Choose safety over selfies
During my most recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City, I was captivated by the sight of an old apartment building that had been converted into a fantastic collection of restaurants, coffee shops, co-working spaces and a bookshop.
The nine-storey "Cafe Apartment" has become an Instagram sensation. It retains its mid-20th-century form but houses nearly 30 shops, all of which have balconies looking out on the Walking Street, the city and the Saigon River. Sadly, tourists like myself have to put up with messy stairs and walkways as well as some unappealing smells -- not the pleasant coffee aroma we were hoping for -- while we search for a hip cafe serving the fresh Vietnamese coffee that local people are justifiably proud of.
Vietnam welcomed 12.87 million foreign visitors in the first nine months of 2019, up nearly 11% from last year, government data shows. But the news is not all positive. In June, the World Tourism and Travel Council and the real-estate firm JLL analysed 50 cities worldwide and identified seven destinations where rapidly increasing tourism could cause serious issues in the next decade. Among them is Vietnam, specifically Ho Chi Minh City.
Over-tourism has become a major issue in many places. Huge crowds at popular destinations make it harder to keep them clean, well maintained and safe. The rising popularity of social media has been a big contributor to the problem. People seeking the perfect Instagram image can be terribly thoughtless.
In Hanoi, the municipal government last week ordered the removal of vendors and illegal businesses that had sprung up along both sides of the tracks that form its famous Train Street. Just days earlier, a train was forced to apply its emergency brakes to avoid visitors crowding the popular heritage site.
Built in 1902 by the French and still operational, the railway track passes just inches away from residential buildings and cafes, which are the main draw. But the government has now made it off-limits to tourists.
Police have blocked the tracks and barricades have been erected to stop selfie-seekers from entering. New signs warn passersby not to take photos or videos in the "dangerous area".
The incident reminds me of the famous "railway market" in my home town of Maeklong in Samut Songkhram. It looks like many other markets in Thailand at first glance, but for the train that runs through the middle of it several times a day -- seemingly close enough to touch the stalls displaying seafood, vegetables, fruits, sweet snacks, clothing and flowers along the track.
But when a charming little warning bell goes off over the speaker system just a few minutes before the train comes, the vendors pull back their specially designed awnings, sometimes only moments before the train arrives. Known as Talat Rom Hoop (meaning "Market Umbrella Close"), it is a big hit among tourists, some of whom get on the train while others crowd the track in hopes of taking memorable pictures -- particularly of themselves.
While the practices of the vendors at the market seem normal for people who have grown up near the market, I've seen hundreds of tourists get so excited when the train comes that it causes traffic congestion. But what worries me more than the traffic is that many tourists seem not concerned at all about being hit by cars, motorbikes or even the train itself because they are so obsessed with getting pictures.
Like many other local residents, I just hope and pray that no accidents happen. At the same time, though, we'd like to see more precautionary measures taken to ensure public safety.
Although the crackdown in Hanoi drew complaints from tourists, and of course businesses along the train street, I agree with the local government that safety should come first.
It seems that over-tourism has grown out of control in some places, and strict measures will have to be taken. Indonesia recently threatened to ban tourists from the famous Komodo Island starting in January, but backed down this month, saying it believed warnings, advisories and raised entry fees would be sufficient.
Good tourists have to be mindful and understanding, and allow local authorities to do their jobs for the safety of locals and tourists alike. Business owners, meanwhile, should not be so greedy as to ignore safety. In any cases, there are places where business could be prosper, like Cafe Apartment, without the risk of accidents that could potentially cause a loss of lives.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor