Lydia Webb questions whether Vietnam has become too reliant on Tourism
When I visited Vietnam, it was obvious to see why its tourism industry has erupted in recent years. Such a beautiful country with a tragic war-torn past, it provides the perfect combination of history and natural beauty. It’s no wonder that tourism is such a draw.
When the U.S. embargo was lifted in 1994 and Vietnam’s diplomatic relations with the U.S. were normalised in 1995, the tourism trade really began to grow. Clinton visited in 2000, the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1974 and since then everyone, from backpackers to war veterans have made the pilgrimage.
Certain destinations I visited in Vietnam did seem very touristy. Even so, I felt like it was still relatively untouched compared to places like Thailand.
One of these was Con Dao, an archipelago off the South coast of Vietnam. A beautiful and historically interesting site, with gorgeous crystal blue sea bordered by sandy beaches, you would think that the islands would be rife with tourists but they’re not. On a snorkelling trip, I spoke to the guide who expressed frustration at the lack of tourism. Apparently tourism was at its peak in the islands a few years ago but then big travel agencies started buying up the short haul tickets to Con Dao and selling them at extortionate prices, putting off travellers from visiting the islands. This seemed like such a shame for the people who relied on the tourism industry to make a living; the infrastructure was there but the tourists weren’t. However, selfishly, it was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of places like Ho Chi Minh City.
I really began to appreciate this when I went to Ha Long Bay a few weeks later, where it was a struggle to take a photograph without a huge tour boat in the frame. Ha Long Bay definitely did not live up to the hype. The rock formations were stunning but because it’s so far north, it doesn’t begin to warm up there until around June. This meant that instead of the crystal waters and blue sky advertised in the guidebooks, it was a blur of grey-green sky, sea and tour boats. I couldn’t help but feel that the soul of such a beautiful place was missing, driven out in order to accommodate the mass tourist influx.
There are benefits to tourism of course, for instance the improvement of infrastructure, boosting the local economy and improving quality of life for the residents. But is it disheartening to see a country so reliant on tourism?
With the rise of tourism, came the pronouncement of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This meant beautiful natural phenomena and historical towns, such as Hoi An became protected from any form of development. This was a blessing for natural parks, however, in the case of the old town of Hoi An, its protection came at a slight cost. It feels more like a theme park, with tourists charged admission on entering the old town.
Visitors have complained that in more deprived areas of Vietnam, such as Sapa, local children follow them around pestering them to buy any old thing from them. But who can really blame them? Tourists have always been seen as a source of income in poorer countries all over the world, and I’ve seen much more upsetting cases of begging than just slightly annoying heckling.
I would argue that future implications of a nation being so dependent on tourism would be more cause for concern. Vietnam will likely follow Thailand by becoming more costly (although it’s still very cheap) and will probably become more crowded as more and more people discover Vietnam for the gem that it is. It will likely be transformed in the years to come so my advice would be to visit now before it changes.
Images: Lydia Webb