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Tue 23 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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Asia's best kept secret

Forget Thailand, Malaysia and the usual Asian suspects; Vietnam is one of the most diverse countries in the region and what’s more, it offers great value for money, says Gemma Greenwood.

Forget Thailand, Malaysia and the usual Asian suspects; Vietnam is one of the most diverse countries in the region and what’s more, it offers great value for money, says Gemma Greenwood.

The number of tourists flocking to traditional Asian destinations such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore has sky-rocketed over the past decade, nowhere more so than from the Middle East.

After all, Asia offers great weather, good quality accommodation and importantly, value for money, while cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok cater well to the Muslim market.

However, these destinations have, arguably, become victims of their own success. Thailand and Malaysia thrive on tourism and are therefore packed with hotels, resorts and, well, tourists, and for those buying and selling travel in the Middle East, there are many more Asian gems to be unearthed.

One of them is Vietnam - a place often described by those who have visited as ‘Thailand 20 years ago' in that the tourism boom has yet to take the place by storm.

That's not to say there are no tourists there - the country is very popular with Asians, Australians, Americans and Europeans in particular - but there are no swarms of travellers or big crowds.

Not only that, but there are many untouched and unspoiled locations where visitors will find their piece of paradise and they won't be forced to share it with thousands of others.

However, Vietnam's travel and tourism industry has been growing exponentially over the past 10 years, which in turn, has boosted its contribution to the country's GDP.

The country is a communist state that is opening its mind to capitalist ideals, realising the potential of its cultural, historical and natural assets and giving the green light to new tourism projects that will further boost Vietnam's wealth.

As a result, a plethora of hotel companies big and small have been investing in the country including InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG); Swiss hospitality firm Movenpick Hotels & Resorts as well as Vietnam's first luxury hotel operator, Bangkok-based Six Senses Resorts & Spas.

"I first visited Vietnam in 1992. It took a long time to secure our properties in Dalat and Nha Trang, but I always believed in Vietnam and its future," explains Six Senses managing director Bernhard Bohnenberger.

"Then the flood of investors came during the nineties and the government swayed between pro-business and pro-communism.

"It lost a lot of business. We were the only luxury property in the country for many years. Then the second wave came a few years ago when everyone went back in.

"We believe strongly in Vietnam because there are so many aspects to this country - culture, history, geography and natural beauty."

Six Senses currently operates three properties in Vietnam - in Dalat, Nha Trang and at Ninh Van Bay and recently signed up to operate three more. One will be a ‘Hideaway' property on Con Dao Island off the south-east coast, home to a national park, which is due to open in July 2009.

"There is only one hotel there at the moment and there is only room for two more so it will never become a Koh Samui or a Phuket (in Thailand)," explains Bohnenberger.

Six Senses is also developing a property on the river in Saigon - just 20 minutes by boat from Dong Khoi pier in the centre of the city.

Ho Chi Minh City

Where to stay

Park Hyatt Saigon: www.saigon.park.hyatt.com Movenpick Hotel Saigon: www.moevenpick-saigon.com Continental Hotel: www.continentalvietnam.com Rex Hotel: www.rexhotelvietnam.com Sheraton Saigon: www.sheraton.com/saigon Renaissance Riverside Hotel: email reservations@renaissance-saigon.com


War Remnants Museum Reunification Palace Ben Thanh Market Dong Khoi for shopping and eating

Day trips

Cu Chi tunnels Mekong Delta


This ‘Latitude' property (the new brand to replace the Evason brand) will be accessed by road and water and will include floating suites when it opens in 2010.

"We are aiming for 150 keys, which is quite a large property for us, but we want all our guests to be able to stay with us when they are in the city," says Bohnenberger. "We will also be encouraging the local community to come in and experience it. The property will be a true resort with a village feel where guests will travel on bikes and boats between villas."

Six Senses' third property, to open in 2011, will be located in Phu Quoc - an island just off the coast near the Cambodian border.

"There we have a beautiful stretch of land for a Six Senses Latitude and a Six Senses Hideaway. This is the first time we will have these two brands together," Bohnenberger explains.

He reveals the company is also "actively looking for something really nice and rural near Hanoi".

