The first in a series chronicling Karen Fawcett’s Vietnam adventures last month.
Planning a vacation isn’t always easy unless you’re going around the corner to grandmother’s house (not always, even then). But this year, Vietnam was my destination of choice and my plans were to do and see all — as much as I could squeeze in. Asia presented me with a new set of problems both with planning and with moving around once I landed.
Mapping out a trip in France is easy for me as are most places in the E.U. However, Asia is a very different story. Not speaking the language is a huge barrier when it comes to getting around. Don’t make the mistake that everyone speaks English because unless they’re in the hospitality industry, they simply don’t.
Rather than looking for cheap fares, I decided it was time to cash in accumulated air miles because they’re less valuable than they used to be, seats are more difficult to come by and 200,000 miles I had on one carrier’s frequent flyer program simply disappeared.
Getting the frequent-flier tickets was a do or die affair and that included spending hours on the phone trying to redeem miles to travel between Washington, DC, and Vietnam. Rather than going west, the only available seats were via Paris, which added considerable hours to the trip. (Who’s complaining when free is free, or almost, after factoring in taxes and some other minimal charges.)
People who say you don’t need a travel agent are a great deal more adventuresome than I. Perhaps, they may want to cover substantially less territory or they aren’t on a tight time schedule. This trip had 13 days: That was it. I wanted a good travel agent.
The trip necessitated planning like a military operation. I figured that travel agencies have a network plus a lot more pull than an individual. Vendors want repeat business and because reputable agencies aren’t here today and gone tomorrow, you’ll more than likely score a better accommodations.
The trip was good to go with the air portion. My thought was, how much trouble could it be to book our itinerary within the country? I quickly learned after my first email to http://www.exotissimo.com. I received a response saying, “If all possible, don’t come during Tet,” which is the Chinese New Year. This is the time when the Vietnamese return to their families for the annual celebration and many attractions and tourist sights are closed. In addition, obtaining plane and train reservations would be difficult. Tet is also known as the Lunar New Year and 2012 is the Year of the Dragon.
I dismissed this request because after having snagged reward seats, there was no way the dates could change. After so many emails and itinerary changes (yes, we were being fussy) it was clear that the agent wasn’t kidding when she said it would hard to get some reservations. Some internal flights were full for days and days; even when we were planning the trip nearly two months in advance. I’ve always respected travel agents but this group went all out.
Clearly it was going to take a dragon to plan this trip, which included seeing nearly the entire country, taking three plane flights, spending two nights on a train, sleeping two nights on boats and no two consecutive nights spent in anyone place. Were we crazy? Perhaps? But, it was a trip we’ll always remember.
Initially, we wanted to steer clear of American-style hotels. On the other hand, WiFi was a necessity and the Vietnamese cater to tourism because that’s where the money is. The Vietnamese are very tech savvy — everyone with a computer seems to know how to circumvent the government’s ban on Facebook with a special IP address and many of the locals have iPhones.
Contrasted with my first visit more than 10 years ago, Vietnam is no longer cheaper than cheap unless you’re into backpacking. If you are, that part of Asia is still a bargain. But to be sure, there are less expensive destinations because that’s where the well-to-do Vietnamese go since they can get more for their money and want to do and see other things
Trying to save money and use up accumulated points, we opted to stay in a Starwood property in Ho Chi Minh City, or as you may remember it, Saigon. The city’s growth has mushroomed at such a lightening fast speed that charming guesthouses are few and far between. We stayed at the Sheraton Saigon and upgraded to one of the tower rooms. Because our flight arrived early in the morning, we were able to go to the hotel’s tower lounge, wait there comfortably until our room was ready and have breakfast as part of the cost. Many people opt to go to the spa to relax. The more energetic went to the gym while others jumped into the pool. I sat in a trance while my traveling companion attacked a few of the emails awaiting him.
Though, a room with access to the executive lounge might seem like an extravagance, for my dollars and cents, it really isn’t. Traveling (and yes, I’ll go anytime and nearly anywhere) can be tiring and most especially when you’re crossing 12 time zones. I simply wanted time to decompress from the marathon travels and steel myself for the journeys to come.
Our first day was relatively quiet. We left the hotel that afternoon for a long walk and a drink on the roof of the Rex Hotel, which was the lookout point for many correspondents during the Vietnam War.
Our real adventure began very early the next morning when we started our tour of Vietnam at (nearly) full gallop.
…to be continued.
Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.