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Let’s do the good things for Sapa

Sapa has been changing so much since tourism boom about 12 years ago in this area. No doubt to say that many nice change of improvement into the local life, especially on minority people. More schools have been built, road and transportation are getting much better than it used to be, people here has chance to learn lots from modern life that build up great sources of education to this remote area. Besides, how preserving the local culture is a big question and big mission for local tourism administration in order to maintain the sustainable local tourism.

The storm of tourism is taking local people leave out their habitation for trading, with limited on education and poverty, locals easily fall on the demanding of ‘money chasing’, meanwhile, the value of their own culture will be at risk. More and more children now quit their free education in the village to follow tourist to sell things. More and more people leave their village and agriculture for Sapa town to find their luck of earning money. The handicraft works that have been with them in thousand of years also vanished, people make their way to Lao Cai to buy product to sell instead of making by themselves. The little society has been changed and it is in the threatening of relationship broken when they go too close on the trading competition. More and more ‘mixed’ children were born in Sapa without father. And maybe their fathers left without intention of they have a baby here.

Everything is priced in Sapa now, if you want a photo from someone, you may have to pay them something or buying stuff from them. This is the new behavior from locals as Vietnamese in rural areas usually love photos and they are happy enough if you show them after taking.

I am not expected to make a big change for Sapa, that work is too big for me, I just wanted to rise a few words to tourist and local authority to consider their acts to this lovely destination. Most of people travel to Sapa got a big heart to locals, to this scenic place, the useful information are needed to help tourist doing the right things. There are many tour operators out there still ignore the the impact of Sapa and forget the long term of destination they run the business to. Here are some of my personal suggestions to people travel to Sapa, your comments are more than welcome. All I want is making a Sapa as the long term tourist destination for all travelers.

1, if you love any local products, buy them from the shops, not trading directly to local minority people. Someone may think doing directly is helping directly to their family, but in long term is not! Children need time for schools rather than hanging around all day to sell things. Competition between them is an issue too.

2, Don’t offer money or anything to make photos or other purposes. Asking before making photos, if they refuse, just please walk away.

3, Please don’t give candy or biscuits to people, especially to children as local people has no ideas and reach of dental service.

4, Try to respect the local atmosphere when you do homestay. No late party or drunk. No drug uses please. Follow what local do and respect their timing of meals, sleep and other customs.

5, if you want to give local money, give it to older people, or donation to established organization in town. Many people don’t know how to spend that kind money and maybe some of them will go to drugs or harmful stuffs.

Halong boat accident, who will take responsibility?

It’s not much later after I wrote an article of Junk or Junk about Halong bay including the safety concerning when you choose a Junk in this popular spot, the disaster happened. 12 people died mixed international. The reasons found were human errors; someone forgot to switch of the engine valves and took off the night shift. Things found too late and boat was sunken with 12 people lives.

Two people arrested, Captain and Chef Engineers. Of course. But people may raise a question of who else will take responsibility apart from 2 those guys. It is quite clearly that the safety training system is questioning. I think lot of the boat operators in Halong Bay pay less or little about safety conditions and requirement. Annual maintenance for boat are operated seriously but I am sure there are also some corruptions on those especially on tourism peak season when operator need more rooms to sell to tourist. This accident is also a big ring to Vietnamese people pay more personal working attitude to safety requirements that often being forgotten or ignored.

This is a big lession for Vietnamese government and local authority in development and integration. It is time for Vietnam changes or upgrades their way of conditions that will be more suitable or closer to international standards in order to keep maintaining Vietnam development in general and tourism in this specific cases.

Human errors can be found anywhere of this world. The recent Halong Bay accident will make tourist think twice before they go, however, this will not stop people to visit the must – see world heritage of Halong because there are still many good and serious operators out there to choose. What you must do is making some homework before hand. And I am so excited to see how local authority react and do to gain back the consumer’s trust! Let’s see.

Hue of Hue

Hue is considered as the most colorful city in Vietnam. It is not because of blue river of Huong and ancient red tiles on the roof of Tu Duc tomb or green path by trees along famous National High School of Hue. Hue has its own color – the purple city.

The purple color has been named to Hue for long. It is long enough to be forgotten. If you try to ask Hue people about history of its name, you may get your disappointment but if you want to describe the purple color, just simply say: Hue purple! I am sure everyone in Vietnam knows exactly what you mean!

Purple is related to Forbidden City (Citadel) in Hue. Following the ancient Vietnamese language, ‘forbidden’ means Purple. So, the older generation also call citadel of Hue as Purple City. Vietnamese think Purple stands for sadness, for something is going to the end like the sun going to be set. If you stand in front of Thien Mu pagoda in late afternoon when the sun slowly gets disappeared to Ngu Mountain you will understand why Hue people stated that sadness. The whole area covered by purple color. The scene makes people recall the ending time in 1945 of the feudalism dynasty that had ruined Vietnam for hundred of years.

