Thursday, September 30, 2010

Vietnam's Phu Quoc island slowly opening up to the world

Its growing popularity and developing hospitality might make it a runaway success, which at least one visitor hopes won't spoil its tropical perfection and laid-back atmosphere.

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

Reporting from Phu Quoc, Vietnan

During the four years I lived in Hanoi, where I was The Times' bureau chief in the late 1990s, I did a pretty good job of getting around Vietnam and exploring new places, from Can Tho in the southern Mekong Delta to Sapa on the northern border with China. But I missed Phu Quoc, Vietnam's largest island. So did most people. Unless you were a backpacker looking for a cheap beach hotel, there wasn't much reason to go.

Fast forward to 2010. Phu Quoc, once known mainly for its pungent fish sauce and wartime history, is the hottest new tourist destination in Vietnam, a slice of tropical perfection with mile after mile of wide, uncrowded beaches, dense jungle, virgin rain forests and a lazy, laid-back atmosphere that reminds a visitor of what Phuket, Thailand, was like a generation ago.

Chuck Searcy, a former U.S. serviceman who lives in Vietnam and runs humanitarian programs, remembers his only visit to Phu Quoc about a dozen years ago. His plane circled the airport three times to scare cows off the runway, and the island had only three hotels, "all decidedly 'no star,' to put it kindly." Said Searcy: "I'm sure I wouldn't recognize the place today."

A few weeks ago, my wife, Sandy, and I hopped onto one of the nine daily turboprop flights Vietnam Airlines runs from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to Phu Quoc. No cows impeded our arrival. Our taxi took us through the dusty town of Duong Dong and down a dirt road lined with little patio restaurants; a cemetery, crammed between two bars; and a bamboo hut that served as a laundry. Although I had a moment of doubt, our driver insisted that just ahead lay La Veranda, Phu Quoc's first five-star resort.

The jungle parted, and we caught a glimpse of the Gulf of Thailand and Long Beach, which stretches for 12 miles. And in a waterside clearing lush with flowers and foliage stood La Veranda, a 48-room boutique hotel and spa with two restaurants. It seemed as though we had stumbled onto a French colonial plantation, its large louvered windows open to the sea, its deep balconies, high ceilings and overhead fans reminiscent of a bygone era.

That, in fact, is exactly what the owner, Catherine Gerbet, had in mind when she designed the hotel, now 4 years old. A French Vietnamese, she was born in Cambodia, raised in Hong Kong and lived in Saigon. Her goal was to build something that captured her childhood memories of Asia, and she didn't miss a touch. I wouldn't have blinked had I seen Graham Greene sipping a martini while sitting in one of the bar's wicker chairs.

I asked La Veranda's Swiss general manager, Nicolas Josi, what attracted foreigners to Phu Quoc and what they did when they got here.

"First, the island is just being discovered. It still feels authentic," Josi said. "You won't, for instance, find a building over two stories. A lot of our guests are tourists who have been hurrying about in Ho Chi Minh City and Hue and Hanoi. They take a break here to recharge their batteries. What they like to do here is often nothing, just relax."

Phu Quoc, a triangle-shaped island just 30 miles long, is closer to Cambodia than to the Vietnamese mainland. Settled in the 17th century by Vietnamese and Chinese farmers and fishermen, it was occupied in 1869 by French colonialists who built rubber and coconut plantations. The island was so remote for so long that when Saigon fell to Communist troops in April 1975, Phu Quoc's 10,000 people hardly seemed to notice and went quietly about their daily business, catching squid and tending their pepper vines.

But the island's isolation did not shelter it from war. Vietnam's largest prisoner-of-war camp was here, near the U.S. naval base at An Thoi on the southern tip of the island. Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge guerrillas invaded and briefly occupied the island after Saigon's fall, and some of the non-Communist South Vietnamese forced out of the cities by Vietnam's harsh, new rulers were resettled here and told to become farmers.

"My parents were teachers. They didn't know how to grow turnips. We nearly starved," said Hoi Trinh, a Vietnamese Australian lawyer, who arrived here with his family in 1977 as a 7-year-old. To help support his family he sold watermelon seeds on Long Beach, not far from where La Veranda now stands. When he and his father were caught trying to flee by boat to Malaysia, young Trinh was sentenced to a month in Prison No. 7.