Looking even further into the future, Bohnenberger says Six Senses is still on the hunt for "complementary sites" that do not compete with one another.

"Maybe one day we can do something on the Mekong Delta or in the Delta Hills? For now we need hubs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh," he says.

About Vietnam

Bohnenberger says the Six Senses group is currently "working on the image of Vietnam", encouraging guests to visit the country as a destination in its own right, rather than as part of an Asian itinerary.

"We tell them that it is more exotic than Thailand, but just as accessible," he says.

In fact, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is within easy flying distance from many of Asia's major hubs - less than one hour from Bangkok, around one-and-a-half hours from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and just two hours from Hong Kong.

All of Asia's major carriers, both full-service and low-cost, fly to both HCMC and Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, while the country's national airline, Vietnam Airlines, represented in the UAE by Sharaf Travel, offers a strong domestic and regional network.

In addition, Qatar Airways flies direct to HCMC four times weekly, so there is no excuse not to pay a visit.

Travel agents selling Vietnam to first-time visitors should maybe suggest a taster trip combined with one or two additional destinations in Asia, which given the aforementioned airlinks should be very easy to arrange and package.

But few Middle East agents, operators or travellers boast thorough product knowledge of Vietnam.

The country, rightly or wrongly, is probably best known for the wars it has endured, particularly in the past century or so - first with the French and then the US.

Vietnam is a land shaped by such history, but this is by no means an indication of how safe a place it is to visit.

In fact, Movenpick vice president operations, Vietnam, Hubert Klemenz, claims the country is one of the safest in the world - an accolade supported by recent research conducted by Euromonitor International.


Where to stay

Evason Ana Mandara Villas & Six Senses Spa: www.sixsenses.com Saigon-Dalat Hotel: www.saigondalathotel.com

What to do

Guests at Evason Ana Mandara Villas and Six Senses should take a city tour in one of the property's vintage cars, taking in key sights such as the Cremaillere Railway Station, Central Market and the Truc Lam meditation centre. Top tip: try a yummy avocado shake one of the Central Market's bustling cafes.


Bao Dai's summer Palace Dalat Flower Gardens Cremaillere Railway Station Cable car ride Central Market Yoga/meditation at Truc Lam


Rock climbing Kayaking Trekking Cycling tours Golf

The research firm's May 2008 Vietnam report says the country has emerged as a "safe" country in terms of terrorism and political stability.

"Vietnam (along with Greenland, Uruguay, North Korea, Mongolia and Botswana) was voted as one of the safest countries for tourists in 2005 by Aon - the second biggest insurance company in the world," the Euromonitor report states.

The Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) recently unveiled an international marketing campaign to promote the destination to potential visitors.

The campaign carries the slogan ‘Vietnam - hidden charm', which has been criticised as weak in comparison to campaigns such as Unique Singapore, Malaysia, Truly Asia and Incredible India, yet it's a message that rings true with those who have visited.

Charm can be found in every aspect of Vietnamese life, from the teaming street markets, historic buildings and the thousands of motorbikes that buzz around the streets of the major cities, to the warmth and friendliness of the people who allow you to be part of their everyday lives.

Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Saigon is Vietnam's largest metropolis and its undisputed capital of commerce.

Recent investment has seen a wave of lavish hotels and restaurants, trendy nightclubs and top-end boutiques take the centre of the city by storm making it very accessible to first-time travellers from the west, yet these icons of modern-day society sit side-by-side with landmarks of Vietnam's tradition, culture and history.

Crowded markets, sidewalk cafes, massage and acupuncture clinics, centuries-old pagodas and wooden shops selling local wares such as silk and spices line the streets, which are swimming with a sea of motorbikes.

The Dong Khoi area is where most of the top hotels, boutiques, tailors and funky eateries and cafes are located and it's best to suggest that tourists base themselves there given that most of the city's major attractions are within walking distance.

These include the History Museum, War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace where visitors can bear witness to Vietnam's colourful past; the pagodas of Cholon; and the lively Ben Thanh Marketm, which sells many goods including the iconic conical hats for which Vietnam is famous.