I visited Hue when I just finished my high school. It was such a quick trip for me. There was an image of a female tourist guide on purple long dress with her conical hat that really urged  me to come back. I still dreamed of walking on Truong Tien Bridge to view down to Con Hen and endless Huong River. I have not done it yet because of being too busy even I have come back to this land many times and actually I want to see Hue as a wanderer rather than a busy tour guide with work. I just wanted to keep Hue for my own.

Hue is a ‘difficult’ place for tourist guide job like I did. History is not a hard part, city is also very small, but I found it so hard to explain to my customers about the soul of this land, the place that all Vietnamese love to travel to, even once! Sometimes I find language is not enough, it is all about the feelings and Hue is like a typical Vietnamese girl, she is elegant, beautiful, charming but sometimes she is so cold and discreet to confuse so many boys around.

I often say to people who going to Hue: if you find a place for entertain, Hue is not a place! If you are a ‘city boy’, Hue may not be suitable for you. Hue is for calm and experienced people. City brings the insight of past, the recall of time and layback of busy life. Most of travelers find Hue boring, it’s sad. Hue needs a better treatment, and customers have a right to know Hue better, understand Hue in the way it is.

I hope you have a good time in Hue, don’t forget to visit Dong Ba market, walk on Truong Tien Bridge, view the sunset from Thien Mu pagoda or dine on dragon boat along Huong River. I hope you will have chance to see local girls while school out, taking a photo of citadel from flag pole or laze in lazy coffee shop surrounded by smiling faces. I do hope you will see and feel Hue like the way I do, and confidently phase the word in Vietnamese: Tím Huế!

Junk or Junk?

Some time ago I started to put my free time into the Trip Advisor Forum that seems to be the in-place for travelers now so I could get back the fluency of ‘Westerner’s conversation’ that I lost when I quit my tour guide job a few years ago.  These days I find this forum useful for me (apart from spammers and touts) as I can see the ‘travel trends’ that people are moving towards, and that helps me keep ahead in business. The Halong Bay section of the forum now seems to be the hottest.  Experiences are mixed – good and bad – but that’s what you would expect with such a large enterprise.  I am not trying to recommend any specific cruise agents to you in this article, just wanting to alert you to use your common sense to help you make the right choice in general travel shopping (especially online shopping).

Purpose of your visit

You should ask yourself first: “What am I coming to the bay for?  Relaxation?  Sight-seeing?  Photography?  Luxury?  That is the first step towards choosing the right Junk boat.  If you are on your honeymoon or a photographic expedition, an affordable charter Junk can be found – or even a small capacity one would be suitable.  A trip just for relaxation may require a bit further research on Junk facilities. A few Junks now offer massage, cooking classes or Tai Chi exercising on board, and they seem to be the ones for leisure customers.  If you are not too sure about the purpose, then just choose a classic Junk that offers a basic cruise with transfer, food, and sightseeing included.  Don’t worry too much about what you might miss on a ‘classic option’ as most Junks in Halong Bay go by the same routes and you are unlikely to miss the highlights of the Bay.

Budgeting

The range of fares varies from 50 USD to 500 USD per cabin (each cabin usually sleeps 2 people). Junks are now divided into three levels: under 100 USD, under 200 USD and above 200 USD.  Personally I think the middle range between 100 and 200 USD suits most people.  These offer a comfortable cruise with nice bedding and facilities. The risk of being ripped-off is lower in that range too.  If you are looking for a relaxing trip at the end of a long journey, just choose the middle range as the safe option.

Book through an Agent or Direct?

This has both Yes and No answers!  If you are in rush, booking through an agency seems to be the better option as most Junk operators have limited access to direct customers, so they focus more on local sales partners  who employ the sales people and handle all the booking systems. The sales culture is also quite different if you try and deal direct with the operator; mis-communication due to language difficulties is much more common in direct sales attempts, and both the operator and customer lose out if the Junk departure time is missed. However, if you choose the high-end option, most of these operators offer booking online and you can deal with them directly. The deals may lead you to a good buy depending on your travel dates (high or low season or availability of the Junk). Nothing is lost to try this method if you have the time, BUT, note that there are a number of fake Junk websites on the internet now. Double check to make sure you have the correct website of the Junk you are looking for.  Making a phone call in advance is recommended.

Booking via a reliable travel agency also saves much of your time maybe money too.  As I stated above, Junk companies sell their vacancies through any available agency but the selling price will vary from agency to agency depending on their sales volume – low volume equals a higher price. Travel agencies also have the power to do a deal with a special booking you may have, so don’t hesitate to bargain when you deal with a travel agency. If you travel with your own big group for a party, school meeting or photography, I am sure an agency would fight hard with the Junk operator to get you the best deals.

Junk or Junk?