It was a full day before my wife and I emerged from La Veranda. We were massaged, fed, pampered at the swimming pool and on the beach by a locally recruited and trained staff whose eagerness to please and unfailing politeness more than compensated for its struggle with foreign languages. We checked out a trip to Ganh Dau on the northwest coast: Scuba diving, including transportation, lunch and equipment, was $80 for the day; snorkeling, $25. The water, we were told, was 88 degrees with a visibility of 30 feet. Instead we hired a taxi with a driver who spoke some English and set out to explore the island. The cost for three hours would be $30.

Scores of beachside bungalow-style hotels with open-air bars and restaurants were tucked unobtrusively among clusters of palms on the coastal road south. Some charged as little as $25 a night. French road markers along the way showed the distance to the next village. Hammocks, often occupied, hung in tree-shaded front yards. Peppercorns lay drying on faded blue tarpaulins, a reminder that Vietnam is among the world's largest exporters of pepper. Sometimes we caught a whiff of nuoc mam fish sauce, which the Vietnamese use to flavor almost every dish. We stopped at one of the many pearl farms, where a clerk showed us a $9,000 necklace. Happily, Sandy settled on a pair of $70 earrings.

The fishing boats had long since pulled out of An Thoi and other little ports, having left at dawn not to return until sunset, by the time we reached Coconut Prison. It was built by the colonialists in 1953, a year before Vietnam defeated France at Dien Bien Phu. The Americans and their South Vietnamese allies took over the 1,000-acre site in 1967, and for a time it held 40,000 North Vietnamese prisoners of war. More than 4,000 were said to have died there.

Guard towers still loom over rows of windowless tin POW barracks that are surrounded by coils of concertina wire. Except for an occasional tourist, the place was silent and empty. The small nearby museum (admission is 3,000 dong, about 16 cents) is not for the faint-hearted, with its scenes of torture depicted by chillingly real life-size mannequins.

The grimness of the place seemed incompatible with the tranquility of Phu Quoc, and leaves one thankful that Vietnam has known 35 years of peace. And what changes that peace has wrought. Less than three decades ago Vietnam had no tourist industry, and Vietnamese were forbidden to speak or socialize with foreigners.

Today, Vietnam attracts nearly 4 million tourists a year and luxury resorts — which numbered one when the five-star Furama opened on Da Nang's China Beach in the mid-1990s — reach up the coastline from Vung Tau, south of Ho Chi Minh City, to Thanh Hoa, near the former demilitarized zone.

With tourism creating jobs and spreading wealth, Phu Quoc's population has surged to 70,000, even though the northern part of the island, home to a large national park, is mostly uninhabited. Phu Quoc absorbs well the 50,000-plus visitors it draws annually, but changes are afoot.

The government has a master plan to develop Phu Quoc into a high-quality eco-tourism destination by 2020, when it aims to attract 2.3 million visitors a year. An international airport is scheduled to open in two years to accommodate nonstop flights from Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. Roads and bridges are being rebuilt and a deep-water port is being dug at An Thoi. Life may never be the same for an island that now uses generators to produce much of its electricity and gets its water from wells.

Driving north from An Thoi at sunset, watching the fishing boats return to port, we passed Duong Dong's night market, where $2 gets you a fresh seafood dinner, and got out of the taxi to walk on a deserted beach the last mile to La Veranda. Phu Quoc, I hoped that warm, star-lit night, would not lose its character in the tidal wave of coming development, because even by the toughest of standards, it's just about perfect as it is.

Source: Chicago Tribune

Contact ActiveTravel Asia for an active trip to discover this beautiful island.

A World of Romantic Adventure Awaits You in Da Lat, Viet Nam

Perched high in the Southern Central Highlands amidst valleys, lakes and waterfalls, Vietnam’s Dalat is known for its mountain scenery and delightfully cool weather.

Dalat, Vietnam

Bike Dalat, Vietnam

Originally inhabited by the Lat and Ma Hil tribes (Da Lat meaning “stream of the Lat People”), who now live in nearby Lat and Chicken Villages, Dalat became a holiday resort for commanders who tired of the tropical Vietnamese climate during the French Colonial era. It remains Vietnam’s “Le Petit Paris” and its “city of eternal spring”, its colonial mansions and over 2000 remaining French villas still reflecting its French influence.

Monday, September 27, 2010

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA focus on promoting Active Travel in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 2011

Active travel refers to an approach to travel and transport that focuses on physical activity (walking and cycling) as opposed to motorized and carbon-dependent means. Doing so would have the multiple benefits of increasing levels of physical fitness and reducing rates of overweight and obesity, whilst reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and consequent Carbon emissions.

