Vietnam explores cultural-religious heritage tourism
Boats on Suoi Yen Stream carry tourists to Huong Pagoda (Source: VNA)
Vietnam holds huge
potential for cultural and spiritual tourism thanks to its diversity in terms of
culture, customs and traditions, which have been shaped and practised across the
nation for thousands of years.
Official statistics show
that Vietnam has around 40,000 tangible and 60,000 intangible heritages. Most
of them are in connection with temples, pagodas, monuments, churches, and
expressed in religious rituals, traditional festivals and art forms.
The United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognised
11 intangible cultural heritage of humanity in Vietnam. They are the Vietnamese
beliefs in the Mother Goddesses of Three Realms, Tugging rituals and games, Vi
and Giam folk songs, Art of Don Ca Tai Tu music and songs, Worship of Hung
kings, Giong festival of Phu Dong and Soc temples, Quan Ho Bac Ninh folk songs,
Nha Nhac court music, Space of gong culture, and two in need of urgent safeguarding,
namely Xoan singing of Phu Tho, and Ca tru singing.
Five places have also
gained the UNESCO-recognised world cultural heritage status, namely Central
Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – Hanoi, Citadel of the Ho
Dynasty, Complex of Hue Monuments, Hoi An Ancient City, My Son Sanctuary, and
the natural-cultural Trang An – Bai Dinh Landscape Complex.
Socio-economic aspects of cultural-religious travel
Spiritually and religiously motivated travel has
proven its position in the tourism sector. In 2016, one-third of 62 million
domestic tourists visited destinations with spiritual significance, according
to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT).
Cultural-religious tourism generates an
important source of revenue while creating stable incomes and jobs for local
residents. Local residents participate in tourism activities such as sales of
worship offerings, souvenirs, local products and restaurant-transport services.
There are more than 2,000 boats on Yen Stream in
the Huong Pagoda relic site. Tran Thi Mai, owner of a boat said one festival
season is as lucrative as five rice crops. She can earn about 300,000 VND (14
USD) a day by transporting tourists to Huong Pagoda. Men who row bigger boats
can earn even more.
Boats on Suoi Yen Stream carry tourists to Huong Pagoda (Source: VNA)
Pensioner Nguyen Van Trinh, 80, who records
donations at the Ngu Nhac Linh Tu Temple in the Huong Pagoda relic complex said,
there are more than ten desks in the temple recording donations made by
visitors. On average, he records up to 15 million VND (660 USD) of donations a
day. The proceeds are used to maintain, manage, operate the site and contribute
to local budget.
The Imperial Ancient Citadel of Hue alone
attracts millions of tourists, generating hundreds of billions VND per year. Part
of the revenue is used to preserve the site’s conditions and values, including resurrecting
the Earth and Crop Gods worshipping “Xa Tac” and “Nam Giao” offering rituals, thus
reducing the load on the State budget for the work, according to VNAT Deputy
Director General Ngo Hoai Chung.
Only tourism can inspire so many people to visit
historical and cultural relic sites. Only tourism can generate and mobilise
such huge resources to fund preservation, upgrade, and day-to-day operational
costs of the relic sites. And only by preserving, marketing and investing in
support infrastructure can relic sites attract visitors and pilgrims, Chung
told the Vietnam News Agency (VNA).
Ancient Bai Dinh Pagoda in Ninh Binh province has
been in place for over 1000 years. However, not until multi-million USD of investment
was poured into building the Bai Dinh Pagoda complex, improving traffic network
and support infrastructure facilities, and marketing efforts has the site
become attractive to tourists. The complex has hosted numerous international
and national religious events, including the 2008 and 2014 United
Nations Day of Vesak.
The 500-hectare complex of Bai Dinh pagoda (Source: VNA)
The UNESCO-recognised Trang An-Bai Dinh world
natural and cultural heritage site is a success. The model is expected to
create an impetus for tourism development of Ninh Binh and surrounding
localities, Chung elaborated.
Cultural-religious trips promote humanitarian values
to Most Venerable Thich Thanh Nhieu, Standing Vice Chairman of the Vietnam
Buddhist Sangha (VBS) Executive Council, Buddhism
is more of a religion. It has become a cultural identity that takes deep roots
in the nation. There are pagodas in almost every community, from remote areas
to cities. There are nearly 15,000 pagodas across the nation, accounting for
nearly 40 percent of the nation’s relic sites. Nearly 500 have been recognised
as national relic sites and become tourism attractions.
is a tolerant faith and has the largest number of followers among religions in
Vietnam. In any Vietnamese pagoda, there are three major altars, worshipping
the Buddha, Mother Goddesses, and national heroes or great masters who honour
the country. Trips to and experience in sacred places, including pagodas, will
inspire good behaviors, gratitude and physically and mentally healthy lifestyle
among visitors, said Most Venerable Thich Thanh Nhieu.
