Get off the train at Dong Hoi, a provincial capital 150km north of Quang Binh, and you will get a surprise. Normally not one foreigner visits the non-tourist parts of Vietnam. But on this writer’s trip, at least 30 travellers rode the 1980s-built iron horse plying the route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
That Dong Hoi is getting traction on the travellers’ circuit is due to the opening up of Phong Nha–Ke Bang National Park. Just 30km away, it’s the home of the world’s largest cave and has suddenly entered tourist’s itineraries. So popular is Phong Nha that one Hanoi-based tour operator is aiming to start a new Open Tour bus route linking the capital with Ninh Binh, Phong Nha, Hue and Hoi An. And yet, talk to foreigners living in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City or even Danang — the majority have never even heard of Phong Nha.
The Tourism Question
Over the past year, Vietnam’s tourism industry has been in soul-searching mode. Reality has dawned. Why is this country not getting the same traction as elsewhere in Southeast Asia? In Thailand alone, the tourism industry brings in 22 million people a year. In Vietnam it is more in the region of five.
Two reasons are cited. The first is the need to purchase visas. This is closely followed by the constant flow of tourist scams, which authorities are now trying to stop.
Commentators have added another factor to the mix. Thailand is a destination that mixes entertainment and culture, which brings tourists back again and again. Vietnam, however, remains solely a cultural destination. Once you’ve seen the motorbikes and food stalls, and can add “I’ve done Vietnam” to your lexicon, you’re unlikely to come back.
But these causes fail to touch upon another, perhaps more poignant reason, for Vietnam struggling on the tourism front — the lack of developed destinations.
Let’s take a look at a typical itinerary, starting in Hanoi. Two days in the capital are followed by a day trip to Halong Bay then three days doing Sapa. Fly to Danang and spend three days in Hoi An. Then onto Ho Chi Minh City for a day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels and another day trip to My Tho and Cai Be in the Mekong Delta, before flying home or out to the next destination.
Hue, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Dalat are often missed out, because the tourist has already done that one route from north to south, and is unlikely to come back to fill in the gaps.
The Importance of Phong Nha
Yet Vietnam has so much more to it than all those destinations on Highway 1. Daklak, Kontum, Dalat, Ha Giang, Lang Son, Dien Bien Phu, Phu Quoc, Con Dao, Mai Chau, Ha Tien, Bai Tu Long, Can Tho. The list goes on. The problem is that tourism in these places — except perhaps for Dalat and Phu Quoc — is badly served. Facilities are low-grade. Transportation is difficult. Few people speak foreign languages, and getting there requires going off the beaten track.
Which is why Phong Nha is working so well. Transportation is easy. Growing numbers of caves are being opened up to tourists, both of the easy visitor sort and those reached on one or two-day treks. There are now five farmstays or homestays as well as a handful of mini-hotels, and the park tours are well set up and won’t break the budget.
Increasing tourism in Vietnam is about increasing the number of destinations. This will in turn increase the size of the market. Thailand has a plethora of easy-to-get-to tourist hotspots. If Vietnam can develop something similar, then maybe they too may get the visitor numbers they so desperately hope for. — Nick Ross
Want to know more?
- Explore Son Doong, the largest cave in the world alongside The Word by clicking here.
- Traverse the stunning landscapes of Phong Nha by clicking here.
- Get your heart beating faster with an adrenaline-fueled adventure through two of Vietnam's river caves by clicking here.
- Follow the against-all-odds transformation of tourist hotspot Quang Binh from war zone to natural wonder by clicking here.
- Marvel at the natural paradise of Hang En, the cave of 100,000 swallows, by clicking here.