Have you ever experienced the stress of not being able to buy a train ticket to Nha Trang or Quang Binh, although you tried to buy that ticket almost a month in advance? Or have you ever found hotels in Phu Quoc to just suddenly become a lot more expensive or get fully booked? This phenomenon, which was rarely the case a decade ago, can now challenge anyone making plans to travel during the long holiday weekends or summer months.
The last 20 years have seen a huge increase in the number of Vietnamese domestic travellers. According to a report from the Institute for Tourism Development Research, in 1992 there were two million domestic tourists in Vietnam. 10 years later, this number had increased to 13 million. Last year the number surpassed 32.5 million, which means if each person is going on one trip a year, about 40 percent of the Vietnamese population travel.
According to Euromonitor International, a market research website publishing reports on industries, consumers and demographics in Vietnam, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of the domestic tourism industry this year will reach 10 percent. The equivalent growth in China is nine percent, while in The Philippines it is 13 percent. For developed countries like France, Germany or the UK, whose citizens have a long tradition of travelling both inside and outside the country, this growth is between one and two percent.
“10 years ago, we had only a few hundred clients a year, now we get thousands,” says Luong Duy Doanh, deputy director and co-owner of New Star Tour, a travel company based in Hanoi. “The number of Vietnamese [domestic] travellers has increased [exponentially], especially in the last five years. Despite many businesses facing difficulties, the number of people travelling last year was still very high.”
New Ways of Travel
Along with the increasing number of trips taken, Vietnamese tourists are also choosing more diverse ways to travel.
Young people often like the phuot style of travelling, namely self-designed tours, often on motorbikes in small groups of close friends or relatives. Names such as Huyen Chip — author of 2012’s Pack your Bag and Go travelog — or Do Thi Thuy Hang, CEO of ivivu.com, an online hotel booking service for Vietnamese, have recently emerged as inspiring examples of young Vietnamese people travelling the world. Both are female, in their twenties, and have had extensive experience travelling. They are now using that experience to start careers in their home country. Hang, an MBA graduate from Harvard, has travelled to over 30 countries. She was the Vietnam representative at the World Economic Forum held in Myanmar in June to share her “next great idea” for bridging Vietnamese youth with the world through her ivivu.com service and new technologies. Meanwhile, Huyen Chip is still busy with her idea of creating a wiki travel ‘how’ website specifically for Vietnamese backpackers (Wiki Du Lich Ba Lo), together with the ‘Traveling is an Equal Opportunity Foundation’ to support young Vietnamese who want to travel.
To meet this growing desire to just get up and go, hundreds of forums and social network sites have sprung up among travellers themselves to share experiences. The content includes anything from finding new routes to fixing motorbikes and photos taken during trips. Phuot.vn, taybacgroup.com.vn or the The Gioi Anh Facebook group are among the most popular sites.
Meanwhile, middle-aged and older tourists tend to prefer pre-arranged tours for the convenience and worry-free experience. But compared to the past, this group’s demand for tours has become much more challenging for tour companies.
“We always have to come up with new initiatives,” says Doanh. “People are now much more experienced in travelling, so we have to keep looking for new destinations. Our clients have the internet and they can check whatever the tour guides say, not like before, when sometimes the tour guides made up stories and were not worried about being caught.”
As the number of domestic tourists continues to increase, new kinds of packages such as spiritual or pilgrimage tours where people visit Buddhist temples, as well as golf tours or explorations tours have also become popular. Ludwig Boinier, sales manager at Buffalo Tour Agency, which was once focused on tourists from overseas and expats living in Vietnam, says that their company is now targeting domestic travellers, especially the high to middle-income group as there is a “huge market” there.
Another popular method of seeing the sites, which just 10 years ago would have been hard to imagine, is by private car. As the number of cars owned by Vietnamese continues to soar — between 2006 and 2009 alone this increased from 600,000 to over one million — more families choose to drive to weekend getaway destinations or to take trips further afield. Long, 60, who only learned to drive at the age of 55, has just completed a three-week cross country road trip with his wife. Describing the experience as “amazing”, he adds: “We swam in 16 different beaches along our trip. The roads are pretty good, so driving on your own is very comfortable.”
A Long Way To Go
The revenue from domestic tourism in 2012 reached US$7.6 billion (VND160 trillion), a big jump from US$1.1 billion (VND23.1 trillion) in 2002 and US$143 million (VND3 trillion) in 1992. But at the same time, there is also an urgent need for a well-structured tourism system and sustainable development at the country’s visitor sites.
Minh, owner of Cotolodge hotel on the remote Co To Island in Quang Ninh, says that remote islands and destinations have quickly become touristy. “We started our business in Quan Lan Island [a neighbouring island of Co To but closer to the land] about 10 years ago when it was still untouched. But now, the island has become polluted. The number of visitors is increasing every year and it’s full of overpriced hotels.” He adds that this is the reason he has opened one of the first hotels in Co To. He is trying to make it a better, more eco-friendly destination.
There are other concerns, too, especially when travelling during the summer or on holiday weekends. Accommodation prices can get hiked dramatically in many places, air and transport tickets run out quickly and services are poor. One month before the long weekend of Apr. 30 this year, ferry tickets from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc were reported to be already sold out. Many rooms were double-priced and full. Sam Son Beach in Thanh Hoa is among the destinations that have the biggest reputation for hiking up prices during the peak season.
One reason for tourists being ripped off, says Doanh, is a lack of planning. “It’s the habit of Vietnamese people not to book things well in advance. So when they book close to the date, the service can’t be as good.” He adds that his company often receives bookings just one week before the departure date.
So if you’re thinking of investing in tourism in Vietnam, there is great potential, but you’ll need to come up with new initiatives to satisfy the more experienced customers. And if you’re planning to travel in the summer, try to avoid the long holiday weekends and book things early.
The Peak Season
Here is a list of useful websites to get deals when travelling during peak season:
1) Train tickets: Regular tickets available at the stations run out quickly, but several reliable agencies can help you find tickets
2) Domestic hotel booking sites. The best way to get deals in Vietnam, regardless of the season
muachung.vn (Vietnamese only)
nhommua.com (Vietnamese only)