It’s been a long day following the tourist trail in Da Nang, on Vietnam’s central coast. And as the group’s attention fades, somewhere around Linh Ung Pagoda and its huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy, their tour guide rattles off an alternative version of Vietnam’s history and culture.
It’s late and it’s hot, and thoughts have turned to air-conditioned hotel rooms, so the Chinese group can be forgiven for missing the subtle geopolitical implications of what their unlicensed leader is saying.
For instance, the guide tells them while Vietnam is no longer a part of China and has claimed its independence, it still depends on China and pays tribute to it. Or that the city’s My Khe Beach, a broad sweep of white sand once dubbed China Beach by American soldiers, really belongs to China.
That such bold claims are being made should perhaps come as no surprise. Many of the unlicensed guides who have sprouted up to feed off Vietnam’s Chinese tourism boom will feel they are merely playing to an audience that naturally sees things from a China-centric perspective, or that they are simply rehashing official Chinese narratives of domination over Southeast Asia and particularly the South China Sea – the very body of water overlooked by Da Nang.
But the fact that such accounts are being given here on Vietnamese soil is something far more controversial, and is just one example of the growing tensions brought on by an influx of Chinese visitors, which has filled municipal coffers but left the country’s tourism industry struggling to meet demand.
A record 2.7 million Chinese tourists arrived in Vietnam in 2016 – a 55 per cent increase over the previous year, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. That means tourists from mainland China accounted for 30 per cent of Vietnam’s total foreign arrivals.
Most Chinese visitors head to either Da Nang or Nha Trang, two coastal cities in the centre of the country famed for their beaches, historical sights and seafood.
This has caused headaches for the local tourism industries, and especially Vietnamese guides.
Some Chinese guides operating in the country have been accused of telling their groups that Vietnam hates China, and that they should not believe anything the local guides say. They are also accused of using regional dialects so that Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking Vietnamese guides cannot understand them.
“Lately, some unlicensed Chinese guides have provided incorrect information on the territory and island disputes [in the South China Sea],” says Nguyen Huu Tuan, sales manager at In-Out Tour Company, based in Ho Chi Minh City. “Unlicensed Chinese guides have destroyed the truth, causing worries for the Vietnamese people and the government,” he says.
It’s not only what the guides are saying – but that they are operating at all – that has angered local operators.
“By law, foreigners are not allowed to be tour guides in our country,” says Tran Tra, chairman of the Da Nang Tour Guide Club. At first, “Vietnamese tour guides were happy at the increase in Chinese arrivals in 2016,” he says, as they thought “they would have more opportunities to earn more money and increase their living standards”.
But the opposite happened – they have been losing business because “Chinese tour operators have illegally assigned Chinese tour leaders to act as guides”.
Aside from the legal aspects, local guides feel slighted by what they see as a lack of cooperation from Chinese guides and operators, says Cao Tri Dung, chairman of the Da Nang Travel Association.
Tensions reached a head in July, when the governments of Da Nang and Nha Trang cracked down on unlicensed guides. Da Nang deported four Chinese guides for working illegally. The guides were also fined US$4,200, while the company that hired them had its licence revoked and was fined US$560. The same month, Khanh Hoa Province, home to Nha Trang, expelled 66 Chinese who were working illegally in the travel industry.
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The growing conflict over guides can be seen as part of a larger narrative of the countries’ relationship.
Despite close economic ties, China and its people are often unpopular with ordinary Vietnamese and recent diplomatic disputes, particularly in the South China Sea, have exacerbated resentment. Vietnam is proud of its history and land, and perceived efforts by foreign guides to distort facts are not taken lightly. At the same time, the behaviour of some Chinese tourists has not helped.
In June, a Chinese visitor reportedly burned Vietnamese currency in front of a bar in Da Nang. Chinese visitors have also been accused of harassing street vendors, trying to pay for items with Chinese yuan and threatening staff at Cam Ranh International Airport outside of Nha Trang. The Da Nang government has responded by publishing 5,000 copies of an etiquette booklet written in Chinese. These will be distributed in public places and list acceptable behaviour, such as queueing to buy tickets, respecting local culture and not littering or getting drunk in public.
Despite the blips, many Vietnamese recognise the spending power of Chinese tourists as something to be welcomed. As Tuan, from the In-Out Tour Company, says, “the fact that more and more Chinese visitors are coming will boost local tourism, and the economy”.
And with Da Nang and Nha Trang now firmly established as popular holiday spots for affluent Chinese, regional governments recognise more can be done to welcome their visitors. Tran Chi Cuong, deputy director of the Da Nang Tourism Department, says Chinese tourists have become frustrated at a lack of Chinese-speaking Vietnamese guides, so the department is now working to educate and train more guides to meet these demands. “We are also collaborating with the Da Nang University of Foreign Languages, tourist sites and travel agents to build and provide Chinese language resources at certain tourist attractions.”
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Meanwhile, airline VietJet plans to launch a weekly flight from Zhengzhou ( 鄭州 ) to Da Nang on January 12.
Through initiatives such as this and the etiquette booklet, Da Nang and Nha Trang hope to nurture the welcome aspects of Chinese tourism even as they cut down on some of the less welcome ones – tour guides with bold claims among them. ■