Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s Tourist Problem

Hanoi’s 1000th anniversary has brought an influx of visitors. But why are so few foreign? And why won’t they come back?

By Bridget O'Flaherty for

For the past 999 days, the large screen by Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake has been counting down the days until zero. A lot has changed since the countdown began—the roads are even more crowded now, with virtual gridlock across much of the city, while the streets are filled with newly-added lights. National flags have been handed out to households and now adorn many of the city’s balconies.

The influx of visitors to the city, most of whom are from the surrounding provinces, are mostly here for one thing—to share in the celebrations Sunday marking the 1000th anniversary of Hanoi’s founding.

But it wasn’t meant to be the region’s farmers, for example, who were going to come for a glimpse of the action—the anniversary was supposed to mark the height of an ongoing international drive to bolster the country’s tourism industry.

In 2007, Vietnam launched a campaign that ran on major cable channels around the world carrying a simple slogan—‘Vietnam—The Hidden Charm’. It was hoped that tourists would flock to the country after being wowed by the campaign’s slideshow of traditional culture and natural beauty.

Three years later, officials had hoped to build on the campaign and exploit Hanoi’s anniversary festivities to showcase the city—and the country—to the expected visitors. But it hasn’t quite worked out like that.

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‘(It was) a missed opportunity, at least insofar as international travellers are concerned,’ says Jim Sullivan, head of Mandarin Media, a US public relations firm that represents many of the country’s five-star resorts. ‘None of the hotels knew what was planned.’

Indeed, while the 2007 campaign was ‘The Hidden Charm’, the lead-up to the capital’s 1000th birthday party could perhaps better have been described as ‘The Hidden Plan.’

Until just a couple of weeks before the festivities began on October 1, no timetable for the events had been distributed, meaning few people in the city had any idea what might happen, where or when. The only certainties were fireworks and traffic jams.

Up until the start of this month, local news had been reporting that a total of about 800,000 foreign and domestic visitors were expected in the capital over the 10-day series of events. Yet despite the traffic congestion and large crowds in some spots, these projections appear to have been some way off the mark, with few hotels reporting being full.

It’s hard to imagine that travel agents, hoteliers and public relations bodies won’t have been disappointed by the failure to attract many new arrivals. After all, it seemed to have been widely agreed that one of the aims of this reportedly $63-million-dollar knees-up was to boost the number of foreign visitors.

Vietnam prides itself on what it sees as its unique culture and reputation as a must-see on itineraries taking in the region, and the anniversary provided the perfect opportunity to exploit this—among the varied list of activities drawn-up by authorities were pottery exhibitions, a ‘Revolutionary Film Week’, numerous art shows and much more. 

And, according to official estimates, there were actually 3.3 million tourist arrivals in the first eight months of this year, which if accurate would indicate an about 35 percent rise from 2009. The government is quick to take credit for this apparent rise, arguing that it wasn’t just down to a gradual recovery following the global financial crisis.

‘Foreign visitors are up, partly thanks to the recovery of global tourism, but also thanks to our efforts in tourism promotion campaigns,’ Vietnam National Administration of Tourism deputy director Nguyen Manh Cuong was quoted by the German press agency DPA as saying recently.

However, industry analysts speaking off the record note that even expat visa runs are counted as new arrivals and that it’s often difficult to tell from official figures which are the business arrival numbers and which are for tourists.

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VNAT declined to comment when contacted for a response.

But regardless of the accuracy of official figures, the government is determined to promote its ‘successes’. State news has, for example, run articles describing how foreigners have been ‘sharing in the happiness and excitement’ of Hanoi’s anniversary celebrations. In another ‘news’ article that reads as if equal parts travel brochure and propaganda pamphlet, visitors and expats of all ages are said to have been marvelling at traffic and the capital’s friendly locals. Other stories have reported on the 19 ‘records’ that have been set, or fawning over specific events like a calligraphy exhibition at the city’s Temple of Literature. 

But setting aside this year’s anniversary, officials hoping to boost tourism have one major problem—most tourists only come once. While Thailand can boast of a 50 percent repeat visitor rate, Vietnam’s is said to be somewhere between five and ten percent.

In fact, Thailand’s success is often seen as a benchmark that Vietnam should try to emulate. The trouble is, it can’t work out how to do so. Although it tries to sell itself as the more ‘stable’ South-east Asian destination (especially following the periodic outbreaks of unrest in Bangkok in recent years that at one point left foreign travellers stranded for days), Vietnam suffers from a less experienced service industry and still doesn’t offer visas on arrival.

Of course, comparing the two is in many ways unfair. Thailand has, after all, been fine-tuning its tourism industry for decades (including for use by US soldiers fighting the Vietcong). Communist Vietnam, meanwhile, only opened its economy to the world in 1986, and its borders to foreigners gradually after. All this means that although the country has slowly started to shed its intimate association with war, it’s still seen by many as essentially a backpackers’ destination.

Such relative inexperience is compounded by inefficiencies within the tourism authority itself, something that travel analysts say has been an ongoing frustration.

‘Their (VNAT’s) trade show booth at some of the biggest international travel trade shows in the world hasn’t been updated in years,’ says one former marketing manager for a Hanoi-based travel company speaking off the record. She added that the ‘Hidden Charm’ campaign, meanwhile, just seemed outdated. ‘They’re branding isn’t as professional or creative as other Asian countries.’

But it’s not just the bureaucracy that’s holding down repeat visitor numbers. Ongoing problems with scams, infrastructure and just a general sense of disorganisation in the approach to tourism are all taking their toll. Tourists find themselves being regularly overcharged, even for basic items and services. Meanwhile, shakedowns in cabs are common, including a tragic case in May in which a cab driver died in hospital due to injuries sustained in a fight with an Australian tourist (the two allegedly came to blows after a disagreement over a fare resulted in the driver trying to leave with the 64-year-old’s luggage). 

‘We don't have the kind of training programmes that keep cab drivers and cyclo drivers from harassing travellers,’ Mandarin Media’s Sullivan says. ‘Vietnam doesn’t have great repeat visitor traffic because too many people come here and leave in frustration.’

That said, Steve Jackson, a Hanoi-based social media consultant who monitors travel blogs, says it’s important to draw a distinction between bad bargaining by visitors and behaviour that’s simply illegal. ‘The taxis are a law unto themselves. If resources were put into sorting out that problem, Vietnam's reputation would rise substantially almost immediately.’

In the meantime, though, there’s just one day to go before Hanoi makes 1000. The local tourism industry is busy readying itself, and officials will have their fingers crossed for the culmination of festivities that visitors have flocked to Hoan Kiem to be a part of—even if they’ve only come from as far as their homes in the Hanoi suburbs, for a concert by the lake.