What are your favourite travel destinations in Vietnam? This is the question we posed our judges. Here is how they responded. Words by Nick Ross
According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), by the end of 2016, 9 million overseas visitors will have arrived in Vietnam, the majority from China, South Korea, Japan, the US and Taiwan. This represents a 25 percent increase on last year. With the tourism industry accounting for 7 percent of national GDP in 2015, this will have a positive effect on the local economy.
Wind the clock back to 2000 and Vietnam was a very different place. The overseas image of this country was one of conical hats and paddy fields, Communism and a war which involved America. Just 2 million foreign visitors crossed the country’s borders, and those who did would have most likely spent their time in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Halong Bay, Dalat, Nha Trang, Vung Tau, the Mekong Delta and Hue. Places like Sapa, Hoi An, Phu Quoc and Mui Ne were only just starting to take shape, while other modern day destinations of choice such as Phong Nha, Ha Giang and Con Dao were off the radar altogether.
The purpose of our annual travel survey is not to look at inbound tourism from overseas, but to get a different insight — into domestic tourism and in particular the travel preferences of our readership.
We target our publication at English speakers living in Vietnam. Based on recent readership surveys, that means 70 to 75 percent of our readership will be from overseas — the rest will be educated, English-speaking Vietnamese, many of whom will have spent time living abroad.
Combined, this is a market segment with spending power. While there are no statistics available, our guess is that educated, English-speaking Vietnamese will earn far more than their non-English speaking compatriots. Likewise, due to salary differentials, foreigners tend to have more to spend on leisure. One form of leisure that most people from overseas take seriously is travel.
This year Hoi An was the runaway winner — almost two-thirds of our judges put the central Vietnamese town in their top five favourite destinations in Vietnam. There is a reason for Hoi An’s dominance — the destination has a bit of everything. Beaches, old architecture, shopping, eating, drinking, nightlife, countryside and culture. It’s also easy to get to from Danang and accommodation ranges from budget to five-star — one of Vietnam’s top resorts, the Nam Hai, is a 15-minute drive from Hoi An.
However, what our judges voted for next showed a different preference based on where people live. For Hanoians, Phu Quoc is a great place to visit. The beaches, the island life, the azure blue sea and the striking sunsets all provide a certain tropical flavour that you don’t get up north, even in the summer. You voted it as your second favourite destination in Vietnam. For people living in Saigon, though, Phu Quoc doesn’t even hit the top five.
Voters from down south maintain a love of Halong Bay. Yet if you live in Hanoi, once you’ve done the trip for the first time you’re unlikely to go back. Transportation there is difficult, the sea is polluted and the attitude of people working in the tourist industry is businesslike and brusque.
Another interesting destination is Ha Giang. Nestled at the foot of the Himalayas, we’ve said it before and we’ve said it again — Ha Giang is the most beautiful place in Vietnam. People living in Hanoi know this, and for many, a trip to the most northerly province in Vietnam is a rite of passage. Yet down south, few know about the natural beauty of this place so far up north. It’s not surprising. Ha Giang has no marketing.
Our biggest disappointment, though, was the response to Phong Nha. It got nowhere near our top five. For years Vietnam has been crying out for a destination which is focused on jungle trekking and outdoor pursuits. Phong Nha is that destination. Unfortunately, too many people associate the area with the caves and make comments like: “I couldn’t think of anything worse than spending time in a cave.”
As we can testify, Phong Nha is far more than just a destination for visiting caves. And as it develops, it’s starting to get a bit of everything. The only thing it really lacks right now is top-end accommodation. But give it a few years and it will arrive.
So, where are you going to visit in 2017? The top destinations are a must, but we hope you’ll spare a thought for Ha Giang, Phong Nha and all those other amazing spots this country has to offer.
The Top 5 Travel Destinations in Vietnam
Overall Hanoi and HCMC votes combined
Voters from Hanoi
Voters from Ho Chi Minh City
The Voting Criteria
We asked our 100-plus judges to base their votes on the following criteria:
— Transportation and Connections
— Natural Beauty
— Range of Activities
— Quality of Accommodation
— Shopping Opportunities
— Quality of Food