Halong is the place you should spend more time and money to enjoy even if you are budget travelers. Choosing the right Junk is important; don’t get excited and take the first cheap deal that comes along.  Safety in Vietnam is not the high priority it is in the West.   There have been number of accidents and deaths in Halong Bay because of fire and lack of safety instructions on the boats. While the Government controls security and safety for all Junks in Halong, it is difficult to monitor and control. Make sure your Junk provides at least basic or above safety equipment such as fire protection, emergency exit instructions and life vests for all passengers. Food is also important; if you are vegetarian travelers, make sure you ask for the right menu for you at NO additional charge. If you find your Junk is suspicious in any way, ask for details of the menu they provide. It is good anyway to flag to them that you are alert to these matters so that they pay more attention to your booking. There is another question to ask them: “How is your boat and service different from the others?” Check that the answers are correct.  All these things may take you a little time, but it is worth it to ensure that your time and in Halong Bay will be a time to remember with pleasure rather than the opposite!  One final thing – does the boat company do anything towards protection of the Bay’s environment?

Choosing the right Agent

There are thousands of travel shops around Vietnam now where you can place your booking. It is essential that you book your trip in advance in the high season (from October to May) to secure your seats. The better Junks often sell out in advance. Book it from Hanoi agents – they are closer to the Junk operations and get better updates and price. Spend time on the official Junk website to view the real pictures and facilities they offer. The agent you book with must have:

  • Travel license – meaning that they are an established organization and you can claim for a refund to Vietnam Tourism if something is not delivered as they promise.
  • They must understand what they sell – Make a phone call to see how professional they are, how they respond to your concerns and then you will find out how much knowledge they have.
  • Book with a company that does not own their Junk. They may steer you to better  Junks instead of just pushing their own. Ensure that you deal with a specific Junk brand rather than a non-Company boat.
  • Don’t just trust promises, pictures or other materials they provide. Ask around or visit some trusted forum like Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet.

As you know, crap is all around out there in this world. Whatever happens, don’t be too difficult to please as Halong Bay can please you simply by its own beauty. Have a good trip!

Official web pages of Junk Company in Halong Bay

Bai Tho Junk

http://baithojunks.com/vn/

Huong Hai Junk

http://www.halongdiscovery.com/

Emeraude Classic Cruises

http://www.emeraude-cruises.com/Halong-Bay

Oriental Sails

http://www.orientalsails.com/

Paradise Cruise

http://www.paradisecruises.org/

Indochina Sails

http://www.indochinasails.com/

Hội & An

I got a call from Huy, a long lost friend from Hoi An. He is going to marry to a local girl on March after 31 years of lonely. I actually can’t wait for this event to see him and the land I love – Hoi An

When economics is booming and changes life at most corners of Vietnam, Hoi An seems to be an exceptional. Well, most of population of the town doing related hospitality industry but they do their own ways, not noisy and short term minded.

My very first trip to Hoi An dated in 1999 when tourism was still so raw, you might have been so hard to find a internet cafe in town and hotels are less counted. The well – known tailor shop Yaly was just a little messy place right heart of smelly Hoi An market. I was surprised that everyone acted so gently and friendly to me, and later on I found that tourist (even domestic) are treated very well and honestly here. I used to stay up late in Tam Tam bar, one night I had walked back to my hotel and there was a guy with his bike coming over and phased ‘do you want a ride back?’ I said ok and jumped over. When we arrived, I gave 5k VND to him and surprisingly he said ‘no worries, Tuan! I am not Xe Om, just offer you a ride as you are tour guide’. Well, how shame I was! And I had invited him for a coffee in the next day. He later became one of many local friends I made in Hoi An.

Hoi An is very small little town, you can’t get lost here. The old town lies along the main river and everything starts from there. The Cua Dai beach is a new development located about 4kms away. The town is mixture between of river and beach, old and new, western bar and many local style coffee shops, it offers a large range of shopping options like gift, clothes and many local souvenirs. Are they the reasons that make people stay in Hoi An longer than other places in Vietnam?

Language barrier does not allow me to express how much I love this land, especially it’s people. By the way, I would like to send my special thanks to all my friends, Tam, Gau, Huy, Quynh, Chau, Phuong, Cu and many others who just spent so much time helping me on early days at work, taught me Hoi An history, took great care when I was not well, showed me places that I would not have known as a normal visitor. I own you guys another coffee!

What you should not miss while travelling to Hoi An

  • Visit Cu Lao Cham Island (if you have time).
  • Eating ‘Banh Dap’ in Cam Nam, Cao Lau and White rose in Mermaid restaurant.
  • Be there on 14th lunar month for colorful lantern night.
  • Order a dining suit or two.
  • Enjoy Chao from vender in Cua Dai beach.
  • Find your way to one of the local coffee shop in Hoi An small alleys
  • Burn an incense and pray in Chua Cau
  • Rock to Tam Tam bar for a Larue beer or two and make sure you will be back after 3:00 am.
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