Nha Trang and Danang are vying for the top beach spots in Vietnam. Monica Majors examines their tactics, and predicts the likely winner. Photos by Vinh Dao.

The world’s biggest travel website, TripAdvisor, revealed its annual Traveller’s Choice Awards recently, celebrating what it considers the cream of the crop for its online community.

Fourteen of the ‘Top Hotel’ and ‘Luxury Hotel’ titles went to Nha Trang’s hotels and resorts; the highest concentration of such accolades in the country. It snagged eighth place in Asia’s ‘Destinations on the Rise’ category, blowing its rival Da Nang out of those crystal blue waters.

But the awards were preceded by a tumultuous year for the Vietnamese tourism industry, and seaside resorts like Nha Trang lost out to important markets – namely Australia. Among other factors, this was put down to the country’s convoluted visa requirements.

Nha Trang’s status as Moscow-on-the-East Sea has also been under pressure, as Western sanctions, designed to punish Russia for its role in the Ukrainian conflict, hit the ruble hard.

Anticipating the drop in visitors, Nha Trang formed a destination marketing organisation in 2014 (NTDMO) that includes nine businesses.

In its first 18 months the organisation had grown to 15 participants. With a cabinet of five members representing the city’s hospitality sector, it launched into its marketing plan, creating its own website and digital campaign that pushed the hashtag #lovethelifeNhaTrang.

The group is up against the big Central Coast Vietnam Destination Marketing Organization (CCV DMO), currently with 19 members and a great deal of momentum behind them.

While beaches throughout the country represent a competitive threat to Nha Trang, it’s really only Danang with Hoi An that cannibalise domestic and international travellers.

Within the first three months of 2015 around 878,000 travellers visited the central coast city of Da Nang, already an increase from 2014 by 17.3 percent, according to the municipal Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism.

2014 figures exceeded Nha Trang’s current ones, with an astounding four million travellers including one million international. Da Nang International Airport is the country’s third busiest, with Nha Trang’s Cam Ranh International at fourth, yet Cam Ranh is close on Da Nang’s tail.

Cam Ranh witnessed a 20 percent increase in passengers in 2015 versus 2014 according to the Vietnam Administration of Tourism (VNAT). Nearly 880,000 were foreigners, an increase of 32 percent year on year. Thirty-three flights per day were recorded and 18 of them were international routes. Statistics are unavailable as to the average amount of spend these visitors produce (however VNAT did identify Australian visitors as having the highest average spend throughout the entire country in 2015).

Nha Trang famously enjoys 300 days of sunshine and, as we know, hosts a lot of Russians, while Danang is the gateway to one of Vietnam’s most romantic destinations, Hoi An.

Even though the resorts and NTDMO have worked hard to manage the flagging number of Russians, municipality feedback on new feeder markets says they’ll be replacing this with mass-market Chinese travel.

Putting the preferences of visiting tourists aside, it’s obvious that the NTDMO instead likes a healthy mix of nationalities rather than this constant over-stimulation from one nation. On top of this is the looming financial burden that Chinese tourists spend less money when traveling than their fellow communists.

It seems that the NTDMO has its work cut out for itself. VNAT published articles on its website summarising recent plans to increase tourism for Da Nang and Nha Trang on 28 and 29 March respectively. The quantitative details of these two plans rolled out by the People’s Committees further demonstrate the spread between these two competitors.

Da Nang set a target to draw in eight million tourists, including two million foreigners, and rake in VND27.4 trillion (USD1.23 billion) in revenue by 2020, according to the deputy director of the municipal Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Tran Chi Cuong. Whereas during the Ho Chi Minh City Tourism Festival, held from 24 to 27 of March, the result was a mediocre-by-comparison plan between the Nha Trang – Khanh Hoa Tourism Association and Ho Chi Minh City Tourism Association.

It may be unfair to compare Da Nang (Vietnam’s third largest city) to the more quaint seaside city of Nha Trang. They both, however, vie for top spots on Vietnam’s beach-goer itineraries.

In the case of north-to-south country tours, most travellers take only one such relaxing stopover on a month’s visa. This has been shortened or removed from the recently-encouraged two week journey, thanks to the 15-day visa exemption for certain European nationalities. In the case of comparing stretches of beach to beach, Nha Trang certainly takes the cake.

But then again, some people may not appreciate the procession of scantily clad, red-chested Russians when driving through the city. Again, it comes back to the NTDMO’s constant work to liaise with all sections of the hospitality sector and assist the People’s Committee in making healthy decisions to grow the city.

“The birth of NTDMO happened through collaboration because the best future of Nha Trang tourism is not from a single individual but from all entities,” said vice chairman, Pascal Caubo.

The resort, Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, joined the NTDMO only early this year with the purpose of, “using the NTDMO to leverage more incoming business-class seats,” according to general manager Hilton Grant Hastings.

Certainly such a clustered reception of the highly esteemed TripAdvisor awards is the right kind of attention for Nha Trang as a destination. Less than 1 percent of accommodation businesses on TripAdvisor website received these nominations.

With its 5.5 kilometres of uninterrupted beach, it’s naturally well positioned to become Vietnam’s premier holiday escape. Da Nang certainly wins the battle for now, but it seems that Nha Trang is prepared to fight a longer campaign. With the addition of the NTDMO, Nha Trang has blossomed into the Cinderella story of destination marketing.