Writer takes motorcycle trip through nation

By WILLIAM KETTER
CNHI News Service
The 1975 photograph of the last Marine helicopter lifting off the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, a long line of luckless Vietnamese evacuees stranded below, created an indelible portrait of human desperation.

Those left behind had been soldiers in the defeated Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), or friends of the U.S. government. They anticipated dreadful consequences at the hands of Ho Chi Minh’s victorious vassals.

They were right. The communist regime executed those considered most disloyal to the nationalist cause. Others were sentenced to long prison terms. But most were sent to so-called re-education camps to embrace the socialist credo of, do as you’re told, toil for the common good, and forget about getting ahead through self-initiative.

Fortunately, for Vietnam’s future, the economic lessons of communism didn’t take hold. And 20 years after the war’s end, Vietnam abandoned strict control over everyday commerce and instead encouraged the awakening of an entrepreneurial spirit not seen since the American presence.

Open-market capitalism spawned new businesses, trade with former enemies, private investment -and a government ambition to attract hard currency through aggressive promotion of tourism.

The goal: turn the bloody sites of war into tourist shrines that might deliver badly-needed foreign dollars.

Sites such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an infamous series of zigzag paths that fed weapons and supplies to the communist troops in the south. Bombed heavily by American forces during the war, it is considered the national symbol of success.

Thus the government committed more than $400 million to restoring the historically important sections of the trail, and expanding it all the way to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The highway project is expected to reduce congestion on narrow coastal Highway One, the only other north-south artery connecting the once-divided country.

Riding a motorcycle along the trail requires dodging water buffalo, cows, goats, dogs, ducks, chickens and pigs – and keeping your balance when large transport trucks or buses force you off the road. You also need to be alert to motorbikes and pedestrians darting out from side streets in towns and villages.

Surprisingly, however, construction crews have converted muddy jungle tracks into a shiny black thoroughfare that tourists can traverse by motorcycle, bicycle or foot.

Recommended stops include those sections bombed by American planes, and also sprayed with the powerful herbicide Agent Orange to expose supply and troop movements. The effects of the chemical are still visible as stunted foliage along the foothills and riverbank mangroves of north-central Vietnam.

The original trail extended into Laos and Cambodia, covering more than 10,000 miles. Thick jungle growth claimed most of it after the war. But strategic sections were maintained as a reminder of the communist will for an undivided nation.

The paved trail will measure about 1,000 miles when finished. Our merry band of bikers drove about half of it, starting at Tan Ky in the north and ending at Hue near the 17th parallel, the old dividing line between north and south ironically known as the demilitarized zone. Ironic because more military action occurred within the zone than any other section of Vietnam.

War memorials dot the rebuilt trail, including an impressive 12-foot marble monument to the “victims” of Deo Da Deo mountain pass. American B-52s dropped tons of explosives and chemicals on this highest point of the trail near Phong Nha.

Phong Nha is also the scene of the Ke Bang caves, the oldest and largest limestone caverns in Asia. They are part of a huge national park and one of the premier tourist sites in the country, drawing visitors from more than 100 nations.

The spectacular formations have enchanting names like Lion, Fairy Caves, Royal Court and Buddha. During the Vietnam war, they were used to protect munitions from B-52 raids. Phong Nha, in central Vietnam, was a key supply station for the North during the war.

At Khe Sanh, the war’s most publicized battle site, a symbolic “victory” statue juts from a weed-infested field that once hosted a strategic U. S. Marine outpost and airfield. Three bloody encounters, including a 75-day siege in 1968, are recounted in a nearby museum. Captured American tanks, helicopters and other war relics remind visitors that the final triumph belonged to the communists.

“It was comparable to defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu,” remarks Nguyen Ngoc, the tour guide who prides himself on knowing the wartime history of his country. “It was that important; a critical psychological victory.”

More than 10,000 North Vietnamese and scores of American soldiers died at Khe Sanh. The Vietnamese burn incense and place flowers at the stone memorial’s base, which portrays a U.S. Marine raising his hands in surrender.

At Vietnam’s largest military burial ground, Truong Son Cemetery, mourners pay tribute to “heroes of the American war” by burning bundles of fake $100 U.S. bills in incense pots so the soldiers will enjoy a rich afterlife. The dollar, it’s explained, is worth far more than the Vietnamese dong, making it the preferred phony currency to honor the deceased.

