Exploring the Hidden Charm

attractions - Saigon/HCMC: May 26, 2016

Whether you’re a long-term expat, Vietnamese traveller, newbie or just a passerby in Vietnam, certainly you’ve had interesting and remarkable experiences straddling the edge of a continent.

There are 31 national parks, 3,260km of coastline, tropical lowlands, hills and densely forested highlands that leaves only 20% of the landmass as level ground. Surely, endless opportunities for discovery await.

Tourism in Vietnam is developing, though still in juvenile stages. It plays a major economic role by attracting foreign investment, creating jobs and small businesses. This growth also fuels a shift from the agricultural sector to the service sector providing more disposable income and decreased poverty. Destination competitiveness is at the forefront of the challenge.

However, when deciding the ideal travel destination there is much more to consider than geographical intrigue and beauty. Socio-economics, national psyche, culture, history, infrastructure and current state of development largely play a role in a country’s ranking for tourism points.

“Tourism in Vietnam is developing, though still in juvenile stages.”

Since Vietnam opened its doors to tourism in 1986, the road to lucrative development through this channel has been quite bumpy, encountering substantial stumbling blocks. Let’s have a look at the main issues and how they can be improved to nudge the country forward attracting more travellers.

Over the years I have always heard and read the (quite real) statistic that a mere 5% of tourists visiting Vietnam return, compared to other countries in the region such as Thailand which enjoys a 50% return rate. Hmmmmm, what’s the reasons for this major obstacle to growth and how can Vietnam work toward increasing this return rate? This unique country has a vast untapped potential leading to a very lucrative economic boost.

Travellers often lament of negative experiences with locals, feeling cheated for having to pay higher prices. Many of our experiences in Vietnam are filled with frustrations on many levels concerning fair treatment.

“Many of our experiences in Vietnam are filled with frustrations on many levels concerning fair treatment.”

Once locals shift their mindset, focusing instead on future potential profits by employing fair play and getting return business from tourists, the stage will improve. There are positive signs already. Examples include customer service representatives for taxis at airports, handing clients a card with a phone number and website to contact if any problems are encountered.

Next is the high cost of visas compared to regional countries being visa exempt. Often when tourists are deciding which Asian country to visit, they will choose neighbouring destinations as there are no visa fees (other than Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos). We must give due credit to the authorities though for allowing visa exemptions for some European countries, albeit the consideration was also to raise visa fees to circumvent declining tourism.

Motorways are yet to meet the standards of high speeds and the state of most roadways is quite dangerous, with many holes and cracks throughout. This definitely leads to long travel times for short distances.

According to Tuoi Tre (04/02/15) Vietnam fails to provide visitors with a wide variety of tourism products, knowledgeable and courteous tour guides, flexible visa rules, while it is also unable to launch effective marketing campaigns to lure vacationers worldwide. Some consider quality and variety of food a high priority when choosing a travelling destination (I sure do!). Vietnam boasts some outstanding food options that entice international palates.

“To fully tap the potential of street food, the tourism sector must improve price management, the attitude of street food providers, hygiene, safety and marketing strategies.” (Vietnamnet 01/03/2016) Tourism Division Head at HCM City University of Economics Nguyen Duc Tri said the management of street food in the city has yet to receive due attention. 

The double-edged sword here is the hygiene factor. Not only tourists but many locals often succumb to unwanted nasty gastro-intestinal illnesses that may put off travellers from ever squatting on the curb for a meal again. Hey as long as it was delicious then it was worth it!

“The double edged sword here is the hygiene factor.”

A lesson may be learned from a neighbor, Thailand’s Food Safety Project on Street Vendors and Restaurants implemented in 1989. The government implemented a 12 step protocol plan to help ensure food safety for both locals and tourists.

Ok so what do we know? Well that this country has an enormous untapped potential in tourism that can vastly improve society’s wealth while reducing poverty. How to get from here, to there? Build the infrastructure, follow hygiene standards, demonstrate honesty, offer outstanding customer service and lay the foundation of prosperity.