In cold print, Decision No. 971/QD-UBND, dated 5/6/2015, issued by the Phu Yen People’s Committee proved to be a life changer. Mr Ngoc tells why: “My family had planted vegetables for three generations and I never thought that my simple daily chores - farming, planting, watering, fertilizing - would ever be seen and photographed like they are now”.
“My wife and I planted vegetables from a young age, when there was no electricity and not even a pump for the well. Like other villagers, we had to carry water from the river. Work started at 4am, before anyone in the city is awake, and continued all year round except for the rainy season in September and October. In 2009 a flood destroyed the fields but, a year later, they were repaired and the vegetables grew again. It took a huge effort from the hard-working growers.”
In truth, this humble veggie patch had always had star appeal - it’s just that it wasn’t so widely known. Lying at the foot of the ancient Nhan tower next to Da Rang bridge, in the guide books it has been compared to “a child protected and nurtured by two mothers that are the Chua and Ba rivers”. Silt from the rivers has raised the level of the land and enabled Ngoc Lang to become the most productive village in Phu Yen province. Thanks to the fertility of the soil and knowhow of the villagers, the vegetables from here are sold throughout Viet Nam.
But now, due to the foresight of the people’s committee, it is attracting a global audience. Compared to “a pearl at sunrise”, its fields have also been likened to “jade stones” when they glisten in the sun: either way, the village is a jewel in the tourism crown. And with its proximity to both the North-South railway and main national highway, it is seen by millions. With workers donning the white conical hats synonymous with the country, for tourists it makes for the classic Vietnamese scene.
Maximising the potential of the village was behind the committee’s decision and one eagerly embraced by Mr. Ngoc An who was well placed to take advantage - in addition to his farming expertise, he knew he had the ideal property. “My house,” he says, “is at the top of the village, has three storeys with wooden columns and is over 100 years old. It has seen five generations of my family grow up, and was given a preservation order by the local authorities.
“The old house, surrounded by palm trees, both betel and coconut, and green vegetables, makes a perfect picture of the tranquil countryside and gives visitors a wonderful welcome. With proper accommodation and amenities, and extensive landscaping, it is ideal as a homestay. And with some support and training in tourism, I think I will do well in the tourism industry”.
“Previously, I grew only one kind of vegetable in the whole garden. I would harvest it all and then plant the same for another season. Now, my garden grows all kinds such as gourds, pumpkins, spinach, cucumbers, onions and cilantros. Some of the beds are growing green, some can be harvested, some have just germinated”.
“Besides, from the ancient gourds left by my ancestors, I planted and harvested thousands of new ones. I then dry them to sell to tourists. It’s just one of many products I sell. It is also a passion and a “playground” for me to express my creativity”.
“All my life I’ve planted vegetables and that has been my job, but when I started doing tourism, it felt like a passion. It makes me happy to meet so many people from far away. Although I am not yet that efficient, I am getting there and my family is better off. The money from community tourism has boosted our income just from growing vegetables. My family and I do it together and life has become much more comfortable for us”.
These very different, albeit essential, service industry skills were not acquired overnight and the villagers had to be trained. In 2017, Mr. Ngoc An attended a course organized by the Phu Yen Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism about community tourists. And although it was invaluable, he admits there have still been a few problems.
“In the course of three years of doing business, my family and I have experienced difficulties - both in terms of facilities and communication. Sometimes tourists have not been satisfied. So, to develop a more professional community tourism model, I have many plans to improve but with limited finance, I have not been able to implement them just yet.
“I would also like the authorities at all levels to create favourable conditions and more effective solutions. First of all, there should be short-term training courses in communication skills, cooking techniques and English classes. They should enable village farmers to borrow capital at preferential interest rates. There are many things to be done: they need to create landscapes, maintain security and order, create a safe and friendly environment and provide parking and signage. It’s all so that we can offer visitors the very best experience.”
One example of the existing high standards is that all water for vegetable gardens in Ngoc Lang is pumped from tens of meters underground. Nor are pesticides used – only biodegradable products. And it wouldn’t be Viet Nam if there wasn’t a culinary delight to savour. Visitors can experience the local cuisine which is rich and cooked from the clean, locally grown vegetables. Such dishes as eel hot pot with coconut water, steamed fish snake and meat stuffed with pumpkin are on the menu. The vegetables on sale are incredibly cheap.
Mr. Ngoc An’s wish is to see more visitors coming to Ngoc Lang, his beautiful and tranquil space by the river. It’s a very different story to what he knew for most of his life when he never thought he’d ever see advertisements for his village acclaiming: “Ngoc Lang vegetable village sightseeing” or “A day as vegetable growers”.