“We hold no hostility toward Americans,” said Nguyen Van My, who described himself as a 66-year-old army war veteran during a brief chat at the cemetery. “We respect the dollar. It is a symbol of strength.”

By contrast, the dong has been slipping badly as inflation besets the Vietnamese economy. Twice devalued in the past year, it now exchanges at the rate of 16,800 dong for one American dollar. That makes Vietnam one of the few world bargains for U.S. tourists. Hotels, food, transportation, clothes and jewelry are inexpensive. Our eight-day trip, booked through the Hanoi tour company Offroad Vietnam, cost just $850 per person, including overnight accommodations, meals, Honda 160 cubic-centimeter motorcycles, fuel and two guides/interpreters.

We stayed in budget hotels, but the sheets were clean, the showers were hot, and even remote mountain stops featured air conditioning, although power blackouts occurred often during the early evening hours. And it did take a few nights to get used to the three-inch mattresses; a few mornings to develop patience for the coffee that slowly drips from a metal strainer atop the cup. But once done, it jolts you into the day’s activities.

The investment in tourism is paying off because Vietnam offers some of the most charming tropical scenery in the world. The mist rising from the land against the morning sky is resplendent. The lush mountains and gorges and verdant valleys and endless rivers create a colorful landscape. A coast line that stretches for hundreds of miles along the South China Sea makes it a marvel of geography.

It also makes you wonder where the country would be in today’s travel world had it not been mired in war for a half-century against the French, the Japanese, the Americans, the Cambodians and the Chinese.

William B. Ketter is vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a news company based in Birmingham, Ala., that owns 89 daily newspapers, including the Commercial-News. Contact him at wketter@cnhi.com.

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CNN sends film makers to capture Vietnam’s beauty

 
   

A CNN crew from Singapore will arrive in Vietnam Friday to shoot a promotional film on local tourism.

It will film in several places including old towns and a clutch of museums, and shoot Vietnamese chefs in action in Hanoi.

The filmmakers then go to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to capture the breathtaking beauty of the limestone cliffs jutting out of the ocean.

Pham Huu Minh, head of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, said more than US$260,000 had been earmarked for showcasing the country’s landscapes and friendly people on the American channel.

CNN will show a 30-second film clip daily at prime time for three months starting October.

Source: Tuoi Tre – Translated by Ngoc Anh

By Linda Silmalis

 

Cua Dai Beach

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Poetry in motion … locals practise tai chi on the golden sands of Cua Dai Beach, near the town of Hoi An

 

Hoi An street/David May

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A street in Hoi An … wander through artists studios or have a tailor-made suit or dress within 24 hours. Picture: David May

 

 

 

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DECKED out in red and yellow, Vietnamese lifeguard Nguyen cuts a lonely figure on the deserted, but beautiful, Cua Dai Beach.

It’s a balmy August afternoon – close to 28C – but it seems everyone has better things to do than spend a day at the beach.

As I walk by pondering how a country of 80 million people could possibly have a beach with no people on it, Nguyen runs over to say hello.

He’s keen for a chat with a westerner.

I learn the beach is pretty empty for most of August, but packed during summer when the temperature soars to the high 30s.

Further up towards Da Nang, there is even a surfboard riders’ club – a hangover from the Vietnam War when US soldiers used to pass the time riding the waves in between fighting.

It’s clearly a fishing day today as the ocean is as flat as a lily pond.

Its serene beauty is enhanced by a spectacular backdrop of densely-forested mountains.

As we wrap up our conversation, a young couple settle into a pair of grass umbrella-covered deckchairs.

Happy to know Nguyen has company, I leave.

DOWN SOUTH

Cua Dai Beach is 4km east of the town of Hoi An in the Quang Nam province. Stretching over 30km long, the beach features the same white sands and blue-green water of the better-known Nha Trang beach, but is yet to be discovered by the masses. It’s the spot to dump your bags for a few days and just breathe, particularly if journeying between cities along National Highway One.

We’ve just arrived from Hanoi at the start of a week-long trip from north to south Vietnam.

Despite the millions of people who call this small country home, there are still places of solitude, whether on one of the thousands of islands lining its coastline, in the hills bordering China, or one of the beaches that line the 3200km coast.

It’s our second place of refuge – the first was spent aboard a luxury junk on Halong Bay. Our hotel is the luxurious beachfront Golden Sand Resort, one of many five-star hotels.

