Vietnam PM halts controversial hotel in park: govt

A plot of land which was to be the site of a hotel project in one of Hanois biggest parks

A plot of land which was to be the site of a hotel project in one of Hanoi's biggest parks

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam’s prime minister has stopped a 40-million-dollar hotel development at a city park amid fears over possible damage to the capital’s “green lung”, the government said Wednesday.

The project, known as SAS Hanoi Royal, is a joint venture between Hanoi Tourism Company and SIH Investment Limited of Singapore, the government said on its website.

French-based Accor would manage the completed hotel under its Novotel brand, an Accor spokesman said.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered a “suspension” of construction while an alternate site is sought, the government said.

Dung asked relevant authorities “to choose a different location and recommend that to the investor”, the government said, adding that public opinion, including that of architects and planning experts, said building the hotel in Thong Nhat park would seriously affect the city’s environment.

Sealed off behind a high green fence in one corner of park, the site has been churned up and metal rods inserted into the ground but there was no evidence of active construction when AFP visited.

Plans called for a five-storey, four-star hotel with 376 rooms, the government said.

Evan Lewis, Accor’s regional vice-president of communications, said he received media reports of the prime minister’s decision but had not been officially informed, and so declined to comment.

Thong Nhat, once known as Lenin Park, contains neatly-laid flower beds, tree-lined pathways, children’s rides and a lake. The park is a popular spot for exercising in the heart of an increasingly congested capital.


Vietnam starts building new resort island airport

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam has begun construction of a new international airport on a popular tourist island off the country’s southern coast, aiming to boost passenger capacity to the destination by 10 fold, officials said Monday.

The $1 billion airport will help accommodate the influx of tourists to Phu Quoc, where several luxury hotels have opened recently and several more are under construction.

When the first phase is finished in four years, the new Phu Quoc International Airport will be able to handle 3 million travelers a year — 10 times the current airport’s capacity, said Nguyen Tien Viet of Vietnam’s Southern Airport Corp.

Eventually, the airport would be able to handle 7 million passengers a year, Viet said.

Speaking at a ground breaking ceremony on Sunday, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said the new airport will help boost the country’s economic growth.

“The island will be one of the country’s major transportation and commercial centers once the new airport is put into operation, contributing to the regional and national economic growth,” Dung was quoted as saying on the government Web site.

During peak times, travelers to the Phu Quoc’s white sand beaches often have trouble booking flights to and from the island.

Currently, there are six flights a day between the island and the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City.

Travelers also can get to the island by speed boat.

Last year, Vietnam received an estimated 4 million travelers.

Real life is stepping aside for tourists in Vietnam

DANANG, Vietnam: It was impossible, being a person of my generation, to sail into Danang harbor aboard a luxury cruise liner the other day without thinking of an earlier foreign embarkation on these same shores, which happened to take place 33 years ago this month.

On March 8, 1965, some units of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, arriving in Danang from Okinawa, Japan, became the first official American combat troops in Vietnam. Eight years later, this city was the site of horrific scenes when South Vietnamese soldiers shot and killed civilians in a mad scramble to board the last evacuation plane to leave the local airport ahead of victorious North Vietnamese troops.

It was a long time ago. A lot has changed, not least that you can arrive in Danang these days on a luxury ship rather than wading ashore. Still, for somebody whose formative experience was the Vietnam War and all the turbulence and protest that it engendered, arriving here as a high-end tourist served as a reminder of what Hegel called the ruse of history as it applies to this country.

Who, after all, could have predicted all those years ago when Lyndon Johnson decided to make the Vietnam War an American war, that after the Communist enemy won that war they would allow Vietnam to become more or less the kind of place we wanted it to become when Johnson sent those troops to Danang?

That kind of country would be an entirely independent one, taking orders from no large neighbors, near or far, having normal, even rather cordial, relations with the United States, even while opening its doors to foreign trade, investment and luxury cruise liners. To be sure, Vietnam still falls short on the human rights front, but so, for that matter, did the Saigon regime for the sake of which all that money was spent and all those lives lost.

