Every year, when the Editorial Board of The Guide magazine and the Organising Committee of The Guide Awards visit different destinations throughout Vietnam, we focus on the business performance of potential winners of The Guide Awards and hold discussions on development trends within the hospitality industry.
This year, thanks to the support and cooperation of candidate representatives, we again achieved these goals. From Quang Ninh to Quang Binh, Thua Thien Hue, Danang, Quang Nam, Binh Thuan, and HCMC, we observed the launch and emergence of many new projects, plans, players, and faces in the tourism sector.
HALONG - QUANG NINH
With around 2,000 limestone islands rising from the sea, together with stunning cave networks and peaceful fishing villages among many other outstanding features, the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay in northeast Quang Ninh province has received a great deal of recognition from international organisations, newspapers, magazines and travel blogs as one of the most attractive tourism destinations in the world.
Despite its popularity, throughout the Bay remain many deserted islands and beaches populated only by birds and the occasional visitor. Apart from caves well-known to tourists, such as Bo Nau, Dau Go, Sung Sot, Trong and Luon, local people now and also find new caves hidden within isolated islands. Over the course of millions of years nature has created giant vaults and miraculous shapes formed by stalactites and stalagmites, which can now be admired and have become jewels to attract visitors.
The period between April and October is the peak season for local and Asian tourists from South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan to visit Quang Ninh province and Halong Bay. On the weekend we were there in mid-July most of the hotels and resorts we visited were fully booked or had occupancy rates of more than 70%.
Halong city has a sufficient supply of accommodation, with many resorts and hotels meeting international standards. Halong Palace Hotel in the Bai Chay area, just a few minute’s walk from the downtown area, boasts a harmonious blend of Eastern and Western architecture and great restaurants, making it a pleasant choice. Novotel Ha Long Bay Hotel, with a beautiful swimming pool and cosy atmosphere, is preferred by business travellers and international visitors. Ha Long Plaza is outstanding for its strategy of retaining a stable pricing policy year-round. Its two Syrena Cruises also provide its customers with a memorable experience while cruising on the Bay. The recently-opened five-star Muong Thanh Quang Ninh hotel, which has the largest number of rooms in the province, at 508, is a good choice for groups and families. Located on Tuan Chau Island, Tuan Chau Island Holiday Villa Halong Bay has a comfortable and peaceful feeling for guests at its villas together with a range of entertainment services. Sophisticated and high class, Paradise Suites Hotel, also located on Tuan Chau Island, is the very first luxury boutique hotel on the shores of Halong Bay, giving guests the sense they are in the middle of a quiet town in a Western country.
The number of tourists visiting Quang Ninh in the first six months of 2015 has been estimated at 5.2 million, an increase of 11% compared to the same period last year, in which the number of international visitors rose 2%, to 1.29 million.
Apart from accommodation by the shore, companies in Halong Bay also offer visitors the great experience of spending nights on the Bay onboard their ships. There are many prestigious names, such as Paradises Cruises, Aphrodite Cruises, Syrena Cruises, and Indochina Sails to choose from. Paradises Cruises, with a fleet of nine cruisers, has seen annual growth despite the difficulties faced by the local tourism sector in recent years.
In the eyes of investors, Quang Ninh is a promised land for investment. The reality, however, is that the province still lacks entertainment services and activities to encourage visitors to return. This is why, in recent years, it has actively called for investment in its tourism industry and at the same time made administrative procedures more straightforward for investors. In September 2014 the Sun Group was granted an investment licence for the construction of a project with total investment capital of VND6,000 billion ($270 million) in Halong city. Called Ha Long Ocean Park, the Disneyland-like park will be the largest entertainment complex in the province and become a key highlight in the development of the provincial and the northeast region’s tourism industry when fully completed in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Another major player in the real estate industry, Vingroup, is building a five-star resort on Reu Island on an area of nearly 50,000 square metres and connecting various attractions in Halong Bay.
Along the shores of the Bay are many projects under construction, which blocks the view of the water for long stretches. Many tourists have commented that Halong city resembles one huge construction site. In the last week of July, Quang Ninh province battled its worst flooding in half a century, damaging much of its infrastructure and slowing down construction of new tourism projects. Provincial authorities and investors are now adopting a number of solutions to resolve the problems caused by the natural disaster so that tourists will continue to come.
When we visited in July, Quang Binh, home of the famous Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and beautiful beaches such as Nhat Le, Hai Ninh, Bao Ninh, and Da Nhay, was in the middle of its peak tourism season, which lasts from April to August.
When we arrived at the entrance of Sun Spa Quang Binh, the only five-star resort in the province, its staff were busy handling the arrival and departure of buses, motor cars and taxis. In June and July its occupancy rate normally stands at 95%.
