So here's another one of my articles for Doanh Nhan Saigon Cuoi Tuan. Make of it what ye will...
It is said that Vietnam’s tourism industry has a return rate of only 5% (claimed by an article in the Economist published last month) compared to Thailand which has a return rate of 50%. Vietnam has only been open to tourism for 25 years, Thailand was a hippie destination back in the 60s. Is it worth comparing the two? First I think it is worth pointing out that Thailand has to be one of the most gorgeous, value-for-money countries in the entire world, particularly the beaches and islands. Easy to get around, laid back, crystal clear waters and stunning postcard quality views are on offer everywhere you look. Vietnam can’t compete in the beach category although we do have some great great beaches here, some still completely undeveloped for tourism. Thailand also has jungles and trekking. But so does Vietnam. In actual fact, I think the range of activities available to tourists in Vietnam is spectacular - with the Mekong Delta in the South up to the central highlands, the endless coastline and then the cultural, historical north and hill towns like Sapa.
This is where the ‘return tourists’ theory falls flat for me. Almost all visitors to Vietnam traverse the Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh route, north to south or vice versa. The shape of the country makes this an obvious choice. Therefore you will witness most of the diversity of Vietnam in one short 3 week trip. This kind of trip also attracts the more open minded and adventurous traveller - travellers who once they have ‘done’ it they will be looking for the next country to go and explore, not thinking about returning to do it again. The kind of traveller who ‘returns’ is the one who finds somewhere he likes and sticks with it, typically an island, a beach, a swimming pool, a resort, etc. Thailand is full of these kind of places, and I know if I had to choose between Thailand and Vietnam for a 2 week beach holiday, I’d be in Thailand like a flash. So for me, it’s no surprise that Thailand has ten times more return visitors than Vietnam - they are very different destinations attracting different kinds of tourists.
However, let’s talk about what can be improved here, because don’t get me wrong, there is a long, long way to go. One of the few places I know that does get return tourists in Vietnam is Mui Ne - only 200km from Ho Chi Minh City but a painfully slow 5 hour journey by road. Thailand, Malaysia and other countries with similar beaches to offer have airports or gleaming highways that whisk the traveller there in no time at all. It may seem a small factor, but again if you had to choose, what would it be? It’s a similar story all over the country. Distances between Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Dalat are small, but the infrastructure makes road travel difficult. Highway One never fails to amaze me - the ONLY road to Phan Thiet, Nha Trang and beyond, and it is a single lane piece of tarmac which passes through towns and cities and has people living along its side the entire length of the country. Buses and trucks sometimes overtake in an insanely dangerous manner, definitely enough to convince the innocent first-time tourist to never come back.
A recent trip to Mui Ne provides another perfect example of how far the tourism industry has to come in Vietnam. The sand dunes are one of the main attractions near Mui Ne fishing village and are indeed beautiful and fun to climb. However, the site seems to be totally unregulated. Young children hawk boards for sliding down the dunes and compete fiercely with each other for custom, and in an unpleasant experience we were literally chased off of the sand by a group of girls all under 10 who were screaming and shouting at my wife (who is Vietnamese) like a pack of baying dogs. The scene is repeated up and down the country. Numerous people have complained to me about unbearable hawking at places like Hai Van pass - all you want to do is enjoy the view but a few hawkers selling things you really don’t want can pester you so much you just want to get back in the car five minutes later.
So, despite Vietnam not being in the same league as Thailand and attracting a different kind of holidaymaker, there is still work to be done to satisfy those adventurous people who do come here - and hopefully make them want to come back. That includes looking after and protecting the beautiful sites around the country, making them as enjoyable, safe and valuable as possible.