During the 14th International Travel Expo Ho Chi Minh City – organized from 6 – 8 September 2018 by Informa Exhibitions Singapore – members of the media were offered a full program of exciting events to be able to promote the potential of tourism in Viet Nam and neighboring countries. After flying in from Chiang Mai to Ho Chi Minh City on September 4 with Vietjet Air (14.25-16.30), I quickly went through the immigration check point at Tan Son Nhat International Airport and was transferred in a private taxi to the Grand Hotel Saigon in District 1, which I reached in just half an hour. The colonial Grand Hotel Saigon was built in 1930, but lately renovated, so that it is now a luxury property with an outdoor swimming pool and beauty salon on the first floor, Saigon Palace for the breakfast buffet and Le Grand Spa for massage on the second floor, while there are both the Rooftop Grand Lounge and Sky Lounge on the top 20th floor of the building. The hotel is in a short walking distance to other colonial hotels just like the Majestic, Caravelle, Continental, or Rex Hotel. After checking in, there was a bus transfer to attend the welcome dinner on the River Cruise “Indochina Queen” to experience Vietnamese cuisine as well as Vietnamese music and dance performances. The panorama along the Saigon River was perfect with many illuminated sky scrappers and the famous Ho Chi Minh Museum shining, from where “Uncle Ho” had departed Saigon as a seaman in 1911 to become later the president of Vietnam until 1969.

In the morning of September 5, there was a city sightseeing tour to visit the Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, the War Remnants Museum and an Ao Dai gift shop.

We continued to the Saigon Exhibition & Convention Center (SECC) to have lunch and then attended a seminar in the afternoon, hosted by the Vietnam National Authority of Tourism (VNAT) and introducing attractive destinations of Vietnam tourism. Actually, some six destinations were introduced, namely Ha Noi, the capital of Viet Nam as “City for Peace” with its 7.6 million people, Ha Long Bay as the venue of the forthcoming ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) 2019 in Ha Long City, Quang Binh Province as “The Land of Caves”, Da Nang City in the center of Viet Nam near the old port town of Hoi An and the Cham temple site of My Son, the southern Kien Giang Province with Phu Quoc Island, Ha Tien, U Minh Thuong and the capital Rach Gia, as well as vibrant Ho Chi Minh City with now more than 10 million people. In the evening there was the opening ceremony and gala dinner at the Sheraton Saigon & Towers under the theme “Vietnamese Culinary Delights” including colorful performances of dances, songs and the special costumes of the various ethnic groups in Viet Nam.

At 9.00 in the morning of September 6, the official ribbon cutting ceremony was stylishly conducted to open the exhibition followed by a VIP guests’ tour of the exhibition. Outstanding booths were from the Hue Tourism Information and Promotion Center, Ministry of Hotels and Tourism of Myanmar, Ministry of Tourism Cambodia, Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, and Vietnam Airlines among others. After lunch at SECC, we departed back to the hotel for a rest.

In the evening I took the chance to attend “Cambodia Night” at the Lotus Hall of the Rex Hotel, where H.E. So Mara, Secretary of State, presided over a very lively party of entertainment including some 11 “apsara” dancers and the highlighting of Angkor Wat and the Bayon in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh as the capital and the seaside resort of Sihanoukville in Cambodia.

On September 7, there was free time in the morning with a lunch at SECC while in the afternoon there was the ITE HCMC Awards Ceremony held in front of a crowded stage. Additionally, in the evening a special HCMC media award ceremony was held at the newly opened and promoted Sky XX Garden & Lounge at Level 20, “Deutsches Haus”, 33 Le Duan BoulevardHo Chi Minh City. I opted to attend “Lao Night” at the Lotus Hall of Rex Hotel instead, which was presided over by the H.E. Bosengkham Vongdara, Minister for the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, Lao PDR. Culinary specialties were packages of sticky rice and buffalo meat accompanied by cans of Lao Beer. Highlighting That Luang in the capital Vientiane, the former royal city of Luang Prabang and Wat Phu in Champasak, performances introduced the “khaen” bamboo musical instrument, the elegant costumes of a myriad of ethnic minorities and a final “ramvong” dance for all the invited guests.