By its outdoor bar near the beach we had the pleasure of meeting Mr Frank Simonin and Ms Nathalie Becker from Switzerland, who had just returned from an expedition to Son Doong Cave, the largest in the world and only opened to the public since 2013. ‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ they said excitedly.
As magnificent as it is and as powerful a resource for the local tourism industry it may be, Son Doong Cave is not easily accessible. The five-day, four-night (plus one night before and after the expedition) photography tour organised by Oxalis Adventure Tours caters to only a limited number of adventurers. This is not only down to the high cost (VND88,000,000, or $4,000, per person, comprising $3,000 for the tour and $1,000 for additional services), but also because of the level of health and skills required of visitors. Oxalis’s pre-expedition physical preparation literature contains notes such as start/continue training at least six months beforehand, be able to walk comfortably for 10 kilometres/6 miles over a few hours, scaling at least one hill of 300-400 metres/900-1,200 feet, be able to walk confidently over rough ground, be able to scramble over rocks and boulders, and do at least six training hikes (10 kilometres/6 miles with at least one large hill) within the three months leading up to the departure date. Many visitors, therefore, choose to discover the more popular seven kilometres of Thien Duong Cave, which is also in the heart of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and can be done in a day.
In the first six months of this year Quang Binh welcomed 1.8 million visitors, including 30,000 international visitors, up 60% and 50%, respectively, against the same period last year.
Over the last three years, since the much-beloved General Vo Nguyen Giap was buried in the Vung Chua area of Quang Binh, it has become a new spiritual tourism attraction for Vietnamese people. Bao Ninh village, Mother Suot Statue, and Nguyen Huu Canh Temple also count among Quang Binh’s many attractions.
Dong Hoi, the provincial capital, remains a quiet city for tourism compared to elsewhere and has limited accommodation options. Apart from the five-star Sun Spa Quang Binh Resort there are only two four-star hotels - Saigon Quang Binh Hotel and Muong Thanh Quang Binh Hotel.
As this review was being written news came through that Quang Binh was considering a mega-project of ten golf courses on the deserted white sands by the sea on an area totalling 1,000 hectares, invested by the Hanoi-based FLC Group. This triggered a number of questions. Does a province like Quang Binh need so many golf courses? What about environmental issues? Will the golf course complex actually help the province to boost the development of its tourism sector, as provincial leaders claim?
The Prime Minister’s decision on whether to approve the project is still some time away, but we see it as a matter of striking a balance between development and protecting the environment; an issue already addressed by many other provinces in their thirst to attract more visitors and earn higher revenue.
Quang Binh has had some previous experience in debatable projects. It faced stiff opposition from around the world to its ‘Save Son Doong Cave’ campaign, which included the construction of a cable car. The Vietnamese Government then signed off on a development plan that prevents a cable car from being built until at least 2030.
This year the province has held many conferences and forums to boost tourism promotion and investment. There are a good signs that the province is paying attention to visitors’ comments. At the Muong Thanh Quang Binh hotel, where we stayed during our review tour, we found a form in every room seeking feedback from guests on their experience in Quang Binh, issued by the Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. We hope that many people complete the form and help the province improve its tourism sector. In the long run, Quang Binh simply must offer more services and activities.
HUE - THUA THIEN HUE
Thua Thien Hue, located to the north of the stunning Hai Van Pass, perhaps has the most unique attractions in the country.
At one time the capital of Vietnam, under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), Hue has maintained its rich tangible and intangible cultural heritages, boasting innumerable historic sites such as the Imperial Citadel, the tombs of the emperors, Thien Mu Pagoda, and Thanh Toan Bridge. UNESCO listed Hue Cultural Heritage Monuments as a World Heritage Site in 1993 and recognised Hue Court Music as World Oral History Treasure and Intangible Culture in 2003. The province also has beautiful natural scenery, including the Huong (Perfume) River, Ngu Binh Mountain, Tam Giang Lagoon, Cau Hai Lagoon, Lang Co Beach, and Bach Ma National Park.
No one can deny Hue’s exquisiteness and the potential to develop its tourism industry but we, like many others, believe it remains a ‘sleeping beauty’.
Tariffs at hotels in Hue are among the cheapest in the country’s major tourism sites. The General Manager of one five star hotel revealed that in July the hotel’s occupancy rate was a disappointing 50% or even less. One factor he pointed to was that many tour agencies only set aside one day and night in Hue in their itineraries.
One issue Hue’s tourism sector faces is the absence of a promotion strategy. The city does not have the image it deserves despite being one of Vietnam’s major tourism destinations, joining Hanoi, Danang, and HCMC.
