Luxury. Should We Lower our Expectations?

activities - Vietnam: Aug. 23, 2018

In light of a recent event that went viral, #iAMHCMC asked some industry insiders about the nature of luxury travel in Vietnam.

When Australian tourist Lynne Ryan’s dream trip, a ‘luxury’ two-day cruise on Halong Bay, turned into a nightmare in May of this year, her Facebook post detailing a floating house of horrors made international headlines. ‘Duped’ into paying $100 per person by what she described as a ‘glossy brochure showing a beautiful boat’, what Ms. Ryan and her friends got was a cockroach and rat-infested junk, with ‘filthy toilets’, ‘rock hard’ beds and a sundeck that was ‘falling apart’.

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While the National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) acted swiftly on the negative publicity—apologising, exacting fines on the travel agency, suspending the boat and then offering Lynne a free tour on her return to Vietnam—was she right to expect luxury in the first place or was she simply an ‘easy mark’ for an unscrupulous minority?

Raising Expectations

Vietnam is by now a well-established destination in Southeast Asia. According to figures posted online by the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism, the country has welcomed just over 6.7 million international visitors in the first five months of 2018. Although this number is still dwarfed by the likes of near neighbour Thailand, it’s a trend that continues up and now includes a more diverse range of travellers than ever.

Video source: thế thắng lê

Everyone from the ever popular European ‘beg-packers’ who come with little more than the shirts on their backs, to private-jet-owning Chinese moguls, who might fly in for a weekend at the Amanoi once-a-month, all know that Vietnam has something to offer them.

With the upward trend in visitors comes an upward trend in expectation, however, and pressure on the industry to get it right. Ms. Ryan’s ‘Ha Long Horror’ is a glaring example of the opposite, and a contributing factor in why the rate of return to Vietnam has been traditionally low. It’s something the industry is all too aware of.

Reality Check

“A lot of travellers don’t return to Vietnam,” said one insider working for a luxury travel agency who spoke to #iAMHCMC on the guarantee of anonymity. “Whether they are backpackers or have a lot of money to throw around, it’s not for everyone here and much more of a ‘trip’ than a holiday. In terms of the luxury segment, it still has a long way to go to compare itself with what you can find in Europe, the States or even Thailand.”

“On the whole, we see that once people have been to Vietnam, they are able to check it off their list and leave it at that. There is no particular reason for the general traveller to return.”

A glum sentiment, but a reality also acknowledged in part by Nick Wade, Assistant General Manager at Khiri Travel. He pointed out strong competition in the Southeast Asian region and shared a strategy his company uses to bring people back.

“One way we try to bring clients back is not just sell full country tours, but rather take them to the best areas at the time of year they travel,” he said. “(For example) Sapa in early January is not exactly the best time to go there, so we promote other areas in the hope that they come back later to see the parts they missed the first time.”

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On the truly luxurious segment of the market, Nick said that this was growing and diverse in Vietnam.

“Vietnam is one of those unique destinations where you can fit into the ‘luxury’ spectrum exactly where you want to be. You can stay in $5 hostels or $500, six-star resorts.”

Six Senses, Four Seasons, MGallery, Anantara and Fusion are all examples of high-end brands that you can find across the country,” Mr Wade continued. “These international hotel groups set the benchmark when it comes to luxury travel and clients now expect, and rightly so, the same standards as they would in any other 5-star hotel in the world.” Suffice it to say, no cockroaches, rat poo or broken toilets allowed.

Video source: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

A Subjective Experience

Ashley Bier, Sales and Marketing Manager for Vietnam Backpacker Hostels, deals primarily with the younger end of the market, first-time or inexperienced travellers looking to see the world and experience new cultures in affordable comfort. She echoed Nick’s thoughts and said Vietnam was a great place to strike a balance of feeling indulgent without breaking the bank. She also explained that the concept of luxury was very subjective, and could include a “once in a lifetime” experience that’s “worth going big on”.

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“With the cost of things in Vietnam, it is relatively easy and accessible to splurge,” Ms Bier said. “That being said, part of the special wonder of the country comes from its rural beauty which is a little less ‘luxury’. I think in general, travellers of all ages, sizes and budgets just need to do their due diligence before going to a country with a different language or currency.”

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