Mark Yacker of Travel Indochina near the Mekong Delta // © 2014 Travel Indochina
Feature image (above): With Vietnam appearing more in mainstream media, Travel Indochina has seen increased interest in the destination among clients. // © 2014 Travel Indochina
Travel Indochina began offering guided vacations in Vietnam 21 years ago. The tour operator, which has since added 11 countries across Asia to its product portfolio, opened an office in Denver, Colo., three years ago to focus on the North American market.
Mark Yacker, sales and marketing director of North America for Travel Indochina, reports that the company’s Vietnam business has jumped substantially in recent years. Yacker shares insights on the upswing in interest in travel to Vietnam and tips for first-time travelers.
You’ve said that Travel Indochina’s Vietnam business from North America has increased over the last three years by more than 60 percent. Why is travel to Vietnam on the radar now?
There has been an increase in press coverage of Vietnam over the past few years, which has helped. But, we have also seen parents book after their kids have gone backpacking in Vietnam and have come home with great photos and stories about their travels.
There have also been a number of television programs highlighting Vietnam, such as Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”, Samantha Brown on the Travel Channel, “Globe Trekker,” “Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam,” and a "Top Gear" episode that had the hosts traveling the entire length of the country.
When is the best time of year to visit?
You can travel in Vietnam year-round, but November through March is typically considered the best time to visit, as this is the dry season. Throughout the rest of the year, you can expect short — but heavy — tropical rainstorms in the afternoons. Although temperatures are usually warm throughout the year, evening temperatures can drop into the 50s in northern Vietnam between December and February, and [it can be] even cooler up in the mountains.
What makes Vietnam such a special place to visit?
From the time you get off the plane in Vietnam, it is clear you are in a completely different culture. The staccato rhythm of the language, the warm humid air, the smells of the wonderfully fragrant foods — all of this immediately informs your senses you have arrived in an exotic destination.
There are three main regions to Vietnam, and I would recommend travelers make sure to explore all three: southern Vietnam, central Vietnam and northern Vietnam.
Is there a region of Vietnam you would particularly recommend to first-time travelers?
In my opinion, the south with its main gateway of Ho Chi Minh City — or "Saigon" as the locals still refer to it — makes for the easiest introduction to the country. Ho Chi Minh City is a cosmopolitan city racing into the future with open arms, while still retaining plenty of its Asian origins, as well as its French colonial past.
Americans will find that Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace) and Cu Chi Tunnels hold interesting historical significance in relation to the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as the Vietnamese refer to it. There is no need to worry about being badly treated or that locals are holding animosity toward Americans over the war. With approximately 50 percent of the population under the age of 35, this is a country that is looking forward, not backward.
The other must-see in the south is Mekong Delta, where Travel Indochina is a great option for accessing less-visited regions of the vast delta. We explore winding waterways, family industries, orchards and farms, where you will have the opportunity to meet with locals and learn about life in the lush delta, Vietnam’s most important food growing region.
Is it a long trip from Ho Chi Minh City to central Vietnam?
A 70-minute flight takes you from Ho Chi Minh City to the central coast, where you can experience Vietnam’s Imperial heritage in Hue and explore the sprawling Citadel and the resting place of some of Vietnam’s most revered emperors.
And then there’s the centuries-old trading port town of Hoi An. Hoi An’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features influences from the Chinese, the French and the Japanese. The whole town has been extremely well preserved, and the old center has been completely closed to motorized traffic, making it a joy to wander by foot. Hoi An has a fantastic cafe culture and is also quickly becoming a culinary center where some of Vietnam’s best chefs are opening their restaurants.
What are some of the attractions for travelers in northern Vietnam?
It’s just another short flight up to Hanoi and the northern region of Vietnam. Hanoi offers a much more traditional image of what most people envision a traditional Asian city to be, including sprawling busy neighborhoods crowded with people going about their daily lives.
The city’s historic quarter is more than 1,000 years old and is made up of 36 ancient laneways where tradesmen set up their shops alongside a beautiful lake. The historic quarter draws locals every morning to practice tai chi, and young couples stroll under the leafy trees in the afternoon. Hanoi’s Ho Chi Minh Quarter provides insights into the life of the first president of North Vietnam, who was nicknamed “Uncle Ho” and was regarded as the great unifier by the Northern Vietnamese people.
You can visit the extensive Ho Chi Minh Museum, the simple house on stilts where Uncle Ho chose to live instead of the opulent Presidential Palace, and still see the man himself at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where many Vietnamese still come to pay their respects — 45 years after his death.
Are there also natural attractions in the north?
No visit to the north would really be complete without a visit to the awe-inspiring beauty of Halong Bay. About 3.5 hours from Hanoi, the best way to experience Halong Bay is an overnight journey onboard a boat built in the traditional Vietnamese junk style. You cruise throughout the day among the bay’s 3,000 limestone islands that rise straight out of the emerald-green waters, exploring a variety of coves, caves and fishing villages before dropping anchor to enjoy a peaceful night under the stars.
Tell us about your company’s approach to bringing travelers to Vietnam.
Our small group journeys are limited to a maximum of 16 travelers and are led by teams of Western tour leaders and local guides to add an additional level of comfort and provide the best of both Eastern and Western perspectives. The small group journeys are packed with authentic insider experiences to connect travelers with the local culture, people and food in each destination.
Awareness of the benefits of our small group journey style of travel is growing, and people — who may have previously booked either larger group tours or private itineraries with other operators — are now choosing to travel with Travel Indochina.
Does Travel Indochina offer travel agents any educational tools?
Travel Indochina has an online Asia training program called “Asia Guru.” The training program offers three levels, and each level includes destination- and product-training complete with videos and multiple-choice quizzes.
Once the training is finished, agents receive an Asia Guru certificate. In addition to the Asia Guru program, agents will find a variety of resources on the travel agent portal, including an agent booking incentive, eBrochures, flyers, periodic special offers and videos to share with their potential clients.