Dr. Duong Van Sau, Dean of the Faculty of
Cultural Tourism of the Hanoi University of Culture (HUC) also underlined the beyond-economic
values of spiritual tourism, saying that most religious and sacred sites are
endowed with cultural, religious and historic significance. Spiritual travel
products explore the living culture, tradition, history and beliefs. Therefore,
they present opportunities for educational and cultural experiences.
Visitors can contemplate or even get themselves involved
in ritual ceremonies, traditional festivals and art forms. This is the most effective
way to ensure the continuity of cultural values. They also learn about history
and culture from proper instructions at religious destinations. Hence, spiritual
tourism in some way, offers hands-on lessons for tourists, contributes to
raising people’s awareness and knowledge about culture, beliefs, tradition and
history of the nation, Sau elaborated.
More and more visitors
come to heritage sites. Religious adherents wish to fulfill their faith, some
visit sacred places out of curiousity and others simply enjoy their journeys
for leisure, seek mental getaways rather than for spiritual or educational purposes.
Crowds of people flock to Huong pagoda during
spring festivals. Many of them are actually motivated by the romantic
experience and relaxation on boat journeys on the peaceful Yen Stream, between
mountain ranges and in the foggy atmostphere, rather than looking forward to
the spiritual values.
Le Van Duyen, from Hung Tien commune in Hanoi’s
My Duc district, who is head of the art performance boat on the Yen Stream said
the dragon-shaped boat has been deployed for almost ten years. “Our amateur
artists in traditional dresses sing folk songs, Cheo and chanty. Most of tourists
to Huong Pagoda express their excitement when seeing us. They take photos with
us. Some sing and row their boats along ours on the stream,” he said.
artists sing songs, Cheo and chanty on the dragon-shaped boat on Suoi
Yen Stream in Huong Pagoda relic site (Source: VNA)
Spiritual tourism picks up in Vietnam
Joint efforts by
administrations all levels and sectors have been made to promote spiritual
tourism in a professional and sustainable manner while focusing on preserving
cultural and religious values, Ngo Hoai Chung told VNA, adding that they
include connections among localities and between localities and tourism agencies
to explore cultural and religious tourism potential and to lengthen tourists’
Quang Ninh, Thai Binh, and Nam Dinh are parts of
the Tran Dynasty heritage journey. The Central Highlands provinces promote
their space of gong culture while the central localities of Da Nang, Hoi An,
Hue, and Quang Binh make up an attractive heritage road, Chung gave examples.
The first International Conference on Spiritual
Tourism for Sustainable Development was jointly held in Ninh Binh in 2013 by
the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and the World Tourism Organisation.
International and domestic experts discussed planning, management,
conservation, and promotion of spiritual tourism products. The event marked
the first-time significance the Government attached to developing
cultural-religious tourism, Chung said.
Most Venerable Thich Thanh Nhieu, who is also Head
of the Bai Dinh Pagoda, said there are many old pagodas in Ninh Binh, including
the ancient Bai Dinh pagoda on Trang An mountain. However, few tourists visited
the pagoda in the past because it is located on a high mountain. Now, the
550-hectare Bai Dinh Pagoda Complex, including the original pagoda, receives
crowds of visitors throughout the year. Tens of thousands of tourists and
Buddhist followers visit the pagoda a day during the festival season.
According to Dr. Duong
Van Sau from the HUC, religious travel is not new. It has become a global
phenomenon. International studies have shown that religion and spirituality are
among the most common motivations for travel. Hundreds of millions of people
travel to sacred places whether or not they adhere to an official religion.
Vietnam is not an exception in the trend.
Many destinations have become major tourism
attractions as a result of their connections to sacred people, places and
events, such as Tran Temple in Nam Dinh, Bai Dinh Pagoda in Ninh Binh, Yen Tu
Temple in Quang Ninh, Hung King Temple in Phu Tho, and Ba Chua Xu Temple in An
However, excessive numbers of visitors may
adversely affect the structure and spirituality of religious sites. Mismanagement
and overuse can also be destructive for the environmental conditions at
religious travel destinations. Stakeholders should focus on management when
encouraging visitation to conserve the cultural and religious aspects, Dr. Sau