BEFORE Mr Le Ngoc Chau and his wife came to Singapore for their honeymoon, he had already heard from friends that the country was a 'shopping paradise'.
The 25-year-old assistant cinema manager from Ho Chi Minh City was also sold on the colourful, cosmopolitan images he saw on television in Singapore Tourism Board (STB) commercials.
So when it came to spending nearly US$1,000 (S$1,448) for two for a four-day tour package, there was no question it was going to be on a Singapore trip.
"There are so many trees and the supermarkets are big... even though there are so many cars on the roads, traffic is so smooth," he marvelled, adding that he was going shopping for a Canon or Sony camera and Sony Ericsson mobile phone.
This little red dot is increasingly becoming the destination of choice for Vietnamese tourists.
STB figures showed that Vietnam is an emerging market to watch. In October, among the top 15 markets, it was one of the countries that registered the highest growth in tourist arrivals.
Vietnam also charted the highest visitor arrival growth in September with 16,000 visitors, a 24.3 per cent increase over the same period last year.
The absolute number is still small given the overall figure of 766,000 visitors for that month - most were from Indonesia, China, Australia, India and Japan - but those in the travel industry say Vietnam arrivals look set to grow.
According to industry estimates, the number of local travel agents that host Vietnamese tourists is no more than 10.
But those who cater to this group all report brisker business, especially in the last two years.
Ms Michelle Phung, a Vietnamese-turned-Singaporean who runs Golden M Travel specialising in such tours, was handling 30 to 40 groups a month a decade ago.
Now, that number is easily 150 a month during peak season, which is from June to August.
Another agency, Bestlink Travel, has seen the number of peak season tour groups grow from a few a month to 50 a month in the last six years.
The Vietnamese now make up 40 per cent of its overall inbound business, said its general manager, Ms Serene Koh. The company is now going after higher-end Vietnamese tourists who will splurge on four- or five-star hotels instead of the usual three-star budget hotels.
The country's growing affluence gives people a reason to travel, said Mr Robert Khoo, chief executive of the National Association of Travel Agents.
"And Asean countries will be the first ones they go to."
Vietnam's gross domestic product (GDP) grew 7.8 per cent last year, making it the second fastest growth rate in Asia behind China.
Typically, Vietnamese visitors come for three or four days and pay between US$400 and US$450 for a package, including airfares.
Mr Chang Chee Pey, STB's regional director for Asean said: "Vietnamese visitors are becoming more travel-savvy and want to see and experience modern and global developments and events in Singapore."
It helps that Singapore is No. 2 in foreign direct investment in Vietnam - US$9.6 billion - after South Korea and the airline industry has jacked up the number of flights between the two countries.
Budget carrier Jetstar, for instance, upped its flight frequency from Ho Chi Minh City from seven to 13 times a week.
Vietnamese visitors do not require a tourist visa to enter Singapore.
Perhaps the best indication of Vietnam's potential is the fact that STB set up an office in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003.
It must be doing something right: In 2004, visitor arrivals from the country numbered 105,801. Last year, it shot up to 165,029.
Plumping up the numbers are also the incentive tour groups.
But whether it is a self-paid or a reward holiday, Singapore's reputation as a safe, modern and orderly city have scored high marks with the Vietnamese.
Logistics manager Nguyen Thi Kim Phung, 38, makes it a point to bring one family member to Singapore every year. She was here with her 75-year-old mother in October.
"If we don't have a chance to visit a Western country, we can come to Singapore because in my mind, you're so Westernised and modern," she said.
TWO must-haves on a Vietnamese tourist's itinerary in Singapore: shopping and Sentosa.
Sure, many may find prices a little steep but they are prepared to spend, especially since branded goods may not be available in full range back home and sometimes cost more.
So while not many can afford high-end designer brands such as Louis Vuitton where a bag costs well over $1,000, they will easily pick up a Guess bag for $200, said tour guides.
Favourite malls include Ngee Ann City, Bugis Junction and Marina Square.
Travel agents say the majority of Vietnamese tourists are mid-spenders.
They stay mostly at three- or four-star hotels such as Albert Court in Selegie Road, Elizabeth Hotel in Orchard and Golden Landmark in Victoria Street.
"The hotels don't complain about them. Only they complain about the hotels, that rooms here are too small," said freelance tour guide Annie Duong.
When it comes to food, they are less adventurous, said tour agents.
Korean barbecue and Chinese food go down well, but other local dishes don't tickle their palates.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on December 2, 2007