Why ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA (ATA) focuses on active travel? Global climate change due to fossil fuel usage and the continued increase in obesity and overweight are amongst the most serious health and environmental problems the world is currently facing. A shift towards active travel is being increasingly presented as an effective approach to tackling both these challenges. ATA makes strong recommendations that promoting and facilitating cycling, walking, trekking and kayaking should become key components of an integrated anti-obesity strategy, as this would represent "...physical activity incorporated into the fabric of everyday life."

Sapa terrace field, Vietnam
Sapa Terrace Field Vietnam

Studies have shown that the recent global increase in levels of overweight and obesity are in large part due to the decrease in physical activity by children and adults. Partly this is explicable through an increase in more sedentary forms of leisure (TV, video games) but to a large extent low levels of walking, cycling, trekking and kayaking are also implicated.

In response to this, in UK, Public Health and environmental had campaigns to advocate for stronger policies and practices that promote active travel, and make cycling and walking safer and more attractive. The intention being that these modes could in many instances replace car usage for everyday journeys to school, shops, public services etc. To facilitate this would require local planning and highway authorities to invest in ensuring safe routes are available to these destinations especially in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (danger from other road traffic is frequently cited as the primary reason for not cycling.) In many areas in Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia, the current focus of development for cycle, trek and kayak provision are on isolated leisure trails, resulting in highly fragmented cycle routes and pavements/sidewalks, which do not link effectively to everyday destinations.

Actions on Active Travel
ATA have studied the itineraries in local areas for Active Travel which helps travelers have habits to increase in walking and cycling after holidays as well as effective response to the steadily increasing problem of overweight and obesity, and also help reduce carbon emissions.

Recommend some itineraries

- Sapa trekking & homestay
- West to East biking exploration
- Kayaking Halong bay


- Cycling Angkor Wat
- Trek Angkor Wat


- Trek Luang Prabang
- Trek Luang Namtha

Friday, September 24, 2010

Floating Markets of the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Vietnam is incredible and still authentic – it’s not “spruced up” for tourists. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Mekong Delta, with its floating markets, where locals live, work and earn a living from the many tributaries of the river. You can easily get a feel for the real workings of this country and how things are done. Here, everyone is an entrepreneur of sorts!

floating market, VietnamFloating market, Can Tho, Vietnam

As the food basket of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta covers an immense area winding its way over 3000 mi. from Tibet through Cambodia to Vietnam’s Peninsula, where it spills into the South China Sea. It is marvelously fertile, and views here are all related to riverside life, orchards, rice paddies and any food-related small industry. From snakes swimming in whisky to coconut candy, everything here reflects the flavors of Vietnamese culture.

The floating markets in the Mekong highlight the shape of life here, where people live, shop, sell and eat from and in their vessels and homes on the water. Getting to the area involves a lot of boat/bus/ferry/foot combinations, but its well worth the effort. We arrived from Saigon on our 3-day trip, which included Can Tho and Vinh Long.

The journey down was a long, hobbling, creaking bus ride, passing paddy fields and other fields with every variety of food being grown here. We stopped for lunch in Vinh Long. We walked around the “land” market of local shops with their goods set up in baskets on the street, where all kinds of colors and scents greeted our senses. A small motor launch took us along a peaceful tributary (away from the madding crowd of the main river) where each bend brought a new surprise and gorgeous scenery before we reached the home of a local farmer for lunch.

We arrived in vibrant Can Tho, the delta’s largest city, in the late afternoon and spent the time exploring this busy and lively port city. We rose the next morning at 4 am in raw anticipation. The day on the river begins at the crack of dawn and floating markets are held every morning from about 5 am till noon. We got into a small motor boat and made our way up the river to our first “stop” – the Phung Hiep market, the largest of the floating markets, located at the crossroads of 7 major canals.

The picture that greeted us was like laundry hanging out to dry. A maze of hundreds of sampans spread out on the busy river, hoisting samples of their wares on towering bamboo poles, to be seen from a distance. Coconuts, melons, mangoes, a heap of turtles, snakes, vegetables, fish, urns and vases and so much more all piled high on the vessels.
floating market, VietnamFlowers in floating market, Vietnam

A beehive of activity where traders snapped up everything by the bushels to resell at local markets; where smaller merchants weaved their way between larger boats and suddenly, a spectacle of pineapples or cabbage flying through the air between vendor and shopper. In between, floating restaurants, floating bars, floating gas stations and many other floating shops winding deftly between the boats. The lively, near –frenzied pace here was an unmatched view into local culture.

