Hà Giang in the mountainous north of Việt Nam has become a popular tourist attraction thanks to its majestic scenery and rugged natural beauty.
But in recent days, it has become the focus of public criticism after news emerged that a seven-storey building allegedly built illegally has opened up as a hostel, restaurant and cafe.
Mã Pì Lèng Panorama was built in 2018 above the Tu Sản Valley on the well-known Mã Pì Lèng Pass about 20km from National Highway 4C connecting Đồng Văn and Mèo Vạc districts.
According to a report by the provincial Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, although it had been open since early 2019, Mã Pì Lèng Panorama did not have an investment certificate and was not granted a construction licence by authorities.
The owner, Vũ Ngọc Ánh, disagreed, saying she had received the backing of local authorities.
"To start with, I just planned a simple building. Later, I decided to strengthen the house after it was damaged five times by storms."
"I wouldn't have built it if I knew this was going to happen," Ánh told online newspaper kenh14.vn.
She also said that thanks to her property, residents in Mèo Vạc District had more places to sell vegetables, creating jobs for H’mông ethnic people.
"I just want the people in Mã Pì Lèng to be happy. If I have to move from the area, I am sure the people and children here will be left hungry."
Mua Hồng Sinh, vice chairwoman of Mèo Vạc District's People's Committee, told media that in March 2018, she had been instructed by Hà Giang Province's People's Committee to build a rest stop for visitors to enjoy.
At that time, the district called on investors to work on the project. Ánh submitted a proposal to build Mã Pì Lèng Panorama and received support from local authorities.
Sinh said she did not expect the building to be so big.
She also admitted the committee and the local government must take responsibility for the illegal construction.
According to Hoàng A Chinh, director of Hà Giang Province’s Construction Department, the main responsibility lays with Mèo Vạc District.
The rest stop was necessary, but they should not have built a hostel with other services, Chinh said.
He said agencies would meet with the provincial People's Committee to find a reasonable solution taking all considerations into account.
Mã Pì Lèng Pass was recognised as a national scenic spot in 2009, and the hotel lies within its buffer zone.
Chairman of the provincial People’s Committee Nguyễn Văn Sơn said the building had damaged the natural landscape, so it would need written evaluation from a State agency if it wanted to avoid being demolished.
The provincial Department of Construction has suggested that Mèo Vạc District should tear down the upper floors and turn the basement and first floor into a rest stop where visitors can enjoy the view.
Architect Hạnh Nguyên told vietnamnet.vn the reason people were building illegal projects in scenic spots without permission came down to a lack of awareness about planning laws.
This incident needs resolving to avoid similar violations in the future.
According to Phạm Thanh Tùng, head of the Việt Nam Association of Architects, the building and its planning needed to be evaluated in accordance with the law.
"In other countries, they built rest stops and rescue routes on winding, rugged mountain roads like Mã Pì Lèng Pass. I think we need a rest stop here.
“If local agencies had worked with architects and the community, it would have helped Mã Pì Lèng's beauty more accessible.”
Tùng said there were many architectural options to create views that harmonise with nature. It would be possible to renovate part of the building to make it environmentally friendly and safe.
Experts from UNESCO had previously advised authorities to turn the spot into a rest stop.
Mã Pì Lèng is a must-see destination for tourists visiting Đồng Văn Karst Plateau, which was recognised by UNESCO in 2016 and could become a turning point for tourism in Hà Giang.
Tourism is a key economic sector for many localities.
The most visible challenge is promoting the image of the country and its people. Infrastructure and tourism services are improving, creating more jobs and income.
But spontaneous development and lack of planning are affecting the balance between sustainable development and protecting the natural landscape and environment.
Panaroma Hotel is not the only case. In recent days, controversial cafes along the railway line between Hà Nội's Điện Biên Phủ and Phùng Hưng streets have been told to shut down because they pose a high risk of accidents.
The Ministry of Transport has said Hà Nội should close them, but tourism industry insiders say they should be left to serve tourism development.
Hà Giang remains a poor province, and the need for development is legitimate. Businesses investing in the locality should be welcomed.
Domestic and foreign tourists agree that Hà Giang should build more accommodation for guests, providing it does not affect the overall landscape.
Although Panaroma Hotel has partly affected the natural beauty of Mã Pì Lèng Pass, it has attracted more tourists.
Visitors benefit the local community, contributing to socio-economic development as well as job creation.
The case of Panaroma is not over yet.
But developing a tourism economy should ensure sustainability and a balance between development and conservation. — VNS