Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, or to many, Saigon

Written by admin on November 9, 2009 – 4:22 pm -

Karen Fawcett, our intrepid traveler, is back in Asia. On this trip she has decided to head to Vietnam. Here is her report on the road, so to speak. She has just landed this weekend.

Welcome to Vietnam. It’s now possible to get a visa when you arrive at the airport rather than doing it before leaving home. Definitely try to avoid this unless you’re in a pinch or have no other choice. An E-Visa can be a savior if your trip has been re-routed.

This kind of visa would have been the perfect solution last year when the airport in Bangkok was closed and my traveling companion and I were forced to go to Singapore rather than eternally be in transit. However, getting a visa at the airport is cumbersome and if the paperwork isn’t in order, you’ll be out of luck. The Vietnamese government really wants visitors to get visas in advance from a local consulate or its embassy prior to boarding the plane.

Our 100-percent-full flight arrived after 10 p.m. One would have thought it was mid-day in Miami. Besides being hot and humid, there were thousands of people greeting friends and family. Even though it costs extra, it was a godsend to spot someone holding a sign with our names waiting to shuttle us to the hotel.

There are taxis. But since last year’s airport renovation, locating them is chaotic and forget finding  an organized taxi line. The confusion is compounded after traveling for hours and sagging from jet-lag, which is probably the case if your trip originated in the U.S.

Collecting checked luggage is a challenge. Those coming to visit family, or returning to Vietnam, don’t appear to worry at all about excess luggage fees. Bags and boxes come rolling, one after the other, off the conveyor belt. People appeared to be transporting everything including the kitchen sink.

Even though most locals probably speak minimal (if that) English, one woman was fast to ask if I wanted cold water. “One dollar.” she said with a heavy accent. Clearly a capitalist, she had a good gig going. Locals generally accept dollars to such an extent you don’t need to change much money into the local currency. Good thing too, since the local currency has so many zeros one would have to be a human calculator to figure out the exchange rate. Even with a calculator or a currency cheat sheet conversions are mystifying.

What a difference three years makes. That was the last time I was here. Saigon felt like a quiet French Colonial city then. It’s now assumed more of a boomtown feel. What else is new in Asia? At least, there’s no Starbucks, McDonald’s or Baskin-Robbins – yet. There are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants galore and places with free WiFi reign supreme.

Motor scooters whiz by (and don’t be surprised if you see a family of four perched on one) but progress means more cars as well. Not that driving here could be compared to driving in Paris. It’s not that scary – yet. Mind you, that’s not a recommendation to rent a car.

When taking a taxi, be certain to get the driver’s number.  If he takes the scenic route, inform the doorman at your hotel and he’ll spring into action. We were amazed when the guilty driver returned the majority of the fare after we showed the concierge the circuitous route we were taken. We felt more guilty after discovering it was the driver’s first day on the job and he was lost.

The newest hotel destination is the Asiana Intercontinental. The 300-room hotel is barely open and it’s already known for having some of the best restaurants in the city. Asians like buffets and it has one (for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch) that goes on longer than the eye can see.

Don’t expect to encounter solely quantity rather than quality. The hotel’s largest restaurant, Market 39, has seven open kitchens. Diners can choose from French, Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisines.

At the Sunday buffet brunch, shellfish lovers, will think they’ve hit the jackpot when they see the mounds of oysters, crayfish and other choices. This is just the beginning. The pastries and breads would put any French baker to shame. All of this (and much more) is served with luscious Laurent Perrier champagne. While you’re if Vietnam, learn to like local beer to quench an alcoholic thirst. Wine costs a small fortune since there’s a 50% import tax on liquor and wine.

Shopping in this city runs the gamut. Visitors can bargain for nearly anything in some of the outdoor or smaller stores that are frequently in alleys.  Don’t miss Ben Thanh, the city’s central market.

Many upscale stores such as Louis Vuitton have opened recently — there, expect to pay the asking price. I haven’t been here long enough to get into serious shopping but have had a quick overview. I did bring a few clothes to be copied in silk for next to nothing – especially compared to French prices.

One of the city’s most respected tailors, Lam Couture, said a custom-made man’s suit including top quality fabric would cost $300.

There’s much more to Vietnam than shopping and eating. The country is full of culture and history that’s especially meaningful to many Americans. In a short vacation, don’t expect to do more than scratch the surface. But any visitor can try and should.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

(Photo: Primetravels.com)

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Airport lounges – worth the price of admission?

Written by admin on October 13, 2009 – 4:39 pm -

Do you think you need access to airport lounges? If so, why? If you need to ponder the question, you’re probably not a frequent traveler, who’s been bumped from planes or missed connections. It’s unlikely you know the interiors of airports as if they were second homes.

Those traveling in business or in first class internationally don’t need to join a club. Paying big bucks for plane tickets usually entitles them to a guest pass. It’s the least an airline can do to show its gratitude. It may not sound like a big deal. But, for passengers with connecting flights and a lengthy layover, these retreats can be godsends.