A courtesy bus takes us to downtown Hoi An, although riding a bike is also possible. Artists paint in their studios as visitors wander through, browsing at their works, while the whirring of sewing machines emanate from dress shops where tailors make a suit or dress within 24 hours.

Every household item imaginable can be found here, from colourfully woven bedspreads to giant wooden hanging lanterns.

OFF ROAD SECRETS

A short drive from Hoi An is My Son, pronounced Mee-Son, featuring the fourth-century remnants of the ancient kingdom of Champa.

It requires a four-wheel-drive to get to the site. We cram into one driven by a local who has clearly driven along these roads before and knows the limitations of his vehicle.

Set in a valley, only a few monuments remain after the site was repeatedly bombed during the war, when they were used as a staging ground by the Viet Cong. The remaining structures were recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The tranquility is in stark contrast to our next stop, Ho Chi Minh City.

“Just where is everyone going?”, one of my travelling partners muses as she watches a local on a motorbike balancing 30 packets of Whiskas on the bike frame and under his chin. Close behind is a family on another motcycle – dad driving with a toddler balanced on his lap, mum hanging on behind him and young girl clutching on to her.

Unlike Hanoi, cars and motorbikes are the preferred mode of travel. But, despite its frantic pace, there are plenty of places in which to escape, including the second-hand Saigon bookstore where you will find anything from French comics to vintage surfing and fashion magazines. There are also hundreds of cheap spas and massage parlours – the legitimate kind – to freshen up after several days on the road.

After exploring the city we headed to the rooftop of the kitschiest hotel in town – the Rex.

Popular with US army officers during the war, the hotel is stuck in another time. Beneath its alternating neon lights, we shouted ourselves old-fashioned cocktails and rounds of cold Saigon beer.

Below, the sounds of motorbike and car horns continue and gradually fade as the band playing Beatles covers strikes up. We toast to having found the ultimate refuge.

The writer travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines and Adventure World.


(19-12-2006)

HA NOI — Vietnam Airlines plans to establish routes to the United States next year to satisfy projected blistering demand following recently-strengthened trade ties between the two countries and Viet Nam’s accession to the WTO.

The airline will submit a plan for direct US flights to the Prime Minister in two weeks, said the deputy director of the national carrier, Pham Ngoc Minh.

Officials expect the routes could play a significant role in strengthening political, social and economic ties between the countries.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asked the company to accelerate the process and have routes established by the end of 2007, said Minh.

Last November, Vietnam Airlines sent a delegation to the US to examine possible flights to San Francisco or Los Angeles.

One hurdle Asian carriers will have to overcome in gaining a foothold in the lucrative American market is Westerners’ preference for domestic airlines. US carriers have, on average, around 12 million dedicated customers, according to the deputy director. Frequent customers of US carriers enjoy many benefits, including discounts at shopping malls, entertainment centres and restaurants, both at home and abroad, said Minh.

To overcome the initial stumbling blocks, Vietnam Airlines is looking to partner with American Airlines. In addition, the airline will likely seek a stop-over hub in another country.

Recently released trade figures have buoyed the hopes of the travel sector. According to the Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism, some 352,000 Americans visited Viet Nam in the first 11 months of this year, up 15 per cent from 2005.

That figure is expected to double next year on the back of the repatriation of 1.3 million overseas Vietnamese from the US and an increasing push by American investors into Viet Nam.

Bilateral trade revenues are projected at US$11-12 billion this year, 50 per cent higher than last year.

Vietnam Airlines transported more than 5.1 million passengers in the first nine months of 2006, an increase of 17.5 per cent over last year. Of these, 2.3 million were foreign travellers. — VNS

Americans opt for Vietnam

August 24, 2006

 
09:23′ 11/08/2006 (GMT+7)

Soạn: AM 863449 gi đến 996 để nhn ảnh này
The International Travel Expo which was organized in HCMC on Agust 4 is a good opportunity for all local and foreign tour operators and travel agents to introduce their diversified travel products to visitors.

VietNamNet Bridge – It’s cheap, it’s safe and there’s much to see and do, so it’s no wonder that more and more Americans are coming to Vietnam these days.

 

“What with earthquakes and tsunamis in other parts of the region, Americans want to travel to Vietnam”, says Mr. Losebastien, Secretary General of the ASEAN Tourism Association.

He also reckons that what makes Vietnam attractive is the way it “retains the features of an Asian agricultural country on the path of renovation and integration.” The people are friendly, and they don’t dwell on the bitter past but look to the future.

