Riverway tourism – Ho Chi Minh City’s new resource

Two months after the Ho Chi Minh City authorities announced the riverway tourism development strategy with six routes from Bach Dang Wharf to Binh Dong, Cu Chi, Can Gio, Long An, Binh Quoi and Phu My Hung, assigned to Saigontourist, the Sai Gon Tiep Thi newspaper conducted a survey in late August to outline the panorama of riverway tourism in the city.

A look from the river

At 7 am on a Saturday, French tourist Elisabeth Ngondara Olivry and her husband cautiously crossed the busy road in front of the Majestic hotel to a pontoon to take a river trip on the Saigon River. After checking in, the couple were welcomed by the staff of the Saigon River Express Boat on board. Other passengers included Graham Taylor from Australia and three young Americans.

The boat staff asked them to put on lifejackets and the breakfast was served onboard with bread, bottled water and some native fruits like bananas, bonbon, and rambutan. The boat sped up, leaving the city with high-rise buildings behind.

Elisabeth and her husband sat at the prow to enjoy the early sunlight. She said: “The villages along the river are fresh and peaceful. I used to try a canoe tour in Bangkok, but the river there did not make me feel to be close to nature as the tour on the Saigon River does.

“This tour was recommended by the hotel receptionist. We also know that this city has many rivers and canals so it would have been a mistake if we did not choose this tour to learn more about it.”

Unlike the French couple, Taylor, a retired teacher who had to walk with crutches, chose this tour because his friend, a reporter of the Saigon Times Daily, recommended it. Taylor said his condition did not allow him to get into the Cu Chi tunnels, but lying on the stem of a boat to see the scene on and along the river and breathing fresh air are indescribable. Inside the boat, the group of young Americans enjoyed fruit and took pictures.

Waterway tours are outstanding products which have brought about significant revenue for travel companies that focused on city tours over the past 10 years. However, according to a survey at the ticket counter of some travel companies, there are not many choices for tourists.

Among Saigon River tours, visitors often choose the two midrange ones which have been very familiar with tourists for decades: Ho Chi Minh City – Cu Chi and Ho Chi Minh City – Vam Sat, with the travel time of 4-6 hours, the price from 1.7 to 2.2 million VND (70-110 USD).

“The time and the price are reasonable while visitors can learn more about the history, culture and nature of the city,” Nhat Hai, a tour guide of Exptissmo, explained, adding that each week he had three or four of those tours.

However, river tours are only favoured by foreign tourists. In the first month after the city launched the strategy to develop riverway tourism in June, Saigontourist had 231 tourists and 80 percent of them foreigners.

Of the six river tours, visitors still preferred two “traditional” tours that have been offered for decades – Ho Chi Minh City-Cu Chi and Ho Chi Minh City-Vam Sat.

Waiting for the better days

Bach Dang Wharf, the starting point of most of tours on the Saigon River for decades, is not invested properly into a tourist wharf. As a tourist port, the wharf does not have a parking lot. Foreign tourists have to cross a busy road to enter the wharf.

The wharf is small and does not have enough space for boats. An Son Lam, director of Indochina Sails, said that his company had to invest 2 billion VND (100,000 USD) to build a pontoon bridge to serve the company’s 10 boats. The boats of other companies have to temporarily anchor in Thu Thiem.

Hoang Cam Giang, who is in charge of the river tours of Saigontourist, added that restrictions on anchoring space is one of the hinderences to the development of river tourism in the city. Giang said of the six river tours launched in June, after one month, the route to Phu My Hung was canceled just because of lacking a wharf in Phu My Hung.

Another problem comes from the old bridges of Binh Loi, Long Phu, Rach Ong and Dan Xay. These bridges hinder the operation of big boats. As a result, travel firms can only organise tours for groups of less than 25 people. Tran The Dung, deputy director of the Young Generation Travel, said the cost of small tours like this is high, so river tours are only suitable for foreign tourists.

But why inner-city tours, with low prices, do not attract tourists? The cruise ticket for the tour from Bach Dang wharf to Binh Dong is only 300,000 VND (14 USD) and it is only 10 USD for the tours to Thi Nghe and Nhieu Loc canals.

A tour guide explained by personal experience: “The tour to Tau Hu canal is very interesting but on the day the tide ebbs away, the section from Ben Nghe to Tau Hu is a dark, fetid canal.”

Cam Giang from Saigontourist added that the best tour to introduce the history, culture and the development of Ho Chi Minh City is the Bach Dang-Cho Lon route but it is important to re-create the floating market, maintain old houses along the river and build a wharf in the commercial area of the Chinese community.

“Besides water pollution and insufficient infrastructure, another problem is the lack of fascinating stopovers along the route,” Giang added.