HANOI, April 3 (Xinhua) -- In a queue that stretched about a kilometer Chinese tourists were waiting patiently to complete border procedures to enter Vietnam unaware of the fact that some of them had fallen foul of dishonest travel agencies.
Over the past two months, the number of Chinese visitors to Vietnam's northern Quang Ninh province via the Dongxing-Mong Cai border gate has surged suddenly. Now, the number can surpass 15,000 people a day, compared with 5,000-7,000 a few months ago.
"Over 90 percent of Chinese people entering Vietnam via the Mong Cai border gate are tourists. Most of them tour Ha Long Bay and some other places of interest in Quang Ninh," a local customs officer told Xinhua.
After completing entry procedures, Chinese tourists are picked up by travel agencies using 45-seater coaches and transported to tourist spots, the officer said.
A young woman wearing a stylish pair of sunglasses and a lavalier microphone on her red blouse, and holding a little yellow flag printed with the Chinese characters "Fulongxiang" said she was serving Chinese visitors who had booked through a Chinese travel agency.
"As far as I know, travel agencies in China are facing increasingly fiercer competition, so they frequently lower charges for their outbound tours," the young guide explained.
"They even offer free accommodation and meals to their customers," she said, adding that after luring a large number of tourists, the agencies join hands with their Vietnamese counterparts to wring money from the tourists.
According to the guide, most of the Chinese visitors to Quang Ninh stay in the province for two nights and three days. They are told to stay at mini-hotels that charge 200,000-300,000 Vietnamese dong (9-13.5 U.S. dollars) a night and have meals worth a couple of U.S. dollars.
Standing in front of the white Vuon Dao Hotel building complex in Quang Ninh's Ha Long City, home to the Ha Long Bay World Heritage site, a middle-aged Chinese man named Wang Quanjun from Sichuan province told Xinhua that he and his family members felt comfortable here because the Chinese tour operator had kept their promise of offering them free accommodation and meals in Vietnam.
"We've just eaten seafood here, a kind of prawn, I think. It's very tasty but free. Now, we're about to take a boat to explore Ha Long Bay," Wang said.
"I have watched 'Kong: The Skull Island,' and know that part of the Hollywood blockbuster was filmed there (Ha Long Bay). I'm very excited to see it with my own eyes," the round-bellied Chinese man smiled pleasantly.
But Wang and his compatriots did not know that to enjoy free accommodation and meals, they would have to buy souvenirs or products at exorbitant black market prices later, with the commission being given to travel agencies in general, or, their guides and drivers in particular.
On their way to hotels or tourist sites, Chinese people are led by tour guides and coach drivers to shops specially designated for Chinese shoppers. The shops serve only Chinese customers. If Vietnamese people enter, shop assistants will politely say that they only serve foreigners.
As to why the shops refuse to sell products to Vietnamese people, the young guide explained the shops do not want Vietnamese people, who are often aware of the right prices of products, to know that the they inflate the prices. If locals quarrel about the prices in the shops, Chinese tourists visiting at the time will realize they're being scammed and refuse to buy products at the inflated prices.
In a one-story shop in Ha Long City, with the three large Vietnamese and English words "Tien Dat Dream" on its black roof, a large group of Chinese tourists were eagerly looking at or touching wooden handicrafts, especially those made from valuable agarwood (Aquilaria Crassna), such as bracelets and necklaces. They were also interested in precious stones and rubber pillows.
The products' prices are listed in yuan, running counter to a Vietnamese regulation that they must be listed in Vietnamese dong. "Purchases in foreign currencies will help shops earn more profits by taking advantage of foreign exchange rates and dodging relevant taxes," an elder resident of the city said.
But what is more annoying to both Vietnamese officials and Chinese tourists is that the tourists are tricked and sometimes even forced to pay more money for unscheduled visits to places of interest, and for products at exorbitant prices. For example, the right price of an agarwood necklace is around 1,000 yuan, but it can be sold for 3,000-5,000 yuan, the elder resident said.
On Friday, two coach drivers were overheard in conversation. One driver said that for Chinese tourists who insisted on staying in the coach, not wanting to get off to buy products at shops, he closed all doors of the vehicle, and turned off the air-conditioner to make them so uncomfortable that they would have to get off.
To maintain a sound tourism environment for both travel agencies and tourists, as well as to protect the legitimate interests of visitors, provincial authorities have asked relevant agencies, including tourism, police, taxation and market management departments, to inspect tour operators, shops and restaurants more frequently and more effectively.
"Quang Ninh is determined to clean up its tourism environment, and to strictly punish travel agencies involved in selling products to Chinese tourists at much higher prices than the regular ones," said Vu Thi Thu Thuy, vice chairwoman of the provincial People's Committee. In late March, the Vietnamese prime minister also instructed Quang Ninh to strictly handle tourism-related wrongdoings in the province.
In the past, many Chinese visitors to Vietnam were aged between 30 and 40 and were from southern China, traveling on cut-price package tours by train or coach to northern Vietnam, especially Quang Ninh, in groups of more than 20 people. In recent years, however, more and more Chinese people from different provinces and cities, from various age brackets, are visiting other parts of Vietnam, especially coastal central regions by air, and use luxury services.
"Nowadays, Chinese tourists often choose to stay in five-star hotels, or four-star hotels at least. They also go shopping more frequently than before," tour guide Do Duy Khanh of well-known local travel agency Viettravel told Xinhua.
The influx of Chinese visitors to Vietnam, mostly to Hanoi and Quang Ninh, and central coastal provinces such as Khanh Hoa, home to Cam Ranh Bay, and Da Nang, has been mainly attributed to beautiful landscapes, more diversified tourism services, rich cultural heritage not dissimilar to China's, better infrastructure, and more direct flights between the two countries.
Vietnam welcomed more than 3.2 million foreign visitors in the first quarter of this year, up 29 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. Specifically, Vietnam received 949,200 Chinese visitors, up 63.5 percent.
"Tours in Vietnam are inexpensive and exciting. So far so good. Our guide said Ha Long City is installing free Wi-Fi systems in 17 spots in Ha Long Bay," said Wang.
"I have enjoyed free Wi-Fi connections here," he smiled, holding aloft his Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Chinese smartphone, in the bay's Dau Go (Wooden Stakes) grotto.