The Problem With Tourism In Vietnam


Tra da in the Old Quarter of Hanoi

I’ve re-written this post a few times, worried I am not striking the right tone.  So I’ll be blunt: I do not intend this to be a negative post about visiting Vietnam.  In fact, I think Vietnam should be one of the highlights of any visit to Southeast Asia.

There are so many layers to uncover: an amazing tapestry of art and culture; delicious food (it seems that every town, no matter no small, has a unique dish to contribute to Vietnam’s diverse culinary palette); strong and proud, yet warm, people; sublime limestone mountain landscapes; the gritty and chaotic Old Quarter, beautifully preserved colonial architecture; and 3,000+ coastal kilometers of white sand beaches and quaint fishing villages.

Rather, I am writing this as a reflection on Thanh Nien News’ OpEd article entitled “Simple Truth: Vietnam Just ‘Not Serious About Tourism'” (which in itself was a response to an article  “Why We Fail and Why They Succeed”).  I find it a shame that such a wonderful country receives such a mixed reputation.  According to recent statistics, tourism in Vietnam is down 9% year-on-year, while other countries in SE Asia have seen a dramatic rise (particularly Cambodia, which could conceivably outperform Vietnam in the coming years despite a severely limited number of core attractions).  Whereas 55% of travelers to Thailand return on a second trip, only 5% return to Vietnam.

At the root of these numbers is a misalignment between tourist expectations and the Vietnamese tourism sector’s delivery.  Bluntly, the majority of the tourists I encountered in my 10+ years in Asia have had at least one downright negative experience in Vietnam that more or less overshadowed their trip.

On my first visit, back in 2005, a postcard hawker stole my sandals and threw them into a tree, numerous taxis charged us triple the actual rate, restaurants routinely over-billed us, and our cross-country “Open Bus Ticket” was nothing of the sort.  On top of that, visits to major attractions to amazing heritage areas like Ha Long Bay or the heralded beaches of Nha Trang were often a let-down: one pays a premium (plus foreigner taxes) for low-quality and overcrowded tours to areas where environmental degradation (read: unregulated tourism) are taking an obvious toll.   My successive visits to Vietnam and eventual residence in Hanoi were far more positive – in fact, I grew to love the country and I am excited to return in the coming months.

In between my initial trip and my long-term return to live in Hanoi, though, I spent three years actively discouraging people from including Vietnam on their itineraries.  In addition to the cumbersome and expensive pre-trip visa application, I left with the impression that Vietnam was a relatively stressful and low-value / high-cost trip compared to other countries in the region.  Though many friends had bright spots in their trips, these was often overshadowed by similar complaints of aggressive taxi, tourist agency and hotel scams.  When giving advice to prospective travelers with a limited time window and budget restrictions, I encouraged them to spend time in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia – all comfortable, high-value and relatively cheap to travel in-between.

I am not sure how many people I dissuaded from visiting Vietnam, but the collective resonance of negative experiences certainly had some ramification on tourism in the country.  Responding to this feedback, the Vietnam National Ministry of Tourism keeps announcing new plans, like trade shows and tourism ambassadors, but seem to always be grabbing at the wrong straws.  My favorite absentminded campaign was an advertising campaign encouraging foreign travelers to use Twitter and Facebook to share real-time stories about their trip to Vietnam, overlooking an obvious hurdle: both of those social media websites were blocked and banned in Vietnam.

There are many opportunities, as the author in the aforementioned Thanh Nien News article points out, for the government to make simple changes that would dramatically improve visitors’ experiences.  Taking a cue from Thailand (and its booming tourism sector) and eliminating or at least streamlining the visa process would be a major step forward.  Weeding out illegal taxis and creating a real, trustworthy taxi stand at the airports (especially HCMC) would be a relatively simple second step.  Just these two fixes alone would resolve the majority of travelers’ woes, as the author points out:

…finding an honest airport taxi is like searching for a needle in a haystack, and where airport rail links are but a pipe dream. So many visitors to Vietnam have their initial impression formed by their negative airport experience, and never recover.

Indeed, if you at least focus on improving the quality of entry and exit, two easily controllable processes, you can increase the chances that travelers start with a positive mindset and don’t leave with a sour taste in their mouths.

~ by responsiblenomad on October 23, 2013.

9 Responses to “The Problem With Tourism In Vietnam”

  1. […] wife pointed out that my recent post (The Problem With Tourism in Vietnam) highlighted major complaints for independent travelers, but didn’t actually give any […]

  2. That’s so sad but true. Even with vietnam people, they can easily to point out what the problems are. But that’s alway a long story behind. Not only about the facilities, services to boost tourism but about the people, the management of government…
    By the way, thank you for sharing your opinion about the serious problem of VN tourism 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment! Absolutely agree – many of my good friends in Vietnam were well aware of the missed opportunity. I am hopeful that some meaningful changes will happen. I am also excited to return in a few months and see how things have changed.

  3. Yes, I’m on the fence about visiting the country, having heard so many bad (but also some good) opinions… Interesting read!

    • I would definitely recommend visiting! Just come in with the right mindset and allowance for the inevitable headaches that will emerge. Vietnam is one of my favorite travel destinations – so much to see and experience!

  4. There is a lot of truth in the story. My first experience also had many negative surprises especially after coming from Laos. I returned to Vietnam on the bike and went off the tourist trail and loved the country. Away from the typical tourist spots I very much believe in genuine kindness. So explore beyond the LP tips.

  5. I agree with you a bout that, so Vietnam’s Goverment have’nt been blocked and banned media websites in Vietnam.

  6. I find your words are very well chosen and you do strike the right tone not really offending anyone but just sharing the experience and your advice. Me even as an Asian myself, would prefer to read an honest blog then trying to sugarcoat the real problem. Thank you for your diplomatic writing.
    As a real value delivered advisor myself I have learned that the truth will set you free, and in the long run, you save more lives by being truthful and authentic in your blog then just like the majority of the people are to weak themself to tell the truth. We read blogs in order to experience the travel while scanning and inhaling your words but also gaining the real travel experience from others because what we have missed, by staying at home, but luckily enough people who have seen it themselves are willing to be eyewitnessing for us to go to almost the same feeling or being a traveller while geing a couchpotato or because the lack of a real finance or time abundance.

  7. Hi, your article was of interest to me as I have just returned from a couple of weeks in Vietnam. I didn’t love it but I met some warm friendly people as well as some rude, greedy ones. I felt, when up in Hoian that maybe they didn’t want travelers there. Natrang was similar. Not a lot of English is spoken by those working in the tourist industry and I wasn’t told when I bought my luxury sleeper bus with toilet ticket that they were also selling out sleeping in the aisles and I would have to climb over 2 people to get to my seat. Nor was I told the bus would be carrying leaky containers of fish that my bag would be sitting on top of and that I would need to each it and everything inside to try to remove the smell. I felt deeply disrespected. I often ended up with a completely different meal to what I had ordered. I don’t speak Vietnamese so I ate it anyway, even though it was sometimes a lot more expensive than I had planned on.
    I found people sometimes slow to smile and my last experience saddened me as it neednt have been that way. The young man in immigration took my passport and performed my exit details chewing on gum, without either speaking to me or looking at me. While he stamped my passport he yawned and when he had finished put my passport back on the counter without a glance or a word. There was no queue behind me. His rudeness was my last experience of Vietnam.

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