MEKONG DELTA — Nguyễn Văn Hơn has been a farmer all of his life. Now, in his mid 50s, he is working as a tour guide.
He is one of the first lotus farmers in the Mekong Delta to adopt the lotus–ecotourism model as an alternative to growing an unsustainable third rice crop every year (called the autumn-winter crop).
The owner of 4ha of lotus in Mỹ Hòa Commune in Đồng Tháp Province’s Tháp Mười District, Hơn began offering tourism services in 2013 when locals set up the Đồng Sen (lotus farm) ecotourism zone.
His business began to take off about two to three years ago, and during peak season from June to August, he welcomes around 50-100 tourists a day.
Visitors at his farm can pick lotus flowers and enjoy lotus specialties like salted roasted lotus seeds, rice cooked with lotus, sweet lotus dessert, and fresh lotus seeds.
“When I was growing only rice and lotus, my income was quite good, but when I started the tourism business, it definitely improved,” he said. “Last year, visitors from HCM City, Đồng Nai Province and even the central and northern regions came here.”
Over a period of four years, his business expanded by four-fold.
The Đồng Sen ecotourism zone has now expanded to 11ha, with tourism services the main source of income for local farmers taking part in the model, according to local authorities.
In the first half of 2017, the zone welcomed more than 36,000 local and international visitors and grossed more than VNĐ2.1 billion (US$92,000).
Though the province has encouraged more farmers to join the ecotourism model, not everyone has the skills needed to offer good services or the finances to invest in infrastructure.
Trần Văn Kịch, who has a 4.5ha area of lotus flowers only a 20-minute riverboat ride away from Hơn’s farm, has decided to breed fish on his lotus farm to increase income.
But unlike the lotus–ecotourism model in which the lotus output is bought by tourists, farmers like Kịch who rely on selling lotus seeds are worried about the price fluctuations of lotus.
“I’m not sure if I can sell lotus flowers at good prices this year,” he said.
As he only sells fresh lotus seeds, he has to rely on prices offered by traders who visit his farm to buy lotus seeds and flowers directly from him.
Sometimes traders are willing to pay VNĐ12,000 per kilogramme, but later change their minds to VNĐ10,000 or even VNĐ8,000 after the lotus is picked, saying the plants are not “beautiful”, according to Kịch.
Farmers have to sell the lotus plants soon after they picked, he said, because they could lose freshness if they are stored overnight.
“Unstable prices discourage farmers,” he said. “Besides, it’s not easy to find lotus pickers since many of them have moved to other places to work in factories or at construction sites.”
When asked why he still grows lotus even though many neighbours have stopped, he said: “My first thought was that I am doing this for the environment.”
Lotus leaves can also be a good source of organic fertiliser, he said.
“After harvesting lotus and preparing for the next rice crop, I only need to use half of the fertiliser volume compared to other rice fields,” he added.
The income from selling fish also helps him cover the expenses of growing lotus.