Some clubs/lounges are clearly better than others. For example, I haven’t been overwhelmed by the Red Carpet Clubs in the U.S. The ones is Asia (for that matter anywhere but in the U.S.) are so much nicer.

There are some airport clubs, where no one would be devastated, if they were stranded for the night. These clubs come complete with hot and cold running food, lounge chairs where someone can sleep (some even have a sleeping room) and a large selection of libations. Lucky passengers can have a free massage then continue on to their next destination in a more relaxed, Zen-like, state.

If you’ve decided to join a lounge, what would you like to find?

The following are a few suggestions on my list. Please, feel free to add more.

- peace and quiet
- enough area in the lounge so passengers don’t feel as if they’re sitting on each other’s laps
- separate areas for children
- good food and good beverages; alcoholic ones should be free
- an extensive assortment of newspapers and magazines – in different languages
- large flat-screen TVs with different broadcast channels. Not everyone wants to watch the news or sports
- a business area with computers, printers, copiers and even a fax
- plenty of plugs including multi-standard ones; there should be a collection of electrical cords and adapters that may be used in the lounge
- free WiFi

Moving right along:
- well maintained washrooms and showers available for passengers with a long layover or who want to clean up before proceeding to the next destination
- sufficient amenities in the event travelers can’t put their hands on a toothbrush, etc.
- quiet areas that are designated for people who want to sleep in a lounge chair, chaise or massage chair where cell phones are forbidden
- Band-aids and simple medications (e.g. Tylenol, Tums) for heart-burn and headaches, so club members aren’t forced to leave the premises to find a pharmacy

Club members voice that they want personnel staffing the clubs, who are qualified and are authorized to provide VIP service, can answer questions and solve problems.

Additional things on travelers’ wish lists:
- Priority check-in facilities for passengers and their luggage
- Announcements at boarding time in the lounge so people aren’t forced to continually check the airlines’ monitors

Some say the ultimate perk (other than better-than-usual customer service) would be having a door on the outside of the security perimeter that leads directly to the screening area. And a special exit area for club members to use when boarding flights – so they aren’t forced to wait with other passengers.

What would provide you the incentive to part with hundreds of dollars to become a club member?

Realize, there’s nothing wrong with sitting in an airport’s concourse (most have WiFi) and new restaurants and bars inside the departure areas are finding that captive travelers spend real money eating and drinking because it’s a good way to fill time.

If you belong to an airline club, which ones do you consider the cream of the crop? And which clubs do you think are the worst?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

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Preparing for a travel day from hell

Written by admin on December 22, 2008 – 12:32 pm -

As I sit overlooking Hong Kong’s landscape, there’s a nagging feeling radiating through my consciousness that tomorrow is not going to be calm. I know that in preparation for the journey I will need some serious therapeutic relaxation.

I am faced with 24 hours of sitting on three planes, waiting in airport lounges, clearing customs and hopefully arriving at my chosen destination as scheduled, in order to celebrate the holidays with my family. Rather than taking time to look at a last few Hindu and Buddhist temples, I’m praying to the airline and the weather gods.

Watching the boats and ferries navigate Victoria Harbor, the waterway that separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, is always magical. Lights twinkle and entice tourists and residents to venture out and explore Hong Kong, one of the world’s greatest playgrounds. It seems so peaceful. But, I know tomorrow will be a stress test.

One of my ways that I pamper myself in preparation for a long day of travel, it to make time for a massage and spa treatment.

As much as I’d like to eat a spectacular dinner, this is the time to pass on a large repast. After a morning spent running from one place to another at a full gallop, in the afternoon, I indulged in being pummeled and pampered at the Four Seasons Hotel spa.

For less than $100, I lived the life of a decadent sybarite. The spa session included a massage, a light lunch at the hotel’s pool and the use of the spa’s facilities. What a fabulous set-up. During my four-hour sojourn, I also treated myself to time in the sauna, the steam room and the Jacuzzi.

After that workout, spending a couple of hours in the vitality lounge where I was lulled into a stress-less sleep was imperative. As if that weren’t enough, each guest is given a spa robe and all of amenities one could want and need. Plus tea and a selection of ‘calming’ drinks and water are yours for the taking.

Each chaise in the relaxation room has its own mini-television screen and earphones, plenty of reading material, extra towels and a fuzzy cotton blanket that would make anyone feel as if they’re in a private cocoon.

Even though showers are mandatory before using the shared facilities, the “after” shower with its “rain sky” shower head is enough to make anyone feel as if they’ve had a mini-escape from seeing and doing. Hopefully, it will minimize any upcoming travel stress.

Some people opt for a massage after arriving at their destination, especially if their hotel room isn’t ready. Some airports have shower/massage rooms for people who aren’t traveling first class. They’re not free, but are godsends if you have to go straight into a meeting or simply sightseeing.

