What About Vietnam – S4- E19
Why Vietnam wins the hearts of the daring!
Kerry Newsome, Alvaro Moreno
Kerry Newsome: 00:35
Just before we jump into the show, I have some great news to share. Starting first of March, What About Vietnam is offering up three new travel service products, which I hope you'll take advantage of. Just a very quick mention here:
1. The first one is Trip Planning and Design. So that's creating the perfect itinerary and tour plan just for you as a private program.
2. Secondly, we are offering Travel Companion Services, which is a very unique service into Vietnam, where you will have Kelley McCarthy as your travel companion to support you through your stay, should you require that service.
3. Lastly, I'm very excited about the Girls Getaway for 11 days in September, that's 11 days where we get to take you to a major city, an old town and an island. So I'm expecting lots of fun shopping, pampering food and some rich culture there.
Trip Planning and Design
Firstly, I'd just like to tell you a little bit about the Trip Planning and Design. Because I hear from you, where a lot of people are struggling with so much information on the internet, where it's just so hard to make a decision. There's tour companies out there's Facebook pages, there's Facebook groups, and I just see you all kind of struggling to make decisions and relying on some people and feedback. Everyone's got something different to say, and some of you have reached out to me independently. I hope I've been of service there. But that's what Trip Planning & Design is about. It's a service that I'm hoping to provide you with that's tailored to you, customized to what you and I decide is important for you, and your travel companion or your family or your small group, whatever that may be.
So, check that out on our website. If you go to WhatAboutVietnam.com, click on the Travel Services tab. You'll see all of the services listed there, including the Trip Planning and Design. There is a small fee. If you decide to proceed with us for the tour that we will actually deliver the tour to you, then we actually deduct that original Trip Planning and Design fee from the overall tour price. So, check it out. As I said on the website, send me a message we've got this new message system on the website so you can actually leave me a voice message if you wish, or just reach out to me directly through email. WhatAboutVietnam@gmail.com. Anyway, without further ado, let's get on with the show.
Xin Chào and welcome to What About Vietnam. As a follow up from the previous episode talking about luxury travel. We’re in good stead as we've got Alvaro Morenoon the show today. He's General Manager of the Fusion Original Saigon Centre. A little bit about our Alvaro: Originally from Barcelona, he decided to take off from his hotel management job back in 2011, and go exploring in the Southeast Asia region, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, and even across to Nepal and India. He believes this trip had a big impact on him, becoming a better leader and mentor to his staff, along with his external studies at Cornell University. He's worked on the preopening phase of three hotels, and one rebrand in Vietnam. He's quite well known for his creative process, which is very hands on. He certainly excels in project management.
I know from talking to others, he's very highly regarded in the industry. For some people adapting to working in an unfamiliar culture can be difficult, but for Alvaro, he says his travel experiences contributed hugely to his own personal growth and that of his profession. The opportunity to speak with you him came up during my last visit to Vietnam, I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to indulge with him in some retrospection, really, as he speaks to us as both a previous traveler and now General Manager of this very upmarket luxury hotel right in the heart of Saigon Central, that operates with a tagline, I think I've said before that I just truly love: "The Home of the Daring". At the heart of our conversation are some insights on what travelers should consider when planning a trip to Vietnam, like duration and budget.
However, he adds to that some inspiration as he describes Vietnam, as a country where a traveler can challenge themselves in relative safety. He goes on to talk about Vietnam in terms of its network of connectivity, digitally so, to the scope and broad range of transport easily accessible to the tourist, and normally at fairly reasonable prices. Right through of course, to hotel accommodation, offering 'good value for money' stays. We drill down a bit further to, to really delve into:
"What is making Vietnam so attractive as a tourist destination in the region."
Tipping the scales in favor of Vietnam, are things like its expansiveness, and experiences, the competition in the marketplace, in particular with international brands making a bigger footprint and offering up stays that are almost becoming a destination in themselves, but developing the regions that they sit in, as a kind of default really.