Danang is as good a place as any to see what Vietnam is and what it is becoming, namely another one of those poor countries that strives to become a bit less poor by allowing its beaches, its scenic places, and its exoticism to be playgrounds for the wealthy.

Take the road from Danang south along the famed China Beach, that exquisite crescent of white sand known mostly to Americans by the popular television series of that name.

The whole beach, which is some 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, long, seems to have been carved up by big international hotel chains that either have already constructed, or will soon construct, luxury resorts.

The Furama is already up and running. Across the street from the yellowed concrete walls of what was once an American military base are signs promising the arrival of a Hyatt, a Raffles Hotel and Residences, and what looks like an immense development of hotels and luxury housing being put up by a Chinese company whose slogan, marked in Chinese characters on a wall facing the road, is “A One Hundred Year Big Plan.”

On the same side as the former base, automatic sprinklers send a swirling shower of irrigation water to nourish the grass of the new Montgomery Golf Links. Another future development, suitably enough called Eden, is advertised by a series of posters that stretch a kilometer or so along the road south of Danang, showing idylls on the South China Sea.

The road departs from the beach after 15 kilometers or so and ends up in Hoi An, a picturesque town of old wooden houses with courtyards, most of which have been turned into handicraft shops. There are restaurants serving local Vietnamese specialties and lots of cold beer. Hoi An is a Vietnamese version of one of those picture-perfect towns you might see in Tuscany or Provence, a place where real life is giving way to a kind of arts-and-crafts tourism.

And why not? Why should Tuscany and Provence have all the nostalgic seekers of bygone authenticity to themselves?

What is sad about it nonetheless is the contrast between the wealth of the visitors and the poverty of the country they are visiting. This is one of those countries where the arrival of a tour bus occasions the appearance of hordes of touts, cyclo drivers, would-be tour guides, sellers of T-shirts and ink paintings of women in flowing ao dais and straw conical hats. These are the economic opportunists who aren’t shareholders in the Hyatt or Raffles but who jockey and jostle to have a modest portion of the tourist trade.

On the shuttle bus from my cruise ship to the center of Danang the other day, there was such an aggressive rush of touts that most of the cruise-boat passengers refused to disembark, preferring to go back to the ship rather than brave the importuning horde.

Looked at economically and socially, Vietnam has restored a bit of the atmosphere of French colonialism, when wealthy Europeans occupied the seats at the café tables and restaurants and local people served them, except that for many visitors here today Vietnam is an incidental factor. It’s more the beaches, the scenery, the cheaper-than-Tuscany prices (and the marvelous cuisine) that attract many foreign visitors, not so much Vietnam as a cultural or historical entity. And the prices aren’t always cheaper than Tuscany.

Outside Nha Trang, the beach town and port where my cruise ship is due after Danang, the Ana Mandara Six Senses Spa offers what its Web site calls “the ultimate seclusion,” because it is only accessible by boat. The cost for a two-story villa, the only kind of accommodation, is in the neighborhood of $800 a night. My guidebook describes it as a magical place where dirt tracks between buildings give the illusion of a jungle village. But, clearly, it’s an ersatz jungle. It’s not Vietnam.

Then again, the places where people have been going in Thailand or Indonesia don’t afford much contact with Thailand or Indonesia either. Vietnam, which, for obvious reasons, was slow getting into the game, is becoming like them, and, on balance, it’s a very good thing.

Vietnam moving towards a more open aviation market

In a move to open up Vietnam’s aviation market, the Vietnamese government has given the green light to the nation’s first private airline, VietJet, according to a report by VietNamNet Bridge.

Set to commence operations in November, VietJet will fly on popular domestic routes linking Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Noi and Da Nang as well as international air routes to Singapore and Thailand. The new airline is set to win over substantial market share from rivals, Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Airlines.

