Tourists watch nhay sap, a folk game, at the Hanoi Ethnography Museum earlier this year. Tour organizers complain that foreigners visiting Vietnam have few cultural shows to watch compared with other countries in the area.
Several months ago, a group of Japanese tourists in Ho Chi Minh City were cheated by a freelancing tour guide who promised to take them to a Vietnamese cultural show.
The tourists paid several thousand dollars, only to be taken to a karaoke room, according to city police who they complained to.
Notwithstanding those looking to cheat tourists, there is a real dearth of cultural and entertainment events in Vietnam, despite the plethora of festivals held in different localities nationwide.
With the nation welcoming five million tourists every year, the lack of quality entertainment options has become obvious.
The Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said in a report last week that there is such a dearth of quality cultural and entertainment shows in Vietnam that tourists can be easily enticed to visit places just by holding shows.
The director of a big tour operator in HCMC said the company last year had to cancel a contract worth several billion dong with a European pharmaceutical group. The group wanted a conference tour with two hours of high quality Vietnamese cultural performances.
The group later booked a tour with a Thai tour operator.
"We can meet every other demand in the contract but the performance they wanted was impossible," said the director, who wanted to be identified only as T.
The director said he has a "headache" every time foreign partners ask him to add performance shows into a Vietnam tour because there are no providers of such services.
All major tourism destinations in the country, whether it is Ha Long Bay, the former imperial city of Hue, the coastal towns of Nha Trang and Phan Thiet, or islands like Phu Quoc, rely on their natural beauty and historical attractions to develop tourism.
Night life at these tourist spots is confined to bars or going to bed.
Neither of the two major cities, Hanoi and HCMC, which receive more than 70 percent of the foreign visitors to the country, provide regular shows that tourists will remember long after they leave.
Lam Tu Khoi, an official with HCMC's leading tour operator Saigontourist, said many countries he has traveled to, including Vietnam's neighbors China and Thailand, have paid attention to developing suitable shows, no matter how strong their natural and historical attractions are.
In China, shows by leading directors like the award-winning Zhang Yimou, attract several thousands of people to the theater, though the tickets cost more than the equivalent of VND1 million each, Khoi said.
A five-day tour in Thailand, meanwhile, offers more than 10 shows, including dolphin shows, alligator shows, music concerts and martial arts performances.
Joy, a tour guide from Thailand, said that an important requirement in products offered by her company, Donna Tour, is that each tour has to include some shows.
Vietnam lags far behind in organizing shows for tourists because government officials from the performing arts sector and tourism sector have not cooperated well though they have been together under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for several years, said a senior official from a local tourism company, who asked not to be named.
Local theaters and tour operators have also not worked together possibly because performances by the former are not geared toward foreign visitors, observers said.
Traditional arts performances such as tuong, cheo, and cai luong are still very popular items in theaters, but foreigners do not understand most of it. Likewise with the only entertainment offered in Hue, nha nhac Hue (Hue royal court music).
Rick Perry, a US tourist who has visited Vietnam many times, said traditional arts performances have too much Vietnamese dialogue for foreign tourists to enjoy.
The shows are too long and do not let the artists get close to the audience, Perry said.
But some theaters for traditional arts performances blame tour operators for turning down their offer for cooperation.
Pham Ngoc Tuan, director of Vietnam Tuong Theater, said that "We have the theater, we have programs, we have actors, but tour operators still ignore us."
Tuan said his theater offers regular performances for one hour every Thursday night.
Every leaflet for the theater programs has English and French translations and recent performances have even had English subtitles.
"We offer 30 to 50 percent discounts for tourism companies who bring their clients. We have sought business from all big tourism firms, but there's been no good news yet," he said.
Tour operators, for their part, try to stick with shows that have worked earlier, like the puppet show that has been advertised on CNN and Discovery.
Vu Duy Vu, deputy director of Saigontourist, said the company already had a look at theaters' offers of cheo, ca tru, and tuong, but all of them have so much dialogue that the tourists will not be able to understand them.
"Thus, the safe choice is to choose a puppet show, though we know that people coming to Vietnam for the second time would easily fall asleep watching it," Vu said.
Some theaters have tried to save themselves by offering English interpretation along with their performances.
The first cai luong performance with English interpretation for foreign tourists was held on August 13 at the Hanoi Cai Luong Theater, said the theater's director Tran Quang Hung.
Each foreign tourist at the "Menh de vuong" (King's fate) show was given headphones. They listened to the original singing of the performance in one ear and to the pre-recorded English interpretation in the other.
This is welcome, but theaters should do more, given that tourism offers "a golden chance" to boost business, officials said. They want the theaters to reform traditional performances to give foreign tourists some fun.
Vuong Duy Bien, head of the Department of Performing Arts under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said that it's difficult for almost every country in the world to promote their own traditional arts.
But successful tourism also requires a bit of transformation, Bien said.
Tourism can promote Vietnam's traditional arts through performances, but they have to be "easy to listen to, easy to understand, and down to earth," he said.
Traditional Vietnamese arts such as tuong, cheo and cai luong face a big language barrier when they are brought to foreigners.
"Thus, the way we perform has to be different: less words, more action," Bien said.
Hoang Thi Diep, deputy head of Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, made similar suggestions.
She said Vietnam's theaters have not been cooperative enough in offering products attractive to foreign tourists.
Many theaters only offer what they have, instead of trying to serve the customers' interests, she said.
Diep suggested that each show only last between 20 and 30 minutes and that different shows targeting tourists from different markets like China, South Korea, US and Europe be offered.
La Quoc Khanh, deputy director of the HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said an agency should study the interests of different groups of tourists and propose suitable performances.
Vietnam's tourism industry "needs a conductor" to make tourism and artistic shows perform in harmony, he said.