Foreign tourists check a guide book in downtown Ho Chi Minh City
For many years, it has been a familiar sight at Rex a five-star hotel in the center of Ho Chi Minh City: foreign tourists queuing up in front of its toilets.
Later, the tourists would sit and wait for their bus to pick them up, making the luxury hotel's lobby look like a "railway station," Tao Van Nghe, general manager of the hotel, told Vietweek.
Given the serious lack of public toilets in the city downtown, many travel companies rely on hotels in the area for tourists to relieve themselves.
Asked why they did not choose toilets in the shopping malls instead, many tour operators said they feared that tourists would get lost, because the buildings have many entrances and exits, and the visitors could also get distracted by items displayed in shops, making them late for other destinations.
Phan Dinh Hue, director of the Vong Tron Viet (Vietcircle) Travel Company, said whether they advise tourists to use toilets at shopping malls or hotels, it was still an "unprofessional" move forced on the companies. He said the lack of public toilets in the city was "a difficult problem."
A Saigon Giai Phong newspaper report in October said nearly 120 toilets have been installed along streets and next to markets and parks across HCMC, mainly in District 1. But most of them are unusable, especially for tourists, because they are too small for one to use with a backpack, or are abused by street vendors who use them as a place to take bath and wash clothes, or they are dirty and stink.
The report also said most of the public toilets are in downtown city, but there are none on crowded streets where tourists often gather or pass by.
The same situation also holds true of Hanoi, where the lack of public restrooms, especially in the famous Old Quarter, has been discussed in the local media for years.
A recent report on Dai Doan Ket, the news website of Vietnam's Fatherland Front, which monitors government activities and policies, cited authorities in the Old Quarter as saying that there are 27 public restrooms in Hoan Kiem District, where the quarter is located.
The number is quite "modest" for an 81-hectare area with a population of some 66,660, apart from thousands of tourists who visit it every day, the news report said. Several toilets do not function properly and are not clean, it added.
In an interview with Vietweek, Phan Xuan Anh, director of Viet Excursions, urged local authorities to build tourism information centers which include toilets for tourists and souvenir shops.
With such buildings, besides promoting local tours, authorities can also earn money from the shops, he said. He said forcing tourists to use toilets at hotels all the time will have negative repercussions on Vietnam's tourism industry.
Hue agreed, suggesting authorities build toilets in the basement while information counters and shops are on the ground floors and higher. He said that many other countries have already done it at big cities.
In the meantime, Nghe of Rex Hotel said that his hotel has let local travel companies send their tourists to use its toilets for many years, despite customers' complaints about the "mess" caused by crowded groups of tourists.
The hotel has done it "for the sake of Vietnamese tourism," but it was impossible to keep doing it forever, he said.
HCMC authorities need to come up with a good plan to tackle the problem, Nghe said.
Earlier, at an online conference on tourism, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hoang Tuan Anh ordered related agencies to build a system of standard public toilets for tourists. It was said then that public toilets would be built at around half of the country's major tourism sites this year.
"Tourism sites need to be fully equipped with toilets; we can't let the image of Vietnamese tourism worsen in the eye of tourists for the lack of toilets," Anh told the conference.
According to the statistics reported by 33 provinces and cities at the conference, 767 out of 841 tourism sites, or 74 percent, had toilets but many of them were substandard and unfit for use by foreign tourists in particular.