We touched on the culinary experiences available in Vietnam. And I took note of what Alvaro describes is the culture of Vietnam as being one of celebration. It's true. Vietnamese love to celebrate and are always looking for reasons to do so. He also spoke of the skills of new chefs stepping out in Vietnam and taking really big risks in developing new menus and experiences. This can be particularly seen in the big cities like Saigon, Hanoi and Danang. It was great to hear this because it kind of supports what I felt for a long time that we're really only on the cusp of what Vietnam is becoming. I'm sure you're going to love the show. He's a lovely guest. I think we're going to learn lots more about Vietnam and what it holds for us in the future. Let's welcome Alvaro to the show.
Welcome to the What About Vietnam podcast. It's really lovely to have you on the show.
Alvaro Moreno: 07:52
Good afternoon, Kerry. Thanks for inviting me. Pleasure to be here with you.
Kerry Newsome: 07:57
It was really lovely to meet you in Saigon and have a chat with you over dinner. I certainly love your hotel. I love the experience of your hotel and I love your tagline, "The Home of the Daring". I think that's fabulous.
Alvaro Moreno: 08:15
That's who we are. We wanted to be very, very long these new proposal of hotel that we just opened. So yeah, I'm glad that you like it.
Kerry Newsome: 08:26
Okay, so, my audience, people that are listening to this program are thinking about coming to Vietnam. Of course, there's a lot of hotels in Vietnam, there's a lot of things to do in Vietnam. It's a big country. So, you were once a traveler, back in 2011, when you decided to come to explore Southeast Asia and you arrived in Vietnam. What would you put your hat on for now, versus that guy back in 2011? What would be some of the things that you would advise people? Like if you talk to your friends, and they say,
"Oh, I don't know about coming to Vietnam, Alvaro."
Tell me what's so great about Vietnam? What are some of the things you say?
Alvaro Moreno: 09:18
Well, it's a very good question because my first experience in the country was as a tourist. I was traveling for a month way before deciding that I was gonna move to live here. Over the years, I had already been eight years in the country, a little bit more than that, eight and a half. I see now things from the perspective of our resident, being here part of the community already, rooted, having lots of friends, career established. I see things with a different perspective. But I always come back to the origins of what brought me to travel, and what are the things that I have enjoyed over the years. So, I have decided to stay here living in the country. For the new travelers, I think that what's your question. right? Like, what will be my advice for the travelers?
I think it will depend on- if the traveler is accustomed to traveling in Asia or not. That will be my first question. Are they familiar with the cultural aspects, specialty in Southeast Asia? Are they familiar with overall- the type of food that they are going to find? Do they know or can they guess how interactions with people are going to be? So, what will be important for the first traveler is to know first: How many days they have? The duration of their trip. I think that's key to understand what can you do, and how much you can maximize your trip to Vietnam? Another important one, and I think this is probably the most is: What's your budget? How much are you expecting to spend, and depending on the duration of your trip is, what are the options that will accommodate your pocket? Once you have defined that I think the most important will be to choose destination within Vietnam. I think that's probably the most difficult part because of course, we all want to see everything as much as we can. Depending on whether we have a month or a week, we will then need to look at what are transportation and accommodation within the country. But it will be necessary to define what are the destinations to discover.
Kerry Newsome: 11:52
I take your point on all of those things. When I put together a trip planning podcast, which is series one in this format. One of the things that I stress in that is how much time you have. Because there is a perception that people can traverse the whole country in eight days and say that they've seen Vietnam. Of course, you and I both have a bit of a giggle about that. Because we understand that that's a blink. That's a quick wink of Vietnam, that is nowhere near saying that you've been able to see all of it now. I challenge people to even see whether they've really enjoyed that trip because it's moving so fast that you don't get time to breathe it in. I do advocate that people possibly see Vietnam more than a 'Once only' trip that they see it more to come back, and maybe use the first trip as, what some people would call like 'A reconnaissance trip' to maybe, check out and say,
"Oh, I'd like to come back there and spend more time."
That kind of thing. But I think how many days you have and how many days you should have. That will depend on the kind of experiences that you want. So, I agree with you totally. Then you to your point on budget. I think budget is a new word that's coming up in Vietnam, because before it was all- it was just everything in Vietnam was cheap. You could do absolutely everything and it was cheap. Where now I think there are some levels that you can still do cheaply. But there is more for the luxury traveler. There's more for the wellness traveler, there's more. So, these other areas, and all of those have a different dollar value attached to them. Then choosing the destination. Now most people come into Vietnam in three main ports, don't they? So, it's Ho Chi Minh, in Hanoi or De Nang's port. They are your main points. Now, because you're sitting in Ho Chi Minh City, how would you rate Ho Chi Minh versus Hanoi versus Da Nang for that first experience?
