The welcome mat is out

P1030642

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photo. All rights reserved.

Except for the swerving, chaotic traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the risk of bodily harm to sober, law-abiding foreigners in Vietnam should probably be considered minimal. Everywhere we went, people were friendly, staff at our hotels addressed us by name as we came and went, and they were eager to help us navigate our way to our planned activities.

In other words, more than 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War (they call it the American War), and more than 20 years after the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic and trade relations, the Vietnamese seem nonplussed by American visitors.

More than 7.9 million international tourists visited the Southeast Asian country last year, according to statistics from the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism website, almost a 10 percent increase over 2014. Leading the pack were China (more than 1.7 million) and Korea (more than 1.1 million). More than 491,000 Americans made the journey last year.

Through May of this year, more than 4 million tourists have already entered the country, 20 percent more than this time last year. If this pace continues, the number of travelers for 2016 should top 8.5 million, VNAT predicts. According to the World Bank website, $7.3 billion in international tourism receipts were pumped into the Vietnamese economy in 2014.

The $7.3 billion pales in comparison with China’s $59.6 billion or Thailand’s $42 billion in  receipts for 2014 according to the World Bank data, but those countries’ tourism infrastructure is more fully developed. The United States’ $220 billion in receipts far outdistances No. 2 in the competition, Spain’s $65 billion. (Figures for 2015 weren’t available.)

“Timeless Charm” has been the tourism marketing slogan since 2012. The colorful logo features the lotus, Vietnam’s national flower.

There are lingering differences between the north and south in this once-divided country, but in modern everyday life, the toll the war inflicted seems to have receded into the background. Learning English and welcoming the American greenback are in fashion.

One of the young women at our hotel in Hanoi spoke to us briefly of her family, saying that in the French colonial period of her grandfather’s time, everyone studied Francais. Not anymore.

At no time did we feel our personal safety was at risk, other than from vehicles large and small darting to and fro, and particularly in HCMC, where scooters intentionally jump the curb and are recklessly driven on sidewalks. Pedestrians beware.

Nor did we detect even the slightest animosity as we ate at restaurants and wandered into shops in both cities. Tourists should be on alert against scams and ripoffs, but sound pre-trip research should lessen the possibility of becoming a victim.

We met a couple of guys from New Orleans who were staying at our hotel in HCMC, many Canadians, Australians and a smattering of Europeans, and no one we talked to had a bad word to say about our hosts.

The welcome mat is out, and as evidence, I offer this vignette.

Among the goals we wanted to accomplish our first day in Hanoi was to purchase a SIM card to fit Susan’s iPhone. We’d been advised that Viettel, Vietnam’s largest mobile network, was a reputable company to deal with, so after our morning visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, we headed back on foot toward the Old Quarter, keeping our eyes peeled for a Viettel shop.

Locating one wasn’t a problem, but the language barrier was. The words “SIM card” were uttered repeatedly, we pointed at the phone, gestured a bit, and ended up at the shop’s back counter, where several young female employees were seated. We couldn’t get across that we were looking for a card that would provide the ability to access data (i.e. Google) and calling capabilities. After about 15 minutes, we said “thank you” and exited the store.

We were walking generally southeast, and this put us very close to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the “Hanoi Hilton,” where American POWs, including John McCain, were imprisoned in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. A couple of wings of the buildings remain, and they’ve been turned into a museum. We did the full tour after we concluded our SIM business.

A block northwest of the former prison loom the skyscraping Hanoi Towers. On the ground floor of one is the lobby for the Somerset Grand Hanoi (49 Hai Ba Trung St.), which features 185 “luxury” serviced apartments, perfect for a longterm stay in the city.

I figured it was likely someone at the reception desk would speak English, and might be able to direct us to someplace that could help with the SIM card. It also probably would be beneficial if we didn’t disclose right away that we weren’t guests there.

The staff did indeed speak English. One of the women rifled through some drawers behind the reception desk, and almost immediately offered a SIM card. Unfortunately, it didn’t cover calls and data.

One of the bellhops to the rescue! He “knew somebody,” whom he offered to call, and he was sure this person would have what we were looking for. All we had to do was take a seat in the cushy lobby.

The bellhop spoke some English — he confessed he’d like to visit the United States — so we chatted amiably while we waited. I was impressed with his “can do” attitude and cheerfulness.

In about 10 minutes, his “contact” arrived, and there ensued more miscommunication about what we were trying to buy. It seems the contact hadn’t brought the right SIM cards either.

More back and forth dialog between the bellboy and his contact, and we were informed that there was a third person who might be able to help, but that it would take about 20 more minutes. By now, including the Viettel stop, we’d been at this at least an hour. We decided we didn’t want to wait that long and would try somewhere else, when, magically, the bellhop said his friend would call someone and he would be there in five minutes.

And he was. A tool for cutting the card to the right size was produced, the card was trimmed and installed, and voila, we were SIM situated for Vietnam. There was some confusion about how many megabytes the card held. We were initially told 3MB, but then it seemed some sort of promotion ramped that up to 9MB. Whatever it was, for 150,000 Vietnamese dong (about $6.60), it was a good buy.

The megabytes held out long enough that the card was still functional throughout our visit to Ho Chi Minh City in the waning days of our trip.

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