Vietnam News

Vietnam’s lackluster nightlife symbolizes official inertia

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Early closing times and visa restrictions weigh on tourism growth

In October 2007, the debut issue of the now-defunct English-language Thanh Nien Daily newspaper, where I started my journalism career, ran a front-page story contending that international tourism interest in Vietnam was being dampened by the country’s lackluster nightlife.

The article, which questioned whether Vietnam should continue to force tourists to go to bed early, sparked hopes for dynamic change. A decade and a half later, little has changed, with media reports still logging foreign tourists’ disappointment with the early closing times of most entertainment spots in major cities — typically 10 p.m.

Although I have now left journalism, I continue to be struck by the way in which nightlife symbolizes a systemic resistance to change that permeates the nation’s tourism policies.

There have been some efforts to enliven the night-time economy, through initiatives like street art performances and pedestrian zones. These are steps in the right direction, yet they still leave Vietnam trailing its regional counterparts.

Nightclubs and entertainment venues in Thailand’s principal tourist destinations — Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya and Chiang Mai — used to close at 2 a.m., but changes implemented on Dec. 15 allow them to stay open for a further two hours.

According to the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports, revenues from tourism rose 44% in December, compared with the same period a year earlier, largely due to the longer hours and New Year countdown celebrations in several parts of the kingdom. There are hopes for a similar boost during Lunar New Year celebrations from Feb. 10 to Feb. 24.

Reform of Vietnam’s visa system has also been sluggish. In 2017 Vietnam offered visa waivers to around 20 countries. That number has now risen to 26, along with the introduction of 90-day e-visas and the extension of temporary visas for certain tourists to 45 days from August 2023.

These changes look minimal, however, compared with Thailand, which currently offers visa waivers to visitors from more than 60 countries and territories. Malaysia and Singapore have been even more determined, offering visa waivers to 158 and 157 territories, respectively. All three countries are now rolling out visa-free deals for Chinese tourists.

Not all tourists want to party into the small hours, of course, and there is a case for marketing Vietnam as a more peaceful destination than its raucous neighbors. Paradoxically, though, given the government’s attempts to protect the quiet charm of its cities, the one area in which Vietnam has emerged as a regional leader is in its swift commercialization of tourist destinations, which often undermines the country’s natural attractions.

Phu Quoc Island, for example, was a pristine paradise when I first visited it over a decade ago, with rows of palm trees flirting with the sea along a red dirt road, encapsulating an untouched, raw beauty. Today, I avoid news about Phu Quoc to shield myself from stories about how this once-tranquil sanctuary is succumbing to overdevelopment.

I am not against development, which is crucial for tourist hot spots. But in a country where environmental safeguards are often dwarfed by economic interests, nature is getting steamrolled by the endless pursuit of tourist money.

In any case, the current strategy is not working. Despite the overdevelopment of some destinations, Vietnam continues to trail its regional neighbors in wooing foreign tourists. In 2023, both Malaysia and Thailand received more than twice as many as Vietnam, which welcomed only 12.6 million.

The reasons for this seem unclear to officials, even at the highest level, although the underlying reasons for the slow embrace of change may lie in the conflicting interests of different government agencies. For instance, security concerns could be the reason that officials are against the idea of extending nightlife hours. Yet Thailand’s example demonstrates that prioritizing tourism growth need not threaten orderly behavior.

Similarly, the government’s reluctance to expand its visa exemption regime may be tied to concerns about the revenue streams of government agencies. But such an effect would surely be dwarfed by the increased tourist spending that would follow a decision to make it easier for foreigners to enter the country.

The bottom line is that Vietnam’s reluctance to liberalize its nightlife and visa regulations symbolizes a systemic resistance to change that appears widespread, even at the highest level. Yet the tourism success stories of its neighbors are a clarion call for Vietnam to jettison conservative policies that favor short-term gains at the cost of a stagnating tourism industry.

It makes no sense to overdevelop tourist destinations such as Phu Quoc while forcing most tourists to go to bed at 10 p.m.

By Dien Luong – Nikkei Asia – February 7, 2024

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