“We will establish a partnership for mutual development with the aviation community in the Vietnamese market in order to ensure customers’ highest benefit,” said Robert Hughes, Managing Director of VietJet.

According to the Minister of Transport and Communication, Ho Nghia Dung, the establishment of new aviation firms is crucial to Vietnam’s aviation market in that it will stimulate competition in the face of rising demand. In the last five years, Vietnam’s aviation sector has grown 15 percent annually. The industry’s growth rate even tipped the 20 percent mark last year.

Meanwhile, Vietnam Airlines General Director Pham Ngoc Minh told VietNamNet Bridge that there was plenty of room in the market for other airlines. However, the Vietnam Aviation Department believes that realistically, the government will only provide approval to another two or three airlines in the next few years.

First privately owned airline approved in Vietnam

Vietnam’s government has approved the establishment of the country’s first privately owned carrier, setting an important precedent in a market that is forecast to continue growing rapidly in the coming years.

The government at the end of November said it had approved the aviation license application of Vietjet. The new low-cost carrier will be based in Hanoi and will have a secondary base in Ho Chi Minh City. It plans to launch operations late in 2008 or early in 2009 and will use either Airbus A320s or Boeing 737-800s.

Vietjet will initially operate between Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, expanding later to international destinations such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore and points in southern China. In the longer term it plans to serve points in Japan and South Korea.

Vietnam’s air transport market has been growing rapidly (see chart) with particularly strong traffic growth rates being recorded by national carrier Vietnam Airlines. The country currently has two other government-controlled airlines, Pacific Airlines and Vietnam Air Service (VASCO). Pacific, a low-cost carrier, recently became minority owned by Qantas Airways.

With a large population and a small number of air trips per capita – but an economy that is growing rapidly – the market is seen as having huge potential for airline growth. As a result several other groups are also looking to establish new airlines in Vietnam, including Malaysia’s AirAsia.

Vietjet is capitalised at 600 billion dong ($37.5 million) and is owned by a group of local businessmen led by entrepreneur Nguyen Thanh Cong. It says it has “no plans to bring in a foreign airline as a partner as we are building a Vietnamese airline to reflect the best the country has to offer”.

Vietnam welcomes year’s 4 millionth foreign tourist

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam on Thursday greeted its four-millionth visitor of the year, celebrating a milestone for the tourism sector as it is seeking to position itself as a leading Southeast Asian travel destination.

US citizen Michael Davis Magidson was surprised to be greeted with flowers by women wearing traditional au dai dresses and conical hats as he stepped off a Vietnam Airlines flight at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport.

“We look forward to seeing your beautiful country,” said Magidson at a ceremony to mark his arrival on flight VN 830 from Bangkok, which meant the sector had achieved its annual target several weeks ahead of time.

Vietnam, mainly a backpackers’ destination in the 1990s, is now ramping up its airline capacity and building a string of new hotels and resorts as it seeks to catch up as a mainstream destination with countries such as Thailand.

The number of international arrivals is forecast to reach 4.3 million in 2007, or 700,000 more visitors than last year, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), which organised the welcome.

Visitors from neighbouring China made up the largest group, with 515,000 arrivals in 11 months, followed by arrivals from South Korea, the United States, Japan, Australia, France, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.

With this year’s rise in international arrivals, the tourism industry expects earnings to increase to 3.5 billion dollars from last year’s 2.85 billion dollars, the state-run Vietnam News Agency said.

Vietnam had just 250,000 international visitors in 1990 but aims to attract six million foreign visitors a year by 2010 and earn 4.5 billion dollars from the tourism sector, said VNAT vice chairman Nguyen Manh Cuong.

Tourism, although still facing a shortage of high-end hotel rooms, is among Vietnam’s top five industries and sustains 230,000 direct and 600,000 indirect jobs, a Hanoi business conference was told this week.