Early in the morning of September 8, some 16 members of the hosted international media from far away as Russia, Poland, Hungary, Germany, France, Holland, India, China, New Zealand and Thailand amongst other countries traveled by plane (VJ262/6.25-08.00) from Ho Chi Minh City to Dong Hoi Airport in Quang Binh Province. We were heartily welcomed by representatives of the Quang Binh Tourism Department and our local guide named Sara. We went in a bus for a site inspection of Paradise Cave or Thien Duong Cave, the longest dry cave in Asia. With a length of more than 31 km, Paradise Cave was evaluated as the most beautiful cave in Asia by the British Caving Association. Approaching the cave by electric cars, people still have to climb some 500 m high to the cave mouth. Exploring the first 4 km in the cave with its amazing stalactites and stalagmites, you can reach an underground river and then keep going inside to the skylight. Going back and after sightseeing, we had lunch at the Thien Duong Restaurant.

After that we drove to Phong Nha town, which reminded me to the town of Vang Vieng in Laos, to check in at the first-class Saigon – Phong Nha Hotel. Then we had a late afternoon boat trip on the Son River along some properties transformed into home stay or organic farms to the wonderful Phong Nha Cave. We drove into the cave for some 900 m and then came back the same way. Back at the hotel, we had a pleasant dinner at the hotel restaurant, where we met Mr. Dzung Le, founder of the “Jungle Boss” adventure tours’ company, who gave us information about his community. Actually, the national park of Phong Nha-Kebang has 3 of the 4 largest discovered caves on earth. There are some 330 caves found so far and new caves are still being discovered and developed for adventure tourism. Therefore, Phong Nha tourism and other local villages have been growing extremely fast. The valuable mission of the company is to help accommodate the more and more tourists to come to Phong Nha with more options to visit the caves, while promoting conservation and local community development.

After breakfast on September 9, we checked out at 8.00 and drove to the entrance of Phong Nha-Kebang National Park to visit Tam Cave, where young volunteers died in 1972 during the war. During the so-called American War, 8 local people were trapped in the cave after a bomb inferno. There is now a “Memorial Temple” for the heroic martyrs called “Eight Ladies Cave”. Our guide Sara told us the whole story and we learned some of the intriguing history and traditions of Viet Nam. Now it is no more allowed to enter the cave. The highlight of the tour arrived after a short trek through the jungle, where monkeys and snakes abound. There was the opportunity to experience adventure tourism “pure” when visiting Tra Ang Cave, where it was possible to swim in the crystal waters of the cave with special equipments. For lunch, a small BBQ was prepared in a really untouched environment. Afterwards, the media group drove back on this original part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail and then from Phong Nha town back to Dong Hoi, which is located at the mouth of the Nhat Le River.

At the newly opened Bao Ninh Beach Resort in Dong Hoi, we had time to rest at the swimming pool of the hotel near the sandy beach. After the Tourism Department of Quang Binh Tourism Association gave an introduction to the potential of Quang Binh Tourism, we had our farewell dinner at the meeting room of the hotel. Needless to say that Mr. Le The Luc, Deputy Director of Quang Binh Tourism Department, was an excellent host and we wished him more and more tourists to come to his smart province as “The Land of Caves” in the future. Already planned is a direct international flight between Dong Hoi and Chiang Mai/Thailand with Jetstar Pacific Airlines, one of the emerging low-cost airlines in Viet Nam. But the outcome is pending.

After breakfast on September 10, we left the very convenient Bao Ninh Beach Resort by bus to fly back from Dong Hoi Airport to Ho Chi Minh City with Vietnam Airlines (VN1401/9.30-11.10). My flight back to Chiang Mai was with Air Asia (FD 655/15.50-17.30) via Bangkok “Fly Through” to reach Chiang Mai (FD 3443/19.25-20.40). A nice and remarkably interesting tour had finally ended.

Written by : Reinhard Hohler