The Problem With Tourism In Vietnam
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.