Make tourists smile and they'll be back

May 1, 2024 | 03:13 pm PT
To Ngoc Doanh Businessman
Having heard so much praise for Ba Be Lake, I decided to visit this ecological spot, which is also a Ramsar site of international importance for wetland conservation.

The road system in this area has been improved significantly over the past few years, making the journey of over 200 km through the northwest very smooth.

We arrived at Ba Be when it was well past noon, but just minutes after checking into our guesthouse, our empty stomachs were satisfied by a quick, simple and delicious meal.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I saw how small the room was, with minimal facilities and it was not even fully enclosed.

However, everything, including the furniture, was dust-free, a stark contrast to the hotels I usually stay at on business trips, which are permeated with the smell of chemicals.

After a short rest, we boarded a boat to start exploring the lake.

The roar of the engine propelled the small boat forward, leaving behind a trail of foam that seemed to cut through the lake, surrounded by rugged cliffs and the deep green of the forests, stretching as far as the eye could see.

In a moment, the summer's heat, the noise, dust, and hustle of urban life were all left behind. We visited Ao Tien, An Ma Temple... small but uniquely appealing sites that definitely attract visitors.

Around six in the evening, as we were returning to the guest house, I witnessed a true natural spectacle: sunset over Ba Be Lake. Anyone on the lake at that time was at least a bit overwhelmed by the majestic sight. The tiny boat gradually became invisible in the landscape, turning dark purple as twilight approached and mist spread over the water.

Leaving the lake, any minor inconveniences of the homestay faded away. However, it was only during the outdoor dinner at the guesthouse that we truly felt that something changed.

The dining area hosted more than twenty guests from five different groups. Each group sat at its own table with pre-ordered menu items. The tables were arranged in a fan shape around a campfire, with large pots for communal dishes above it, making the dinner feel like a buffet-campfire hybrid.

This setup ensured privacy for each table within the whole, allowing guests to "sample" food from other tables with their permission. Naturally, no table host refused visits from other guests, so my table's five-course menu quickly expanded to seven or even ten dishes thanks to other guests.

There was chatter, invitations, and instructions on how to use chopsticks for foreign guests, as well as the giving of tips on choosing the right sauces for dishes... it was all in various languages and created a very "United Nations" atmosphere in the Ba Be Lake area.

The dinner ended as a lively atmosphere filled with laughter, the faint smell of coffee, and no language barriers or hesitations about East-West differences.

The next day, some groups continued to Cao Bang, some stayed, and some returned downstream, with destinations including Hanoi, Hai Phong, Paris, London, Madrid... but I believe that the "United Nations dinner" moment, with its boisterous laughter, will linger and stay with each of us. Ba Be will be remembered that way.

For those heading upstream, the manager - the ingenious host of the party - carefully reminded them of safety precautions for their next journey. For us, they suggested prices and places to buy Bac Kan's specialties as souvenirs. Their attentiveness made it seem not like a host bidding farewell to guests, but like friends saying goodbyes.

I only wished that the host could have given a souvenir to the guests: maybe a beautifully shaped, smooth-sand piece of wood with the homestay's name engraved with a pyrography pen, or a cute doll made of vibrant Northwest fabric with the location's logo... While not of significant material value, these could market the brand and the destination.

According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the return rate of tourists to Vietnam continues to decline without any effective measures to reverse the trend. In 2019 – the "golden era" of Vietnam's tourism industry – the return rate was about 10%. This was and is much lower than Thailand (82%) and Singapore (89%), according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

By 2022, this figure had further dropped to 5%.

Statistics are cold and hard numbers, but I don't believe that the service providers I've experienced would disappoint tourists to the point of "never returning."

I've heard of at least 17 types of tourism, including medical tourism, spiritual tourism, conference tourism, ecological tourism and cultural tourism... I don't know which category my trip falls into, but one thing is for sure, I will return to a place with "smile tourism," where the brand is built on the motto of "sell services, buy smiles."

The weather this year has been somewhat unusual. Since late March, temperatures in many northern localities have risen above 35 degrees Celsius, signaling an early start to the tourism season. I hope "smile tourism" flourishes everywhere so that in the future the statistics on the return rate of tourists will no longer trouble us, but will instead be a promising indicator for Vietnam's tourism industry.

*To Ngoc Doanh is an expert on brand and communications.

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