2017 has been another record breaking year for tourism as foreign visitors to Vietnam surged 29.1% over the previous year, reaching an all-time high of 12.9 million, according to the General Statistics Office.
The country consistently makes it into “world’s top 10 lists” by reputable travel sites and newspapers like The Guardian, CNN, Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and Rough Guides.
But just as it is famous for pristine beaches, misty mountains, buzzing cities, mouth watering food and friendly people, the “rough side” of the country hasn’t escaped its global image either.
Visa issues aside, robbery, petty crimes, traffic accidents and service quality continue to put visitors off one year after Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue asked tourism agencies to solve them.
There have been some improvements but Vietnam still has a long way to go, said Nguyen Quoc Ky, CEO of travel company Vietravel.
Many hotlines set up to resolve tourism incidents don’t operate outside working hours while that’s the time when they’re most likely to be needed, Ky said. He added that most hotline staff don’t actually know how to respond to issues like food poisoning.
Echoing Ky, head of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism Nguyen Van Tuan said the issues have been frequent, and could not be fully eliminated.
In September, an officer from the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City was pinned down and robbed in a taxi, according to police reports.
Earlier this year, police in Ho Chi Minh City also detained a man for fatally stabbing an American tourist, allegedly over an argument about the poor quality of drugs the foreigner had bought from him.
Foreign tourists have also faced hassling in Vietnam. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay has earned a reputation for being one of the country’s biggest tourist traps as vendors follow foreigners as soon as they leave buses, often refusing to give up until they finally sell something.
In Da Lat, a resort town in the Central Highlands, groups of gangsters have reportedly forced tourists to pay for unwanted products and services. The situation got so bad that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had to step in, asking local authorities to end this practice, which has threatened security in Da Lat and tainted its image as a favorite travel destination.
But in a country where on average 24 people die from traffic accidents per day, it is lack of road safety that taints Vietnam’s image the most, according to tourism companies.
Even though Vietnam is generally classed as safe overall due to “low” terror threat according to a report issued in January this year by The Telegraph, Vietnam is listed among the more dangerous countries in terms of road deaths.
“It is very, very dangerous,” said Kasia Tomaszewska, a visitor from Poland. “Local people don’t have the culture of respecting pedestrians. You have to cross the street, knowing that nobody will stop.”
The governments of the UK, US, Canada, France, Switzerland and Australia all warn their citizens of potential dangers awaiting them in Vietnam.
“Compliance with local road regulations is poor….There are frequent road traffic accidents and fatal crashes,” according to a UK government website.
At a bar in Ta Hien, a backpacker street in Hanoi, Elena Dalaeva, 30, from Russia shrugged off the risks. “Nowhere in the world is quite safe. Most of foreign tourists don’t have a problem here. Respect laws, learn the basics and use common sense, you will be fine.”
Traffic in Vietnam seems to either puzzle, impress or annoy outsiders, and even locals sometimes. The seemingly chaotic streets have even inspired Enomoto Kaori, a 30-year-old Japanese woman and game designer who arrived in Vietnam in July 2015, to create a mobile game called Vietnamese Road that trains people how to cross the streets.
The game has become so popular that last October it received a US$40,000 grant in the form of tools and services from a Facebook start-up fund.
ABC News quoted Mark Bowyer, who edits the popular Southeast Asian travel website Rusty Compass, as saying that Vietnam was paradoxically “both a very safe and very unsafe travel environment” and tourists needed to be proactive about their safety.
Sometimes, it boils down to how visitors choose to see Vietnam’s tourism vices. They could be part of a wild adventure, or a reason to never return.
Official data published in August show that the latter is the majority as 80 percent of foreign visitors to Vietnam don’t actually return.
In order to resolve these issues, Tuan said the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism cannot simply act alone but has to coordinate with the transport sector, the police and local governments.
Ken Atkinson, chairman of Grant Thornton and vice chairman of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, said he “personally believes the actual return rate for tourists is actually lower than the quoted 20%, as some reports record return tourists at less than 10%.”
The main reason for the low return rate is that Vietnam has yet to really establish itself as a destination for family holidays, as Thailand and Indonesia have managed to do. It is believed that the return rate for tourists in Thailand is closer to 50%, he told VnExpress International.
In order to establish itself as a family destination, he suggested that Vietnam should have a more friendly visa regime, more activities for family recreations and better infrastructure, as well as higher quality services and safer roads.
“Nevertheless, our tourism numbers continue to boom but we need to start to look at the quality of those tourists and their average spend in country,” he said.
After all, the country aims to welcome 17-20 million foreign visitors in 2020, and reach tourism revenue of US$35 billion by the year.