Professor John Quelch, vice-rector of the Harvard Business School, gets his strongest impression of Vietnam from the festivities at Lunar New Year time. “I remember, there were these motorcyclists carrying kumquat and peach trees; it looked like a forest was coming down the street! What a wonderful time for everyone!”

 

The airlines are doing their bit to bring more foreigners here. For instance, United Airlines began direct flights between San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City in June 2005, and more French and Korean airlines are flying to Vietnam these days.

And hotels and travel agents, both Vietnamese and American, are offering more and classier tours to Vietnam.

According to the Asia Pacific Tourism Association, a full million Americans visited Vietnam last year, and it’s looking like 50 percent more will see the country in 2006, spending a thousand bucks apiece on average after they arrive. It’s all good news for the travel industry.

Unfortunately, the marketing of Vietnam as a place to visit is not good, not by a long shot. Most Americans who come here know little about the land when they step off the plane, so local travel agents, airlines and hotels need to network much more and formulate strategies for long-term marketing.

 

“Vietnam’s tourism industry should make the most of such things as the nation’s delicious and diverse food, the ao dai (traditional lady dress), and that it’s a unique country full of motorbikes,” Mr. Losebastien adds.

Vietnam has gained a reputation as a safe and attractive land to visit and travel around, of that there is no question.

Many people reckon 2006 will turn out to be a particularly good year for Vietnam’s tourism industry, and like to mention the fact that this country will host the APEC summit later this year.

The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) has launched promotions and its 2006-2010 National Tourism Action Program, and the slogan “Vietnam – the Hidden Charm” is catching on among tour operators, travel agents and visitors.

 

(Source: TBKTVN, SGGP)


 

Ho Chi Minh City-based Transviet Tour Company welcomed the famtrip delegation on June 22, including 10 leading travel firms and reporters from the Selling Haul, a British tourist magazine, who came and surveyed Vietnamese tourism.

The survey lasts for six days and takes place in Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Da Nang central city, the ancient town of Hoi An, Vinh Long province and Ho Chi Minh City.

The delegation is expected to meet representatives from the Vietnam Airlines, leading travel businesses of Vietnam and several five-star hotels to learn about tours and quality of tourism products in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The delegation plans to make a promotion campaign for Vietnamese destination in order to attract tourists from Britain and Europe when they return to their country.

British tourists often require and are ready to pay for luxury services but most of them have poor information about Vietnamese tourism. There is yet to have a non-stop air route between Vietnam and Britain so British tourists must transit at one place, mainly in Paris, Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong if they travel to Vietnam, said Nguyen Tien Dat from Transviet’s branch in Hanoi.

The programme to receive the famtrip delegation is organised and sponsored by the Vietnam Airlines and the Transviet, together with support from some big hotels in Hanoi, Da Nang, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City.

Nearly 37,000 British tourists have travelled to Vietnam in the first five months of the year, an increase of 8.5% compared to the same period last year, according to the National Administration of Tourism.

 
15:03' 09/06/2006 (GMT+7)

Vietnam needs 50,000 more hotel rooms in the next five years so as to cater to 31mil tourists expected in 2010, states a plan by the national tourism authority.

Last year, the country's tourism industry catered to around 19.5mil tourists.

Under the plan presented by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), in 2010 the tourism industry will expectedly cater to 31mil tourists, comprising six million international arrivals and 25mil local tourists.

The current capacity of 130,000 hotels rooms therefore will not be sufficient, and the country needs to have an additional 50,000 rooms.

Pham Tu, deputy head of VNAT, said at a recent meeting that the tourism industry was facing a severe shortage of hotel rooms despite quick development in the past few years.

"We have increased the number of hotel rooms from 57,000 in 1998 to 130,000 last year, but that will not be enough," he said, adding the country was calling for more investment into this industry.

VNAT envisions huge demand for investment that amounts to billions of U.S. dollars. The tourism watch-dog will launch many investment promotions to call for more local and foreign investors to build more hotels in the country.

According to the plan, VNAT will organize tourism investment conferences to introduce potential projects to investors, and conduct investment survey trips for investors.

The authority will also coordinate with the Ministry of Planning and Investment to bring out special preferential investment policies.

Last year, the country's tourism industry catered to around 19.5mil tourists, including 3.43mil international visitors.

VNAT expects total revenue of the tourism industry in 2010 to reach US$4-5bil, or twice the 2005 figure.

(Source: SGT)