The tourists have spoken: They love a simple, beautiful Vietnam

Struggling with the question of what to offer international tourists, perhaps Vietnam should consider listening to a few.

Rough Guides, one of the most respected travel guides, just released a reader’s choice list of the top-10 most beautiful places in Vietnam.

The results corroborated what many have said again and again: Vietnam is most loved for its natural areas, its heritage, its street food and all the unique experiences it offers tourists.

This is the reason why conservationists have repeatedly urged the country to preserve these distinctive features, instead of trying to wow tourists with modern gimmicks or megaprojects.

“Over the past 20 years, Vietnam’s tourism sector seems to have been led by a simple mantra – ‘big is beautiful.’ But it rarely is,” said Mark Bowyer, a tourism expert in Vietnam who runs the website “Huge investments have been the prize most provinces have sought. Most other priorities have been neglected.”

Visitors enamored by the country sometimes return to find rapid modernization has unleashed forces both good and not so good.

Fred Trinh, a Vietnamese-Canadian businessman, was disenchanted when he returned to Phu Quoc in 2013, only to find the tranquil island he’d frequented in the Gulf of Thailand awash with bulldozers “cutting up this raw beauty to make it into something more recognizable to tourists: familiar global hotel chains and resorts."

The island, incidentally, makes up number seven on the Rough Guides List.

But, in recent years, story after story has painted Phu Quoc as strewn with rubbish and marred by ham-fisted infrastructure projects.

"Development" underway on Phu Quoc Island. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

Last month, the Vietnamese government lifted its long-standing gambling ban on locals. Two long-awaited casinos will benefit from the relaxed policy: one being built on Phu Quoc and the other set to open in the Van Don Special Economic Zone near the Chinese border.

According to analysts, the move should enable Phu Quoc to pull in more tourists. But they have also warned that it could open a Pandora’s Box, setting off a race to the bottom among unscrupulous casino investors.

In 2013, almost immediately after the Communist Party's decision-making Politburo first announced its intention to scrap the gambling ban, leaders in at least 10 provinces scrambled to win licenses to build a casino. “I’m under a lot of pressure because of this race, which is also wearing me down,” then Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh lamented the following year.

In a country where local leaders are often evaluated based on economic growth rates, such competition has led to a glut of infrastructure projects (notably airports, seaports and golf courses) which only helped to bring short-term construction jobs and investment flows.

Only strong opposition and delays in the final casino authorization thwarted a rush that threatened the very spirit of the small tourism economies they were meant to bolster.

Local authorities in Ha Giang Province (which came sixth in the Rough Guides list) scrapped a plan to build a casino on Dong Van Plateau, the home of many ethnic minority groups. The proposal failed to win support from related ministries and drew flak from conservationists who warned it would deface the plateau, which was named a global geological park in 2010.

There was a plan to build a casino here on Dong Van Karst Plateau, Ha Giang Province. Photo by VnExpress Photo Contest/Tran Binh An

Pamela McElwee, an assistant professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who has extensively researched Vietnam’s protected areas, summed it up best: “Vietnam seems to have this deep insecurity that its natural beauty and scenic landscapes are not enough – they must be ‘improved’ with cable cars, casinos or loud karaoke. It’s a real shame."

Many simple things have gradually disappeared as other destinations in Rough Guides’ list are also changing.

The once-peaceful Da Lat, dubbed Vietnam’s “honeymoon destination,” now finds itself grappling with an onslaught of illegal deforestation and a glut of tourists during the past years.

Mass market tourism providers served parties in caves around Ha Long Bay, and only stopped as a result of a widespread backlash.

Elsewhere in the Mekong Delta, described by Rough Guides as “a lush maze of languid waterways and mangrove forests,” 14 planned and existing coal-fired power plants threaten to destroy the ecology of what is considered Vietnam’s primary source of rice and fruit.

Likewise, Rough Guides readers lauded Ho Chi Minh City as a place where old and new meet, but locals are scrambling to document the town’s rapidly vanishing colonial architecture and cultural heritage.

“In the continued absence of effective heritage recognition or protection," Tim Doling, a British historian who published a Vietnamese and English-language guide to the city's historical sites, said, "the landmarks which gave the city its charm and its citizens their sense of identity are being replaced by swathes of unrelenting glass and concrete ugliness."

“Worst of all is the systematic destruction of the country’s unique natural beauties, the very magnet for many foreign visitors, in the name of modernization and economic development,” Doling said.

Ho Chi Minh City is also watching its colonial architecture giving space to high-rise, luxury buildings.

At a meeting last December between Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and the Vietnam Business Forum — a consortium of international and local business associations and chambers of commerce, members of the Tourism Working Group pointed out that in Vietnam, “the protection and promotion of cultural and heritage sites is less developed and there are even instances of sites being damaged by neglect and aggressive commercial development.”

The country now views tourism as a key industry — one that will represent 10 percent of its gross domestic product by 2020. Last year, the government announced it would jack up its tourism promotion fund to VND120 billion ($5.3 million) from $2 million. Since February, the country has also launched an electronic visa system for tourists from 40 countries.

But the long-term survival of Vietnam as a tourist destination may require more than just money or technical initiatives. The country should listen to tourists and preserve the things that will keep them coming back for more.

While rankings and surveys are not always the best reflection of reality, they can serve as a useful guide to a tourism industry facing a critical identity crisis.

At some point soon, Vietnam will have to decide what it is and what it wants to be.

Dien Luong

Photo by VnExpress Photo Contest/Dinh Cong Thuy. Top image by Reuters/Jorge Silva

By Dien Luong