Accommodation options in the city cater to all budgets but for those seeking a top-end experience, there is only one option - Park Hyatt Saigon.

The property occupies a prime position overlooking the Opera House and is within walking distance of the above mentioned attractions.

Boasting 252 guestrooms including 21 suites, the hotel was designed to feel like a Vietnamese residence, with many areas of the building featuring louvered French windows in a nod to Vietnam's French occupation in the early 20th century.

Nha Trang

Where to stay

Six Senses Hideaway Ninh Van Bay: www.sixsenses.com Evason Ana Mandara & Six Senses Spa at Nha Trang: www.sixsenses.com Diamond Bay Resort & Golf: www.diamondbayresort.vn VinPearl Resort & Spa: www.sunrisehotelvietnam.com White Sand Beach Resort & Spa: www.whitesandresort.com.vn

What to do

Scuba diving and snorkeling Fishing Watersports Golf

Unique selling points include the F&B offering - Square One is a contemporary restaurant boasting five show kitchens and offering both authentic Vietnamese seafood and Western grilled steaks, while Opera is an all-day dining restaurant specialising in Italian cuisine.

Park Hyatt Saigon also boasts an outdoor pool, a gym, the Xuan Spa and meetings facilities that can accommodate up to 500 people.

General manager Michael Golden says the property is popular with business and leisure travellers and that in 2007 it achieved the highest average occupancies in the city at 76%.

"This hotel combines contemporary style and Vietnamese warmth in a colonial setting - we are an oasis in a bustling city, providing all the mod cons you would expect of a five-star hotel, without compromising on the Vietnamese experience," he says.

The property is geared up to the Middle East market, having already hosted guests from the UAE and recently, the King of Morocco, he adds.

Chauffeur-driven Mercedes and butlers are just some of the services on offer while a Halal menu can be arranged, Golden stresses.

Vietnam is a value-for-money destination and room rates at Park Hyatt Saigon are around US $290 per night during the summer season.

But for clients whose budgets won't stretch that far, well-known brands such as Sofitel, Renaissance and Sheraton operate properties in the city.

There's also the Movenpick Hotel Saigon, formerly the Omni Hotel, which was re-branded under the Swiss company's banner on July 1.

The property is located in the city's business district and is currently being refurbished but boasts 251 rooms, a gym, Qi Spa, meetings facilities and six F&B outlets.

Park Hyatt's Golden stresses that in addition to the sights and sounds that HCMC has to offer, there are a number of day trip options including a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, a battleground during the Vietnam War, as well as Mekong River and Mekong Delta cruises where rural life amongst the vast rice fields can be experienced.

Other options include golf packages; dinner cruises with water puppet shows; and even a trip into Cambodia to one of Asia's most famous archaeological sites - Angkor Wat.

The sales pitch

Getting there

Qatar Airways: flies from Doha to Ho Chi Minh four times weekly.

Vietnam Airlines: does not fly to any Middle East destinations but boasts a network of 41 international and 20 domestic locations. The carrier is represented in the UAE by its GSA Sharaf Travel. Visit www.vietnamairlines.com and www.sharaftravel.com.

Most other Asian carriers fly to HCMC and Hanoi from their respective hubs plus many of the region's low-cost carriers serve both the main cities and key tourism resorts such as Nha Trang.

Currency:One US Dollar (US$) = 16.56 Vietnam Dong (VND)

Visas:All visitors need to arrange a visa before travelling to Vietnam, which is a communist state. Dnata Travel Services can arrange this, for a fee, through its ground handler in Ho Chi Minh, Lac Hong Voyages.

Email: lahovidu@hcm.vnn.vn or visit www.lachongvoyages.com or www.vietnamoverlander.com.


Dnata Holidays: stay two nights at the five-star The Nam Hai in Hoi An and receive an additional night free. Prices start from AED 6615 (US $1801) per person and include return economy class flights to Vietnam on Singapore Airlines, three nights in a one-bedroom pool villa, breakfast daily, airport transfers and all taxes and service charges. Valid until September 30.

Useful links:

www.vietnamtourism.gov.vn and www.vietnamtourism.com.vn.

www.dulichhe.com - tourist information

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