Alvaro Moreno: 14:28
It's very attractive to say that you are moving from the north to south, or the other way around, because the country is very linear. It's a long stretch of almost 2000 kilometers. What happens there is that the trend that I have seen over the years is that people arriving Saigon and then they could finish their journey in Hanoi or the other way around. It could happen also from Da Nang to Saigon or Saigon to Da Nang. I think it all depends on the time that you have, and then how you want to divide your travel experience, because there is obviously a big difference between what you're gonna encounter in the north of the country, in central Vietnam, and then in the south. So, I could say already that you can split your journey in three times, to understand Vietnam, and to enjoy the best of it. But of course, if you are ready to go from one place to another, over your holiday or over your trip, I think you're going to have very different experiences.
Kerry Newsome: 15:44
When you're talking to your friends, or people are asking you about, what is it like to have a holiday in Vietnam? Do you have like a short description that you have, that you can just pull out of your back pocket and explain it, because I find it very hard to explain, because I have so many different kinds of experiences. So, if you've got one that just encapsulates it, that would be wonderful. If you could just share that, before we move on.
Alvaro Moreno: 16:17
I have had friends and family visit over and over the years, I kind of myself became a tour guide for all my-
Kerry Newsome: 16:28
I'm sure that's why I am asking.
Alvaro Moreno: 16:30
There is some topics in the country that people are interested in, but something very good that is a Evisa traveler, I don't say these are representing the country of Vietnam is a place where you can challenge yourself.
Firstly, is a very welcoming society, very welcoming people, and very approachable, that's something that makes the tourists feel extremely comfortable when they come. Another one is that is a very safe country. Very, very safe. One of the safest indoors, yes, there are always small things you have to be mindful of, what you do and how you do it. But this is a country that is going to allow you to explore without having the fear in the back of your mind.
It's a country that is very well connected.
Kerry Newsome: 17:30
Very well connected.
Alvaro Moreno: 17:32
From a digital standpoint, Wi-Fi, networks, 4G works extremely well, pretty much everywhere you are in the country, even when you are in the middle of the mountains, you are going to have connection.
Kerry Newsome: 17:45
Alvaro Moreno: 17:46
This is something that I find, sometimes when I go back to Spain, that's my origin country. I'm surprised that they don't have the same connectivity. They're here in some places. So, then I see that Vietnam made an effort on expanding their networks. So, it works really well. Another thing is, within that connectivity is mobility. How easy it is to move inside the country. How easy it is to take a taxi, to take a bus, to take a train and how easy is to take a plane, and how affordable are they?
Kerry Newsome: 18:19
Yes. One of the things that I fell in love with in the very early days of my travel was that connectivity, when the hotel industry was going through that phase where they were deciding whether or not they were going to charge people for Wi-Fi in their room, you might remember those years. Then the customer, I think, drove the change in that too, that know you have to offer that free to the customer. Otherwise, your country or your facility is just not going to be at the same level as everybody else. So, you're right. And you can sit down at a restaurant or a cafe or whatever. And the first thing you're going to get is a menu with a Wi Fi password. So, connectivity, you're right. Then the thing I loved was that I could also sit there, and if I wanted to get a massage, or if I wanted to get my hair done, I could literally go to the Facebook page of the place I saw around the corner, send them a message, and lo and behold within minutes they have messaged me back and say, yes, there is availability at the time I want. And do I want to get a pickup? So that they're going to come and pick me up on the scooter because they're only three kilometers or five kilometers away. No mention of charging for that or anything like that. They'll bring a helmet. They'll pick me and I went,
"Oh my God, I'm in heaven."
Wherein I country and I think similarly in your original country, you've got two weeks ahead, you've got to do it either online or via phone call, nobody's going to pick you up, you've got to find yourself there. So, it's just very, very small, incremental connectivity, that I think people get blown away. Because I travel quite a bit in Vietnam on my own, I find that not so challenging in the sense that I can just connect up with people. If I'm not sure about anything, I've found somebody, who, through some page or some social medium, can get me to where I want to go and Grab, for instance, the app. How fantastic is that? I have a favoritism towards Grab because I think it's their own cars, so they're gonna look after them, or their own bikes, they don't want anything to happen to them. So, they'll be a little bit more careful than the taxi driver. But that's just my theory on that, but yeah, I really liked that that you said, it gives you the chance to travel and explore.
