Despite recent improvements, poor transport infrastructure—including airport facilities—and costly luxury accommodations are still deterring expatriates from coming back to the country
A Return Trip Too Far
By Michael Modler
Vietnam's Mekong Delta may give tourists a chance to enjoy its idyllic waterways and farms Despite recent improvements, poor transport infrastructure—including airport facilities—and costly luxury accommodations are still deterring expatriates from coming back to the country
Getting married in HCM City was an incredible experience. But like many groomsmen, I didn’t have much of a say in how our wedding was planned. My wife delegated only one significant task to me: help take care of the foreign guests who wanted to do some traveling in Vietnam. They would be coming to about 10 days before the wedding, and none of them had ever been here before.
Vietnam has always been extremely welcoming towards me, and its strengths as a tourist destination are well known to anyone who has been here or has seriously considered a visit: beautiful landscapes, energetic cities, warm-hearted people, a high degree of personal safety, excellent food, and a unique cultural heritage at the crossroads of China and Southeast Asia. But I wouldn’t be able to look after our visitors all the time, and some people in Vietnam seemed to be getting worried that foreign tourists are not enjoying themselves much. Indeed, the domestic media has recently commented on the growing pains of Vietnam’s tourism industry – particularly the relatively low visitor return rate and the limited success in attracting high-end tourists from the Western and Asian markets. A government source estimates that only around 15% of all visitors return to Vietnam (compared to around 50% for Thailand.)
Some suspect that scams and dishonest marketing are largely to blame. For example, a couple of our guests who wanted to make their own arrangements complained that the travel agency they used had wildly misrepresented the tour package they were selling. Even when my native Vietnamese speaking wife and I accompanied the whole group to Hanoi for two nights, we found that many of the taxi drivers were trying to cheat us by driving around aimlessly to run up the meter.
Another problem mentioned on Internet travel forums is the presence of overly aggressive hawkers at major tourist sites. In Hanoi’s old quarter, our group was approached by what appeared to be a sweet old lady wearing a non la (conical hat) and carrying a bamboo pole with fruit baskets suspended from each end. She smiled at us, saying “Hello!” We smiled back and indicated that none of us wanted to buy any fruit. As we were about to walk away, though, she voluntarily put her things aside, as if to invite us to don them ourselves and take a few pictures. She seemed nice so we decided to take a few goofy photos and then offer to buy a couple of bananas anyway. To my surprise, the old lady angrily scoffed at our offer and made it clear we should buy an entire basket! In the end, I said we would pay VND20,000 for few bananas, and that she should take that deal or leave it.
Unfortunately, little episodes like this leave many travelers feeling cynical and disillusioned — that he or she is seen by locals not as a guest, but as a walking ATM machine. However, I spoke with our wedding guests after their vacations, and I found that the negative experiences they had with getting hassled or cheated was not enough to deter them from coming back. Even the couple that was duped into buying a crummy tour package realized in retrospect that this could easily have been avoided by asking around or doing a little bit of research. Several other guests who were a little more careful went off on their own and said they encountered no unexpected problems with their accommodations or transportation.
As for scheming taxi drivers and aggressive hawkers, it’s true that this can be very annoying. But several of the more seasoned travelers among our guests noted that the same problems are widespread in tourist locales across Thailand, Cambodia and China as well. In any case, these downsides were more than offset by the positive experiences they had with most Vietnamese, and by the low cost of travel.
I suppose it’s possible that they were just being polite, but all of our guests said they had a positive experience in Vietnam. Besides our wedding, of course, they all described great memories they had here: trekking around Sapa, eating delicious food in Hoi An, drinking bia hoi (draft beer) alongside locals in Hanoi, and so on.
But still, among our 15 foreign guests, only a few of them told me they would definitely come back within the next few years. The explanations that they gave didn’t surprise me, and they had little to do with forceful touts or hotel scams.
The main reasons deterring a return visit in the near future were: 1) Hanoi and Saigon were not very pedestrian friendly due to poor traffic infrastructure and excessive air pollution, 2) Vehicle and rail travel were usually very tedious and time consuming, which made beautiful and interesting areas outside of major cities difficult to access, 3) While budget hotels were easy to find and very cost competitive, luxury accommodations were scarce outside the two largest cities and often more expensive than in neighboring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, 4) Hanoi’s Noi Bai and Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airports don’t have as many international flights as the region’s main air travel hubs, and smaller airports in Vietnam have almost no international flights at all.
In other words, I think Vietnam’s low visitor return rate can’t be explained by a lack of beauty, charm or things to do. Scams and pushy vendors are problems, but often not serious enough for many travelers to rule out another visit. Instead, the four issues I mentioned above all relate to the relative youth of Vietnam’s tourism industry and its underdeveloped transportation infrastructure, which makes the logistics of travel in Vietnam more difficult than in neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia or China.
But this is starting to change as Vietnam’s economy continues to grow, investment in hotel and resort development increases, and perhaps most crucially, as more emphasis is placed on improving roads and limiting traffic congestion.
For example, let me compare two trips that I took to Cai Be, in the Mekong Delta, with a group of Vietnamese family and friends. The first one was about four years ago and the last was about three weeks ago.
On our first trip, I really enjoyed taking in the sights of the area’s idyllic waterways and farms. And when traveling in Vietnam, it’s not just the sights that entice you, but the sounds, smells and tastes of a place — the chirping birds, the magnolia trees, the fresh chao hen (tiny clam porridge). It was a great getaway day trip from Saigon, and we certainly didn’t regret going there. But we didn’t go back for another four years, partly because it was little tiring just getting there and back. Traffic moved slowly on ordinary roads, as they were often clogged with motorbikes. Along the way, views of the surrounding countryside were almost always obstructed by a seemingly endless string of shops and concrete buildings. Including a short stop for a snack, it was a three-hour journey. One way.
On our most recent trip, Cai Be was just as nice as I remembered, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that a large stretch of the journey can now be covered on a newly constructed highway, which is restricted to car traffic only and provides views of a peaceful rural landscape. This highway and the improvements made to smaller roads cut the travel time by at least an hour.
We will definitely go back to Cai Be again, and it won’t wait to take another four years to return. For what it’s worth, I think this could be a parable for the future of tourism in Vietnam. People are already coming to Vietnam and enjoying themselves, and as infrastructure and services improve, I think we can expect a lot more of them to return.