In 2012, I arrived in Vung Tau and stayed in the best hotel in the region. Each room, including breakfast, was less than AU$100 (US$67). Now, a decade later, high-end tourism is commonplace across Vietnam with new developments in all the key tourist locations.
The Ho Tram tourism strip in the southern province of Ba Ria – Vung Tau, as an example, has exploded in recent years with massive development of world-class resorts. More than eight developments have given guests from Vietnam and overseas a real taste of the luxury holiday experience. The location is supported by year-round warm weather and a coastline that is as good as anywhere in Vietnam.
Most of these resorts are predominantly self-contained. Overseas tourists find them appealing because they have no need to communicate in any language but English and they find it a safe option with regard to food and basic services. A typical tourist will often struggle with basic functions, such as buying food, due to not having any insight into the Vietnamese language. This is often the case in many countries where English is not the first language.
Golf, too, has become a focus point of Vietnamese tourism. A range of development and tourism companies have opened golf courses around the country with the focus on drawing in revenue from overseas travelers who enjoy the thrill of playing golf. Ho Tram supports the many developments with a featured golf course only a short drive from most resorts.
But it’s not just Ho Tram that has golf as a feature. Across Vietnam, world-class golf courses have sprung up in many locations. They attract keen Vietnamese golfers that are more common as the sport is fast growing in popularity, as well as having specific services to support tourists from other Asian nations and across the globe.
|People play golf at a golf course in Vietnam. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
These courses are not stand-alone. They are often integrated with a resort that provides all services to tourists who want a golfing holiday and do not have to venture out of the resort. Now, over 50 world-class golf courses are spread across Vietnam from Sa Pa in the north to Phu Quoc Island in the south.
Theme parks and attractions have also created more for tourists to see and do whilst they are experiencing Vietnam.
Gone are the days of a simple walk down a traditional street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Now, experiences are available in every province.
Phu Quoc Island is among a number of regions that now have amazing developments with family attractions and experiences to keep families busy for days.
|The United Center Phu Quoc tourist area on Phu Quoc Island off Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam. Photo: Chi Cong / Tuoi Tre|
It is the new and modern form of tourism in Vietnam, but it also comes at a price.
In the past, coming to Vietnam, as an international tourist, meant that you were exposed to the raw culture of Vietnam. In that raw culture, local pricing and sharing of services that were used daily by local communities were shared with tourists.
Essentially, Vietnam was designed with Vietnamese people in mind and the idea of international tourism was only an added extra to ensuring the local tourism market remained strong. It was a successful model that lasted for decades.
Over the past 20 years or so, slow and constant change has brought a new focus on holidays.
In the past, a holiday in Vietnam meant you stayed in a city area, like Da Lat or Phan Thiet, and that experience included eating at local restaurants, plus obtaining all your experiences from the same vendors being used by the community. This made the experience very cheap because the cost of the holiday was relevant to the general economic condition of the region you were visiting.
|A view of Da Lat City from a hot-air balloon in Lam Dong Province, Vietnam, December 28, 2022. Photo: M.V. / Tuoi Tre|
In modern Vietnam, you are still able to find cheap local options, but often you need to have some knowledge and experience to navigate the language barrier, culture, and the fact that some local communities are not accustomed to interacting with international guests.
Traveling in a foreign country that is not an English-speaking one is considered a challenge by most people but, personally, having a little Vietnamese communication skill, I find it a life-changing experience to be out with local communities experiencing amazing food and even more amazing landscapes of the countryside in Vietnam.
Now, modern Vietnam delivers an easier option to tourists with the resort model of holidaying. A foreign tourist can take a tour or arrange a holiday directly with a resort. They spend their holiday swimming at the beach, having a range of spa treatments, playing sports including golf, and dining, all within the one resort. Sure, this comes at a premium price but it is a wonderful experience and a safe option for those seeking a luxury holiday in an idyllic place such as Vietnam.
The biggest risk with the plethora of luxury developments is that it may, in fact, kill off the cheap tourism that Vietnam was once commonly known for around the world. Many holiday headlines would tell travelers, including backpackers, that it was easy to survive on just a few dollars a day in Vietnam. This has been evident by the popularity of such places as Bui Vien Street in Ho Chi Minh City that was affectionately known as 'Backpacker Street.' Even Bui Vien has shrugged off its cheap reputation and now services more young Vietnamese people and tourists from all over the world. It is now considered one of the party epicenters of the region and no longer regarded as the cheapest place in Ho Chi Minh City for travelers to drink beer and party.
|A file photo shows foreign tourists buying 'banh mi' at a street stall in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
I feel excited as I see a new world of tourism spring from the post-COVID-19 slowdown. I feel excited to be able to have options when it comes to choosing a quality holiday. I feel excited that I no longer have to leave Vietnam and go to places like Malaysia, Singapore or Bali to have a five-star resort-style holiday. And I feel excited that these world-class resorts are very competitive in pricing with equivalent resorts in other countries around the world.
|Desserts are served at a buffet restaurant in a five-star hotel in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
However, it also brings a little sadness that the deep culture and spirit of Vietnam are slowly being lost to the outside world. Less and less people are choosing to experience the raw Vietnam. Less and less are choosing the $12-a-night hotel or the $0.75 banh mi thit (Vietnamese sandwiches) on the street for breakfast. Less and less people are choosing to wander and learn about the culture of Vietnam and the road less traveled is really now becoming less traveled.
Whilst I will appreciate the luxury of the five-star resorts at times, I will never stop exploring that road less traveled. I have always said, since I first arrived on a holiday here in 2012, that Vietnam is like an onion. To find the true heart of Vietnam you must peel each layer one by one, slowly, and eventually you will become one of the privileged few to see and feel the true heart of Vietnam.
|Boats carry visitors who attend the Trang An Festival at the namesake landscape complex in the northern Vietnamese province of Ninh Binh on April 21, 2019. Photo: Mai Thuong / Tuoi Tre|
I hope that the true heart of Vietnam is not lost to the outside world. I hope that a warm beer and a glass of ice, or bun bo (spicy beef noodles) on a street corner, remain the experiences that people take with them on their travels. And the smiles of the children… Nothing will ever embrace the love and beauty of this country like seeing the smile of a child who finds delight in just being able to share a moment with a stranger who took the time to stop and experience a local village. I hope this remains the true heart of Vietnam and that it is these memories that tourists carry with them after they experience one of the most amazing countries in the world, Vietnam.