We made our way to land for an afternoon cycling trip through the quiet lanes near Can Tho, biking through small villages and beautiful countryside, and in spite of the language barrier, meeting some very pleasant and friendly people.

Early the next morning, we visited the Cai Rang floating market for a second taste of this experience. Primarily a produce market, it is always busy, bearing all the characteristics of local life. After the market, we visited some small home industries where villagers made everything from coconut candies to rice paper. We ended our trip with a trek through lush orchards and bee farms. The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the Dong Nam snake farm, where over 20 varieties of venomous snakes are used in drinks and food for medicinal purposes – some soaked in large flasks of whisky!

The Mekong Delta, with its hustle-bustle, its genuine locals, its overgrown streams and great scenery, and above all, its characteristic floating markets is one of the most fascinating parts of this fascinating country and a springboard for getting to know Vietnamese culture and its people up close.

Source: familyadventuretravelworks

Recommendations for traveling in Mekong Delta, Vietnam:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Vietnam: Get ready to Discover Adventure

One of the most enriching countries in the world,Vietnam is an absolute assault on the senses. This is a country which offers highly rewarding adventure travel, active vacations and cultural immersion in a wonderfully exotic way of life.

Blessed with captivating cities, lush soaring mountains, over 1500 km of coastline with white sandy beaches, and home to colonial palaces, pagodas, tombs and temples and hill-tribe peoples, Vietnam is an adventure waiting to be discovered.

Hanoi and the North

Hanoi, VietnamSword lake in Hanoi, Vietnam

Northern Vietnam is breathtaking with its high mountains, emerald green forests and valleys, its picturesque seascapes and lush scenery. Elegant Hanoi, a blend of Indochinese and French influences and Vietnam’s capital, is one of the loveliest cities in Asia. Teeming with lakes and monuments, an Old Town with narrow streets crammed with artisans’ shops, and a French Quarter characterized by beautiful colonial buildings, it is a city to explore on foot.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Vietnam the Right Destination For Adventure Travel?

An exciting experience from any dangerous situation is called “Adventure”. It may cause physical dangers, financial or psychological risks. Adventure experience creates physical or mental arousal. It can be positive or sometime negative. Most of the travelers are interested to explore adventurous areas. They love to be the adventurers. The adventure traveling activity includes skydiving, mountain climbing, scuba diving, skiing and any kind of extreme sports.

Sapa Vietnam
Sapa Vietnam

I would like to watch only adventurous sports. It creates an excitement and makes us to avoid moving. It was the initial stage when I attracted towards this adventure. My first adventure started traveling on mountainous areas for mountain walking. Slowly I moved to the next step of trekking. Now, my interest includes mountain walking, hiking, trekking and mountain climbing.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tet Trung Thu (Mid- Autumn Festival) in Vietnam

In Vietnam, Têt-Trung-Thu (tet-troong-thoo) or the Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most popular family holidays. It is held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.

Vietnamese families plan their activities around their children on this special day. In a Vietnamese folklore, parents were working so hard to prepare for the harvest that they left the children playing by themselves. To make up for lost time, parents would use the Mid-Autumn festival as an opportunity to show their love and appreciation for their children.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vietnam attractions: Da Nang

Da Nang, Vietnam doesn't have the history of Hue, nor the charm of Hoi An. What it does have are pristine beaches, cool mountain hideaways and the relaxation that comes with being away from most other tourists - and most of the people whose job it is to bug the other tourists - as well as beachside restaurants.

Bamboo fishing boats in Danang beach

One clam is never enough. Two, not even close. They make their way to the table in a steaming bowl, the scent of lemon grass and sea salt summonsing the drool of any diner within a 10-metre radius. They're plonked in front of you, swimming in a pool of cloudy liquid, the steam quickly whipped away by Da Nang's ocean breeze.

"You have one first," says Ngo, reaching into the bowl and picking up three of the open shells, shoving them in front of me. There's a pause as I eye my prey.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dambri in Da Lat, Vietnam, the girl longing for love

Once upon a time, in a village near a big river in Dalat, there was a young couple who were deeply in love.

Dambri waterfall in Dalat, Vietnam

They wanted to spend their life together but the girl’s father was a rich village chief who wouldn’t allow his daughter to marry the young man from a poor family. The chief then forced the boy to leave the village causing his daughter great sorrow.