In the first six months of 2015 Thua Thien Hue province welcomed 1.58 million visitors, an increase of 1% compared to the same period last year, of which 572,000 were international visitors.
The slow research into and introduction of new tourism products is also a factor holding back Hue’s tourism development. Not many people would visit the tombs or take a tour to hear Hue’s famous songs on boats along the Huong River twice within a few years. Poor infrastructure, with narrow roads, also makes travel to and around the city centre a time-consuming experience compared to, for example, Danang or Nha Trang.
Hue also does not have a large business community, so the number of business travellers is negligible. Information from local authorities show that in 2014 and early 2015 the average number of days visitors spend in Hue is 2.06, whereas Hoi An and Nha Trang record 2.3 days. According to survey results released at the end of 2014 by the EU-funded ‘Environmentally and Socially Responsible Tourism Capacity Development Programme’, Hoi An and Danang have average stays of 4.5 nights, while Sapa, Hue and Halong Bay have only 1.5 - 2.5 nights.
2015, however, has seen and will see many activities in Hue’s tourism sector. On March 18 the first direct charter flight from Bangkok to the city landed at Phu Bai International Airport, bringing 161 leaders, journalists and representatives of 100 travel businesses to attend a conference on investment and cooperation between Thailand and Hue. The number of tourists from Thailand to the city is expected to increase during the 12 months NewGen Airways will pilot the flights. ‘New Gen Airways will provide new services from Bangkok to Hue, as we see Vietnam as an interesting place within Asia’s tourism industry,’ the airline said on its website.
Hue people are friendly, with elegant smiles and sweet voices that appeal to visitors. But being just a few hours from dynamic Danang city may be a disadvantage for tourism development if the province fails to diversify its tourism products and promote the richness of its cultural heritage sites and natural advantages.
Located on the southern side of Hai Van Pass, for many years Danang has set itself as one of the most well-organised, planned and managed cities in the country, making it a convenient and friendly tourism hub.
Geographically close to three World Heritage Sites - the old imperial capital of Hue, the ancient town of Hoi An, and My Son Sanctuary - it has consistently developed its infrastructure and transport networks, including roads, waterways, seaways, and airways, to transport visitors to their desired destination in the shortest time possible.
In the first half of 2015, despite the number of international visitors to Vietnam declining, Danang recorded impressive growth of 33% compared to the same period last year, welcoming an estimated 2.2 million visitors. Domestic visitors increased 22%, to 1.6 million.
Danang International Airport, the largest in the central region, has a capacity of 6-8 million visitors a year. There are currently 23 routes flying directly to Danang, including nine commercial flights and 14 chartered flights.
The sea, rivers and mountains intersect in the city, giving it stunning natural scenery. Ba Na Hills is often said to be the Sapa or Dalat of the central region, with the four seasons being experienced in just one day.
In the city centre some entertainment facilities are now under construction. Asia Park Danang, invested by the Sun Group on an area of 89 hectares with capital of VND10,000 billion ($466 million), has four stages. The Sun Wheel, completed in mid-July 2014, offers new amusement activities for all.
Danang’s accommodation market offers a wide range of choice for visitors, from low-cost guesthouses and hostels to four- and five-star villas, resorts, and hotels.
A La Carte Danang Beach is a chic hotel with young staff who looked like sailors on a ship because of their uniforms. It has one of the nicest swimming pools, on the top floor, from which to enjoy the cityscape, the ocean, Son Tra Peninsula, and Ba Na Hills. Located right in the city centre, by the Han River and next to the city’s impressive administrative buildings, the five-star Novotel Da Nang Premier Han River’s 36 Sky Bar, the highest rooftop bar in the country, is one of the most appealing spots to take in the city at night.
Opened in May 2014, Premier Village Danang Resort, located on an area of 15 hectares on the beachfront, features 111 pool villas with spacious bedrooms, a private plunge pool, dining and living areas and a kitchenette, making it suitable for families or groups. It is often fully booked during the summer.
Having only opened in February, Naman Retreat is an impressive new player in the market, with an oriental design and offering a luxurious escape for guests. Launched in March, the four-star city hotel Diamond Sea, less than a kilometre from My Khe Beach, offers convenient stays with most rooms having an ocean view. Another new face in the city, the 17-hectare Melia Da Nang Resort, with seven types of rooms, opened in early July and within a few weeks was recording a promising occupancy rate.
We were impressed by the tropical Hawaiian architecture and services at Olalani Resort and Condotel Danang on Non Nuoc Beach, which opened in September 2013. The lush resort consists of 285 luxurious rooms overlooking the ocean and the main pool.