So, if you're going to explore Vietnam, do you have like some favorite areas that you think a traveler should look at, or investigate or do some research on that there are some wonderful areas to explore. I mean, I've got mine, I talk about mine all the time. So, it's your chance.
Alvaro Moreno: 21:40
I can tell you they have in this deal, discover everything that they plan to every year, more places in Vietnam, but this deal is- there is so many things to discover that I will say that it never ends, in the south is Mekong Delta. I think the experience of crossing the Mekong in a boat is something that is a must, especially if someone is going to come to Saigon and for the part of exploring nature and also for the part of understanding the ethnic minorities around there. It is fascinating. Another country inside the country, I will say.
Kerry Newsome: 22:26
Alvaro Moreno: 22:36
Hội An, Huế, both destinations have in terms of architectural value, in terms of monumental value also, especially Huế, the Imperial City. It was the old capital of the citadel. I think that the whole history of Hội An, Da Nang, Huế is a must. Then the North's, my favorite one is Hiking in Sapa, in these sites it is great.
Kerry Newsome: 23:13
When a traveler is coming to Vietnam, and they want to experience a hotel because you get so involved, I understand, or you'd like to get involved with the creativity. What are some of the things your customers are telling you or your feedback that you're getting about what they like to experience? What are some of the trends and the things that they're looking for in hotel stays now?
Alvaro Moreno: 23:46
I would say that for the leisure traveler, one that comes on holidays, what is going to be important for them, I mean, for us? I think what is important is to understand the full portion of their trip. And what do they need from their hotel. Why would they choose a hotel accommodation over another one? Location and convenience are something that plays a very important role. This is because most of the tourists will come to explore. So, they want to make sure that the hotel is a base for them to explore the area. So that's why location, I will say that this is something very important for them. Another one is value for money. Here we come back to what is the budget that they have? A very good thing about Vietnam is that there is a range of accommodation that goes from budget hotel, probably for you can have rooms for $25 and then you can go to luxury within most toward the big destinations of the country. As you mentioned before, there is a growth on some niche markets, which is, for example, the wellness, which is something that many hotels are developing right now, in Vietnam, especially their resorts, there is a lot of new hotel destination coming up, not hotels that they place themselves into destination, but hotels that become a destination on their own.
Kerry Newsome: 25:26
A destination in themselves, yes.
Alvaro Moreno: 25:29
That is something also growing. So, they help actually do to grow the destination itself. We see that having a very good range of options, what happens with the traveler is that they feel comfortable with what they choose. As being they were coming hometown. We know that we probably have a good match with te consumer that we have, because within the options that they have, they choose to stay with us for whatever reasons that could be.
Kerry Newsome: 26:01
Yeah, and the hotel facilities and the hotel growth, as an industry has been something that I've had a fair bit to do with in the last well, since certainly, since 2014. One of the things that I've noticed about Vietnam is that back in 2014, if the hotel didn't have a pool, it didn't matter. If the hotel didn't have a gym, it didn't matter, if it didn't have a spa center, it didn't really matter. Because there was a perception of the new traveler that Vietnam was this developing country, you don't expect those things. But then in a very short amount of time, the hotels had to put in a spa center, had to put in a pool, because the demand was increasing, the traveler was becoming more educated, and the country itself as its own domestic traveler was becoming more sophisticated. So, you know, in working with hotels in the central area, you know, I was helping design gyms in there, what was before their meeting room, their sales meeting room, but it was getting outfitted with mirrors and treadmills and things like that, because they wanted to get up in that category ranking, and they wanted to be able to meet that traveler. They had to change things with their swimming pools and things like that. So, it has definitely seen growth, would you say?
Alvaro Moreno: 27:38
Yes, I think that you have touched on a very good point that comes with the fact that the country is a growing economy, thus it is not only growing in the hospitality sector, but also in everything. What we see now is that there is an increase or there has been an increase on domestic travel during COVID Because borders were close, it was an excellent opportunity for the nationals to discover their own country and realize that the hospitality options and the destinations that they have are as good as what they find around the region.
