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Wharf closure leaves Saigon river tours 'grounded'

A small industry enabling tourists to explore Ho Chi Minh City via its 2,000km worth of waterways has been 'grounded' after emerging in 2011.

Local tour organizers and travel firms had been developing river tour packages to attract international tourists, but have had to run away from their fledgling businesses after the main wharf in the city was asked to close.

River tour operators have been forced to sell off their fleets of boats, but still hold out hope that a new wharf will be built to allow them to resume their service, which proved to be attractive to foreign holidaymakers, particularly during their short heyday five years ago.

The sunset of the ‘Sunset River Tour’ in Saigon

In February 2011, a new tourism package called 'Sunset River Tour' was launched and quickly appealed to international visitors to Ho Chi Minh City.

Tourists would board boats on the Saigon River in the late afternoon to admire the sunset while floating on the city’s main waterway.

At the time, photos and videos capturing the breathtaking scene of the sun reflected off the Saigon River flooded social media, as tourists were impressed by the 'Sunset River Tour.'

“There were times when a boat offered as many as ten journeys a day, with all foreign passengers,” one man who used to work as a crew member for a river tour company recalled.

The closure of the Bach Dang Wharf, near the city’s downtown area in March 2015 was a real nightmare for travel firms, who did not know what to do with their fleets of boats.

“The ship operators were scratching their heads to find a solution and maintain operations,” Nguyen Xuan Truong, who once worked in the river tour business, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

“Some companies eventually had to shut down their service, meaning many crew members switched to working on cargo ships.”

Wharf closure leaves Saigon river tours 'grounded'

New wharf badly needed

With the only place for tourist boats to dock and pick up passengers ‘killed off,’ travel firms have had no other choice but to sell their vessels.

Leading tour organizer Saigontourist invested heavily in developing a fleet of tourist boats, each with 30 to 100 seats, and 16 speedboats to embrace the river tour trend back in 2011. The star of the Saigontourist fleet was a 600-seat restaurant boat.

However, the company has had to liquidate two of its major boats, and the others “now dock at [its] own wharf in the Binh Quoi 2 ecotourism area [in Binh Thanh District], waiting for sale,” admitted Saigontourist river tour manager Nguyen Thanh Lam.

Lam, who has more than 15 years of experience working in the river tour sector, said the demise of the Bach Dang Wharf was the main killer of the river tour industry in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Some travel firms have their own wharfs, but most of them are located away from the city’s center and are incapable of docking bigger ships,” Lam told Tuoi Tre.

The Saigontourist representative said the number of river tour customers is now 40 to 60 percent lower than the pre-2015 period.

Wharf closure leaves Saigon river tours 'grounded'

Besides Saigontourist, other companies must dock their ships across makeshift decks along the Saigon River, which snakes through District 1, 2 and Binh Thanh and Nha Be Districts.

Lam suggested that a new wharf be set up near the city center in District 1 to facilitate both local and international tourists who wish to explore the city on the river.

Bui Ta Hoang Vu, director of the Ho Chi Minh City tourism department, admitted that the decision to close the Bach Dang Wharf without a replacement facility has impacted local travel firms.

Vu said the municipal administration plans to focus on developing river tours and will consider building a new wharf in the downtown area to serve tourists.

Many foreign tourists have been discouraged from taking river tours after learning that they had to travel to another district be able to board the boat.

Luke Smith, one of the two Canadians Tuoi Tre met near the old Bach Dang Wharf last week, said they gave up their plan to go on a river tour after being told they had to board the ship at Tan Cang in Binh Thanh District.

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Bao Moi