In recent years Danang has focused on developing MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions) tourism, with a suitable network of hotels that meet international standards. Both Accor Group-managed properties - the four-star Grand Mercure Da Nang Hotel and the five-star Novotel Da Nang Premier Han River - boast large and modern conference halls and rooms.
A minus for Danang is that at night there is little to do for those who don’t fancy bars and clubs, in which it also scarcely competes with HCMC or Hanoi. Apart from wandering around town or waiting for the Song Han Bridge to swing open to allow ships to pass along the river, a common refrain among tourists is ‘I don’t know what to do.’
HOI AN - QUANG NAM
Some 40 kilometres from Danang, Hoi An, once known as Faifo, does not compete with its near neighbour, instead providing visitors with a host of options the city is unable to deliver.
Hoi An has a long history, dating back to the 15th century. UNESCO, when recognising it as a World Heritage Site in 1999, remarked that ‘Hoi An ancient town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th Centuries. Its buildings and street plan reflect influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.’
In the first six months of 2015 tourist numbers in Quang Nam totalled 1.865 million, of which 990,000 were international visitors, an increase of 7.45% and 9.6%, respectively, compared to the same period last year. According to the Hoi An Culture - Sport Centre, the Office of Visitor Instruction of Hoi An served more than 510,000 visitors in the first half of the year, an increase of 18%.
Hoi An’s nightlife is quite lively. On the streets or on boats on the Thu Bon River, groups of young foreign visitors burn their last drop of energy dancing, singing, and drinking. In the early morning, before business begins, the town and surroundings are a great place to cycle around and enjoy the cool, fresh air.
The town was previously a port from which Quang Nam’s silk was introduced to the world. It was the starting point of Vietnam’s ‘Silk Road on the Sea’, connecting Europe and China.
The highlight of our visit to Hoi An was a trip to the Hoi An Silk Village, a must-see attraction for those interested in silk production and Cham weaving techniques. Founded in 2012 by Mr Le Thai Vu, who has a great passion for silk, visitors to the village can observe all the stages of silk production, from silkworms to finished item, and try their hand at Cham-style weaving. Its mulberry garden has more than 40 mulberry trees originating from the days of the old Champa Kingdom and brought down from the Que Son mountainous area to show how the Cham people planted mulberry trees and raised silkworms thousands of years ago. For more on Hoi An, see the Photo Essay on page 114-115.
We had a pleasant stay at the Hotel Royal Hoi An, a newly-opened boutique hotel on the banks of the Thu Bon River. Just a short walk from the famous Japanese Covered Bridge and the town centre, the elegantly-designed property, inspired by Art Nouveau, has a delicate touch of Japanese and Vietnamese influences.
PHAN THIET – BINH THUAN
Two hundred kilometres northeast of HCMC, Phan Thiet city in Binh Thuan province is not only known as the land of dragon fruit, which has enriched the lives of local people, but has also been crowned the resort capital of Vietnam. ‘Blue Seas, White Sand, Golden Sun’ is part of its brand identity.
2015 marks 20 years of Binh Thuan’s tourism development. In October 1995, as a total solar eclipse took place way overhead, the first visitors were welcomed to Mui Ne in Phan Thiet. Thanks to its untouched natural setting, with golden sand hills, warm water year-round, romantic coconut forests and peaceful fishing villages, together with a lot of other attractive scenery and historic sites, Mui Ne has attracted not only visitors but also tourism investors. Two decades on the Mui Ne fishing village of yore has been turned into a resort destination referred to as a ‘tourism paradise’, with hundreds of resorts for visitors to choose from. Located on or near the beach, each has a different style and offer diverse services that meet whatever visitors may require.
In the first half of 2015 Binh Thuan welcomed around 1.9 million visitors, of which 231,270 were international visitors, increasing 3.8% compared to the same period last year, despite a significant decline in Russian tourists.
Sand Dunes Resort Beach is a newly-opened resort located near the sand hills, with spectacular views to the ocean. Seahorse Resort, a high-level resort in the centre of Mui Ne, boasts the traditional architecture of a Vietnamese village. Sealink City, a complex of hotels, apartments, a golf course and, especially, the RD Wine Castle, is inspired by the charming Napa Valley in the US and is a new attraction for tourists.
Apart from the Mui Ne - Ham Tien area, where investors have focused on the luxury segment to serve high-income guests, Binh Thuan has also planned and developed other areas to meet demand. The Hon Rom area is dedicated to hiking tourism and community tourism, while the Tien Loi - Tien Thanh area has been planned as a quarter featuring entertainment venues combined with adventure tourism and MICE tourism.
