High and dry in Bana Hills

May 07, 2012 | 13:59
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Bich Ngoc was bowled over by the fireworks festival in Danang and impressed by the management of the event but things, ironically, went downhill fast on her way to Bana Hills

In soaring temperatiures, people were forced to queue for hours to access the cable car which ferries tourists to Bana Hills

The rise in domestic tourism in Vietnam has been a massive boon for the country. We — the Vietnamese people — have been travelling in huge and unprecedented numbers in recent years. Even friends that I would have called “home birds” a few years ago are hitting the road on long weekends.

The rise of the middle classes in recent times, the advent of budget airlines, and a collective surge in adventurous spirit has fuelled this almighty spike in travel. The only problem — and in some cases it may be considered a huge problem — is that services and infrastructure haven’t been able to keep up the pace.  

Holiday weekends now signify chronic traffic jams out of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, crowded beaches, interminable queues and much frustration. Local authorities need to step up to meet the inevitable: huge crowds of excited holiday makers. In some cases, local authorities have done a good job. A recent trip to Central Vietnam highlighted the highs and lows of tourism.  

Danang city has been building up its annual international fireworks festival for a number of years. This year there was a concerted promotional push as Vietnam looked to highlight Central Vietnam as the new destination in Asia. Danang has just opened a new international airport and after years of sluggish development, suddenly, a number of major resorts and golf clubs are now all open and ready to help put Central Vietnam on the global map.

The fireworks seemed like an apt way to flag Danang’s arrival as a major player in the region and from my observation the local authorities did a good job. The event was orderly, well-managed; street decorations were attractive, and effective transport solutions were in place. “Everything was in good order, even the traffic!” said one my travel companions.

Spectators followed the regulations — even queues seemed to be functioning without people pushing their way to the front — thanks to the gentle guidance of volunteers, who were seemingly everywhere guiding people. Despite the high temperatures — close to 40 degrees — the event was remarkably chilled out.

Parking for cars and motorcycles was clear and prices were marked to prohibit price gouging — a common occurrence throughout Vietnam is when unofficial groups proclaim the right to charge people whatever they want for parking. Coming from Hanoi, I can’t put a figure to the number of times I have attended religious or cultural festivals and witnessed outrageous price hikes.

The good spirited nature of the event seemed to permeate the city. Local people seemed to be as enthusiastic as the first time festival goer and eager to help guide people from out of town. All in all, it was a successful event thanks to the organisers addressing problems which had arisen in the past and anticipating what was to come.

A turn for the worse

Sadly, our trip to Bana — a former French hill station and resort town 1,500m above the sea level — highlighted how the fireworks festival in Danang is more of an exception.

Bana has recently seen great growth as a tourism destination thanks to the world’s longest cable car line ferrying tourists up the precipitous slopes. With scorching heat down by the coast, tourists today go to Bana for the same reason French civil servants and émigrés did at the turn of the 20th century: cooler climes, fresh air and stunning views. Such natural charms aren’t enough for everyone — to meet demand for family fun, there’s now an entertainment area called Fantasy Park.

But our problems began at the bottom of the hill: at 8.30am we reached the foot of mountain, 30 kilometres from Danang’s city centre. In the intense heat, our taxi driver set off by foot to buy tickets for the cable car while we sat in the car.

One hour later, he returned with no tickets. The dehydrated and defeated driver said the queues were long and disorganised. We debated turning back and driving to the seaside but the taxi driver offered to try one more time. Some time passed before he appeared this time with tickets.

When we reached the cable car station, there were thousands of people in front of us. That didn’t matter, we thought, as we have tickets. We paid the taxi driver and made our way towards the cable car but the situation was pure pandemonium. Everyone had tickets. When I asked if we could go through, a security guard asked, “What colour is your ticket?” Our tickets were red, or perhaps scarlet, if you want to split hairs. “Go to the billboard over there and check the time table,” he said.

At the billboard we discovered we would have to wait for two hours for our cable car. Irked, and fatigued, we sat in a café near the station for two hours, before returning to face the crowds. The atmosphere was now even more tense. The security had no controlling measures in place. Many people were clearly losing patience. We had all bought tickets for VND400,000 — no one wanted to walk away.

With the intense and suffocating heat, there were shouts to let the elderly and children go through first. But the security wouldn’t budge. It seemed like an age but somehow my group got through. We all wiped the sweat from our brow as we sat in the cable car and escape the madness. The views as you ascend are truly incredible and we all smiled for the first time that day thinking things could only get better from here on out.

Eager to cheer up the kids, we head for Fantasy Park but first we needed to eat. At a restaurant the waiter informed us after he found us a table that all he had left was some bread. We munched on the plain bread and grumbled. At least the kids had some fun at Fantasy Park but having wasted the day in queues soon its time to descend back down the mountain and head for our hotel, but of course, the queues for the cable car are just as long. There was an announcement advising people to spend more time at the park rather than wait for the cable car. After another hour-long tussle we get onto a cable car and this time people are too weary and disenchanted to gush over the scenery.

One tourist in our cable car from Haiphong said he’d never go back to Bana after what he experienced that day. Vietnam’s tourism board worries about the low return rate to Vietnam by international tourists but the industry and local authorities should also worry about a much more lucrative tourism sector: the domestic one. We are travelling in unprecedented numbers, so tourism services and management of tourism destinations and events all need to evolve, rapidly.


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