Something that comes with development, this is also competition for us in the hotel. The more options there are, the better you need to be. And that comes either for the owner of our small homestay in their town, that he knows that he needs to probably not be cheaper, but he probably needs to be better in terms of the experience that he offered to us, in the niche of luxury hotels, more international brands came to the country there has been- the standards have also been raised. But also, one important factor here is that the industry has growth with education. If I may say that these better professionals more than 15 years ago with the growth of the country comes with the personal growth of all of them right so now there is a level of professionalism that is raising up and that's where most of the travelers have a great surprise when they get in touch with their first experience in Vietnam. Most realized that that level of hospitality is standard, regardless of how much you are paying, it's very high. One is because they are very hospitable. Vietnamese are very hospitable. But on the other side comes the professionalism of the industry and something very important also.
Kerry Newsome: 30:00
Just by the sheer nature, I think the Vietnamese can excel in hospitality because of that. I mean, we did lose a lot of people from the industry during COVID. But this is where Vietnam was sort of protected, they had like over 60 million people moving around, during 2021 and 22. So, they didn't really cope as badly as some other countries because they got enough of their own people to move around. So, the foreign tourist is going to be the newbie, again, to bring back to Vietnam. It was one of the reasons why I came back, or, was eager to get back as soon as I could. Because I just needed to make sure, touch and feel that everything was okay, because I was getting mixed messages from some people. As you would appreciate, there were some areas that did get swallowed up, and then there were some areas that seem to manage a lot better than others. I think the biggest cities manage a lot better just because they've got sheer volume and sheer size, etc. Whether the smaller areas are taking a little while to get back.
When I'm talking to my customers about traveling to Vietnam, we talk about love about the food. One thing I'm seeing about Vietnam were years ago, all you could get in Vietnam was Vietnamese food. Like that's all there was for quite a long time. There was only that, but now you're getting pizza, and you're getting Thai. You've got a lot of Korean. It's become very multicultural, don't you think?
Alvaro Moreno: 31:52
Especially in the big cities. I will say Saigon, which is the one that I know. But they've everything. You have everything.
Kerry Newsome: 32:02
Yes. I went to a pizza place, and I just had the best meal in Hanoi. Oh my gosh, you won't believe me. I have to video this and tell them I'm sitting in Hanoi. Do you have some favorite places in Saigon? It doesn't have to be Vietnamese. But if it is even better.
Alvaro Moreno: 32:24
Well, I have some topics. I am a big fan of Vietnamese food. There are of course in some other international restaurants that- or even specific. Like I have my favorite Hispanic restaurant, I have my favorite Japanese restaurant, there are a couple of them that are my favorite Vietnamese ones. I will say that the best of Saigon- My topic of Saigon is 'Street food'. How easy it is to have food at any time of the day and on any street of the city. I think that's my favorite part of living in Saigon from the culinary experience point.
Kerry Newsome: 33:07
It's true, it is very true. I find the Vietnamese don't have Western clocks as far as when they should eat or when they shouldn't need. They will eat when they're hungry. That's four o'clock in the afternoon or seven o'clock in the morning, whatever. People don't think that you can have Phở for breakfast but in fact, it's one of the most common breakfast foods, which is Phở, so if you don't get there early enough, it's all gone.
I see, also there's a growing craft beer scene that's also happening in Saigon. Have you seen that? It kind of exploded there.
Alvaro Moreno: 33:56
There is a good amount of very talented entrepreneurs doing great things with craft beer. The consumption of beer in Vietnam is one of the top I think in the world.
Kerry Newsome: 34:10
It's the most consumed beverage other than water.
Alvaro Moreno: 34:15
I wasn't sure but beer culture is-
Kerry Newsome: 34:18
Now I've got statistics to prove that.