With a coastline stretching approximately 200 kilometres and warm weather all year, water sports such as sailboarding, kitesurfing, sailing, and paragliding, are among the most popular activities in Binh Thuan. The wind and the waves at Mui Ne are ideal for such water sports, making it a meeting point for famous surfers and sailboarders from around the world, such as Australia, France, the UK, and Russia. It is also the venue of an annual international surf contest.
Phan Thiet not only offers sea tourism, it also provides other alternatives to visitors thanks to its scenery and historic relics, such as Ta Cu Mountain, Van Thuy Tu Temple, the home of hundreds of whale skeletons, Duc Thanh School, where President Ho Chi Minh taught at a young age, Ke Ga Cape, where a hundred-year-old lighthouse sits proudly, and the Poshanu Cham Towers. Thanks to its famous sand dunes, Mui Ne has been named among the ‘World’s 10 Best Sandboarding Destinations’ by the infotainment blog Wonderslist.com. There are also a range of festivals to enjoy, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival with the largest lantern parade in the country, and the Kate Festival of the local Cham people.
Transport is something a problem for Phan Thiet, however, seeing it lose some of its competitiveness with other destinations such as Nha Trang or Danang. The only way to reach Binh Thuan is by road. It used to take six to eight hours to travel between HCMC and Phan Thiet, putting off many visitors. After the HCMC - Long Thanh - Dau Giay Expressway opened recently, however, the travel time has been cut to four or five hours. Early this year, Hai Au Aviation launched seaplane tours from HCMC to Phan Thiet, which have won favour in the high-class tourism segment.
Tourism experts have suggested that Phan Thiet plan and develop its night life, such as bars and clubs, to meet the entertainment and spending demand of foreign visitors. Lacking these, visitors have little in the way of choice of entertainment in Phan Thiet when they would perhaps have $250 or more in their pocket every day.
HCMC is considered the key tourism market in Vietnam, with Tan Son Nhat International Airport being the country’s main international gateway.
The 300-year-old city leaves an impression on tourists with its many exciting historic and cultural sites, located mainly in the centre of the city, such as Ben Thanh Market, the Fine Arts Museum, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and Reunification Palace.
The Saigon River is the starting point for many river tours by boat or cruiser to the Cu Chi Tunnels or the Can Gio Eco-Tourism Park or to see the city by night or enjoy fine dining on floating restaurant cruises.
According to the HCMC People’s Committee, 2.166 million international tourists visited HCMC in the first six months of 2015, a 3% increase compared to the same period last year. Total revenue from tourism reached VND47,252 billion ($2.2 billion), up 7% year-on-year.
Simply walking around the busy streets of the downtown area is the best way to see city life, to shop, and to enjoy a wide range of food from the East and the West. The impressive boulevard of Nguyen Hue now has a new modern square hosting cultural and entertainment activities. Dong Khoi Street is known as the hottest shopping street in town, with shopping malls, world-famous brand stores, and local souvenir shops. There’s also ‘Little Japan’, on Le Thanh Ton Street.
In recent years HCMC has seen a high level of development. In the centre of District 1, old buildings are being replaced by modern skyscrapers, while District 2 (to the east of the Saigon Bridge) boasts villas by the banks of the Saigon River and luxurious serviced apartments, becoming a second home to the foreign community in HCMC. You can readily find a number of outstanding restaurants, serving cuisine from all around the world, as well as furniture and souvenir shops and spa services. The city centre has also recently welcomed the opening of two international-standard five-star hotels: Le Méridien Saigon and The Reverie Saigon, providing more than 600 rooms and suites together with various luxury services for local and foreign tourists.
In the south of the city, in District 7, Phu My Hung is a remarkable new urban area with a clean and green environment, modern facilities, and safety and security. With major supermarkets, shopping malls, restaurants, entertainment venues, and playgrounds for children, it has become a popular destination for families and tourists on the weekends. TajmaSago Castle, a luxurious boutique hotel in the centre of Phu My Hung, is famous for its elegant architecture inspired by the Taj Mahal in India.
According to Mr La Quoc Khanh, Deputy Director of the city’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, to promote HCMC as an exciting destination for local and foreign tourists city authorities are developing a host of new tourism products, continuing to introduce exciting promotional activities every year, such as the Ao Dai Festival in March, the Southern Food Fair in May, the Southern Fruit Fair in June, the International Travel Expo in September, and the Taste of the World culinary festival in December, as well as attending international travel expos around the world. The tourism department also continues its ‘Ho Chi Minh City - 100 exciting things’ voting program, to present cultural and historic sites and high-quality culinary and shopping venues to tourists visiting the city.