Many foreign travelers find Vietnam an exciting destination to discover a new culture and explore places unique to this part of the world. From Halong Bay’s astonishing limestone monolithic islands to Hoi An’s old-world charm, Vietnam offers travelers gratifying experiences for their bucket lists.
But for more thrill away from the bustling crowds and a more intimate connection with nature, off-the-beaten-path destinations exude a distinct appeal.
“Off-the-beaten-path can literally be understood as remote areas or out of the classic destinations,” said Do Phuong, founder of Slow Travel Hue and a former product manager at Asian Trails.
“It can be a week trekking, off-road driving to the northwest mountains of Mai Chau and Sapa, or an out-of-the-ordinary experience right in the heart of a well-known city like Hue. An immersive cycling tour to the surrounding village with lunch at a local farm, an evening foodie tour on a laid-back cyclo browsing quaint neighborhood.”
But these kinds of tours are not the “best-sellers,” Phuong admitted. Many of those who come to Vietnam prefer to experience those they’ve already seen on Instagram or travel blogs, the ones highly recommended by TripAdvisor and travel forums.
There’s nothing wrong with these choices. These destinations, along with the other popular tourist spots around the country, have rightfully earned their reputation as iconic attractions. They offer sights and experiences not found anywhere else.
But so do the picturesque mountains in Ha Giang and Ba Be and the natural freshwater lake in Dak Lak. Why are these destinations rarely explored?
Unpaved roads, unfamiliar territory
Ten years ago, Phuong shared, infrastructures and tourist facilities were weak and hardly getting investments for development.
“Bad road conditions, lack of decent restaurants or accommodations are just some of the common problems we’ve encountered when sending our clients on tours. Transportation was also costly and would require long transfers.”
While massive improvements can be seen in major cities and provinces, especially those groomed for tourism, the same problems remain in remote areas.
A blog post in A Nomad’s Passport mentioned Xín Mần, the mountainous region in the far north, as one of the ten amazing hidden gems in Vietnam. The area’s blessed with “green karst mountains, terraced rice paddies, and colorfully dressed members of ethnic minority communities.” But while experiencing Xín Mần can be a life-changing journey, going there is a tricky adventure not everyone would easily yes to.
“Getting to Xín Mần is half the adventure. You’ll work your way along dramatic mountain roads, mostly paved, but very curvy and subject to landslides in heavy rain,” the blog read.
Another problem travelers may encounter is the lack of options for accommodation and dining. A quick search on Booking.com would show only one homestay available within Xin Man, with the second-nearest local accommodation located 11 kilometers away.
These remote areas don’t have a stable flow of tourists coming in, which means investing in hotels and restaurants may not yield profit.
This boils down to the comfort and familiarity that many travelers dream to feel when visiting a foreign land. Off-the-beaten-path destinations offer a little slice of paradise, yes, but they also push travelers beyond their comfort zones, making them do the “hard work” before they truly witness and experience their grandeur.
But it’s rewarding in every possible way, those who’ve accepted and surpassed the challenge say. And they couldn’t be more right.
Mass tourism is ruining travel experiences
And perhaps it’s better to leave these hidden gems as they are — hidden, secluded, away from the selfie-hungry crowd.
In July, Vietcetera wrote about how Hai Phong locals were worried about its rapid tourism growth, with many complaining of not being able to buy train tickets from Hanoi to Hai Phong because they’re always sold out.
Hai Phong Department of Tourism released “Hai Phong Foodtour” program, providing a food tour map for visitors to experience the diverse culinary delights this port city has to offer. This has led to a significant increase in the number of local and foreign tourists flocking into the city.
In June, 576,298 tourists visited Hai Phong, an increase of 116.2% compared to June 2021, nearly 30,000 of them were foreign travelers. Profits in June were expected to reach VND518.7 billion, 99.2% higher than the same period last year.
Sure, the tourism revenue can be used to better the lives of the people in Hai Phong. But right now, residents don’t feel the tourism boom is going in the right direction.
If what’s happening in Hai Phong is an indication that unfettered development can negatively impact the lives of the residents and the environment, maybe it presents more benefits to leave these unspoilt destinations be.
Hoi An Ancient Town is another textbook example. Before the pandemic, the city welcomed 3.22 million tourists yearly. The center of the ancient town, which is 10 square kilometers wide, had to accommodate 7,000 to 10,000 people every night. The poetic sceneries of the city had been tainted by unruly crowds, litter, and vendors harassing foreigners.
Miquel Angel, founder of MQL Sustainable Tourism Services, has seen both the good and bad in Vietnam’s tourism evolution.
“Vietnam has many tourism destinations destroyed and already spoiled: Cement blocks, wrong cable car installation, overdevelopment of real estate without consideration for environmental protection or community involvement are just a part of a very long list,” he said.
“When islands are destroyed, customers do not want to come anymore, like in the case of Phu Quoc. Too much concrete infrastructure has ruined the beach island’s natural vibrance.”
Similar scenarios can be seen in Sapa and Halong Bay, where hotels sprout just about anywhere, as if not properly planned. The garbage and debris, which can be found everywhere, “aren’t attractive for any visitor,” Miquel explained. As a tourism expert who’s lived in Vietnam for 23 years, Miquel said the country’s “working backwards in many ways.”
Commitment to sustainability
Developing Vietnam’s hidden gems into tourism destinations requires not just monetary investment but a solid commitment to sustainability. As Phuong put it, a destination is a tourism product that has its own life cycle and needs sustainable planning, managing, marketing, and selling for it to thrive.
“Private-Public partnership, integrated planning, participative planning with the engagement of local communities are the way to go,” he added.
Now that Phuong personally curates “slow travel” itineraries for his clients, he focuses on eco-friendly tours like village cycling, forest camping, and farming and fishing — sustainable but definitely enjoyable ways to experience the other side of Vietnam.
Vietnam’s tourism body has created programs to promote sustainable tourism. In 2016, Vietnam National Administration Tourism (VNAT) brought together industry players, policymakers, business leaders, and climate change experts for an intensive learning dialogue.
In 2017, kayaking tours combined with waste collection on the Hoai River were introduced by Hoi An Kayak Tourism Company in Hoi An Town, Quang Nam Province. The tour costs around US$10 for a person, with four hours of sightseeing and waste collection.
“Green Travel” has also been constantly highlighted on VNAT’s website and social media platforms, promoting ethical travel tips, environment-friendly stays, nature-focused hotspots, and sustainable tour operators as a guide for both domestic and foreign travelers.
“The growing need for sustainable travel stems from tourism’s untamed growth over the past few decades. While the idea that everyone can travel sounds great, in reality, the unrestrained growth of tourism to any destination can be harmful to culture, social fabric, wildlife, and biodiversity,” VNAT wrote on its website.
For Miquel, increasing awareness of green progress is key to sustainable tourism development. Proper waste management and treatment, energy reduction, renewable energy application, and training leaders on best practices will all allow for long-term changes in the industry.
Developing a no-destroy policy for the construction of hospitality infrastructure and adding value to rivers, lakes and seas are some effective ways private and public parties can do to boost tourism without compromising the environment. It’s what MQL has been doing for years.
“The tourism industry must adhere to sustainability practices as other countries have been doing for years. The sector can achieve a lot if there’s proper planning, eradicating all corruptive actions, developing mid- to long-term plans through the guidance of tourism and sustainable experts, and aligning provincial plans to national plans,” Miquel added.
Only when Vietnam finds the right balance between development and sustainability can it create a more conscientious travel sector, where nothing is compromised, and everyone thrives.