Alvaro Moreno: 34:20
Okay. [laughter] Beer culture is something very well rooted. Especially because here we love to celebrate. That's something that comes with all those celebrations that are- the need to be on a special occasion. We are talking about day to day. Not only how I have seen a very nice development on craft beer that is also another side on the culinary industry that comes with Vietnamese chefs as future racing stuff. So, the same intrapreneurial spirit, very soon the craft beers are seen on the on the Vietnamese food. Those that are taking the tradition of the Vietnamese food, and they are elevating that. That's something that comes with the development that we mentioned before, in the hospitality industry. It also happens for the foodie scene, especially in Saigon, Saigon is the city that has the biggest progress. But also, I see that the biggest risks are taken in terms of culinary, and also entertainment. 24 hours city, it never closes, there are always things available. But now we can move to this point where we see that the hospitality industry is booming. Also, on the side of the food and beverage option, very interesting, craft beer and new chefs.
Kerry Newsome: 36:02
What are your thoughts on the foreign tourism coming back to Vietnam? Where do you think it's going to come back from and who and when?
Alvaro Moreno: 36:14
It hasn't been surprisingly fast. I think if I recall, the borders were opening was February, March. And when I say borders opened- entered the country without hotel quarantine, which the latest stage was one week. A couple of months of readjustment and then suddenly, we saw that the tourists were back and it felt almost like nothing happened. Now, if we look into the detail, we see that not everything is back to normal. We are not at that level where we were in in 2019. Korean tourists. Now they are back and slowly they are increasing again, that was one of the main traveler nationalities that we had, pre-covid. I think Japan just announced that they are easy to open, and we expect that the results are going to be recovering from that one. But then there is a good mix of different travelers that are back. For example, hearing in our hotel, what we experience is that we have a little bit of everything right now. So, that's something that gives us a lot of hope that we are over this COVID period, and we can look forward with a very positive mindset.
Kerry Newsome: 37:43
Yes, when I was at your hotel, I ran into a lot of other Aussies staying at the hotel, and they only had good things to say which was good to know. Look, I won't take up any more of your time Alvaro. It's been great to chat. Is there anything that you'd like to finish up with, to share with people? My listeners are all over the world. They're keen to know as much as they can. So, they kind of use the podcast as part of their research, or I hope they do anyway. But I think that's the main aim. So, is there anything that you'd like to finish up with or say to people coming to Vietnam?
Alvaro Moreno: 38:29
Well Kerry, knowing you already and understanding already a little bit better of why your listeners- I encourage everyone to come to Vietnam. I think this is a magical place. I don't say these because of the love that they have for the country, and all the years that they have been here. I also say this from a traveler- my travel insights story, over my life experience. It is a place that has become a must. I will say for someone coming, especially to the side of the world, I recommend everyone to come. I said before that, it is welcoming, it is safe, it is easy, and the exploring never stops.
Kerry Newsome: 39:18
I'm just going to cut you off there and just say that's fabulous. That's just all we need to say. I think that's a wrap. Thanks very much, Alvaro.
A Girls Getaway
When you hear the words: A Girls Getaway to Vietnam, is there just a little part of you that says,
"That sounds really interesting. What's involved?"
Let me tell you, A What About Vietnam Travel Companion hosted tour. This is something I have had in baking for at least three years. So let me assure you, it's going to be an absolutely wonderful experience for a group of girls. Let me tell you a little bit about it:
1. It starts in Saigon. You're going to get to experience the vibe of that city, shopping wise, cultural wise, food wise.
2. You're going to then move on to Hội An. I've spoken a lot about Hội An and on this program, so you're going to get to experience an old-world town. And just the sheer beauty of that old town and meeting some new people, beautiful beach, once again, great food, but also that beautiful sense of old-world charm.
3. Then lastly, you'll get to experience the island of Phú Quốc, which is another experience, which is totally different and unique.
I'm hoping with those three experiences, you're just going to have the holiday of a lifetime.
So, think about coming as yourself, just on your own and joining in with the group. Or you might want to bring a couple of girls with you. It is a very small group. It's hosted by our Travel Companion services director, Kelley McCarthy. So let me assure you, she has got fun as the top priority for this trip. So, we're really in sync, please go to the website: WhatAboutVietnam.com. Click on the Travel Services tab, and it'll take you to the Girls Getaway page. There's a full itinerary there and you can reach out to Kelley directly to get more information. We'd love to have you on board. It is only a small group.
So, it's very private. We put in a lot of work to get the itinerary just right. We just think you're going to have a fabulous time. So, get in touch. We are pretty excited about this trip. So, I'd love to have you on board.