart from this village by boat.
Children are still glad to receive gifts and money or see a stranger stroll by their houses and take photos of mundane scenes such as coconut or papaya trees.
Adults, meanwhile, are abundantly courteous.
Villagers get accustomed to the disruptions that these visitors tend to cause.
Change abounds where it is least expected.
Once the tourism potential of Vĩnh Lạc has been depleted and the very essence of this village’s culture has vanished or is severely distorted, tour operators will embark on yet another search for new tourist destinations.
But how many other hidden charms can these operators really find?
By LÝ LAN
Source: The Saigon Times