When departing from home there is plenty of pressure just getting to the airport and insuring everything and everyone is in order. A trip to the gym and possibly a swim are perhaps all that can be managed. Long-haul flights are precisely that — long.

But before embarking on the return trip, rather than shopping, it’s probably more constructive to prepare mentally and physically for the trip home. If the hotel doesn’t have a spa, there will be one nearby that does. Or surf the Internet. Unless one is traveling from Siberia, there will undoubtedly be dozens of spas that are unearthed. Perhaps the spas won’t be as luxurious as the one at the Hong Kong Four Seasons Hotel, but after any massage and spa treatment travelers can’t help but be more relaxed for the long haul back home.

If you have other favorite travel relaxation suggestions to add, please do so. Who said flying around the world is easy?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis

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Discovering day rooms for long layovers at international airports

Written by admin on December 8, 2008 – 12:48 pm -

How many times have you had six to eight hour connections between planes and wanted to do something other than walk the airport’s corridors? There’s only so much shopping one can do or overpriced airport food a waiting traveler can consume. Many airports’ public spaces are so crowded and noisy that the concept of relaxing is an enigma especially since carry-on bags need watching like a hawk.

For a long layover, day rooms are are wonderful alternatives to simply wandering between Gate A-1 and G152. For intrepid travelers the choices for passing time have long been to leave the airport for a short local tour or meal or settling into one of the airport lounges with magazines, TV, snacks and endless drinks. However, both have their drawbacks.

Leaving the airport is fraught with anxiety and often just not practical. The thought of leaving the airport and missing my flight makes me itchy. Anxiety often overcomes the glory of the Eiffel Tower, the symmetry of Plaza Mayor in Madrid or a walk along the Rhine in Frankfurt.

Legally, I have heard, travelers are not supposed to leave the airport’s premises if they’ve checked bags for an ongoing flight or may need an entry visa during a layover to wander outside the airport corridors. And with airlines requiring passengers to be at the airport two hours before departure, there frequently just isn’t enough time.

Airport lounges are invaluable and some frequent travelers invest in yearly club cards so that if they’re traveling in coach class, they may access the inner sanctum, do some work, eat something or simply relax. But it is rare to find a business class level lounge that is good for catching up on sleep or freshening up.

The day room alternative
Airport day rooms are an alternative that I have just discovered after crossing the Pacific. A few airports have day rooms but finding them isn’t an easy Google search. With flights being cut and more travelers being forced to wait in order to get from here to there, day rooms undoubtedly have a growing future.

Here are a few day rooms or short-stay airport rooms that I have found after speaking with international travelers and browsing the Internet.

Amsterdam Schiphol, London Heathrow and London Gatwick Airports have “YOTEL” based on Japanese Capsule hotel models. Passengers don’t have to exit security to access these rooms. The small cubicles feel more like boat cabins than hotel rooms, but the serve their purpose. Occupants can sleep, read, shower, power up computers and use the free WiFi. No one would want to spend an entire honeymoon in a place like this but Yotels are a boon for tired travelers.

There are day rooms at Narita Airport in Tokyo but they’re rumored to be similar to slightly tacky plastic cubicles and are so small that people with claustrophobia want out as soon as they awaken. Others feel they serve their purpose.

The room was small, but we actually fit on the bed, which is more than we can say for most beds in China, including the one in our apartment. Soap and shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste[1], are all provided. They even do wake-up calls.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport — Day rooms are available for passengers on the 2nd and 4th floor of Terminal 1 & 2 at reasonable rates for six hours with soft drinks, Tel: 535-3710-24.

The Hong Kong airport has shower rooms for rent as well as rooms where mothers may take their infants to nurse.

Singapore Changi Airport offers 73 transit hotel rooms in Terminal 1 and 73 in Terminal 2. Rentals are in six-hourly blocks ranging between $37 and $42 for single or double occupancy. Showers, gym and sauna facilities are also available at extra cost for non-transit hotel occupants.

The Dubai Airport has 88 rooms in the 5-star Dubai International Hotel, on the arrivals level of Sheikh Rashid Terminal. But don’t they come cheap — expect to pay $41 to $62 an hour!

Travelers wanting to rest and relax between flights will most probably have to exit the customs area and head to hotels adjoining the terminals (such as the Sheridan Hotel at Paris’s CDG Airport or the Hilton or Thistle at London Heathrow) or motels and hotels within the airport complex.

Some will advertise “day rates” while others won’t accord occupancy. Many airports have reasonably priced hotel rooms available, depending on the season and whether or not conventions are taking place in the vicinity.

One suggestion: Access a couple of hotel Internet booking sites if you think you’re going to want a room between flights. Last minute rooms are frequently deep-discounted.

Be certain there’s a shuttle service to and from the property and the airport. If you have to hire a taxi, you may find yourself accumulating hefty bills as there’s a minimum charge for leaving and going to the airport. Plus, if a driver has been waiting in line anticipating a hefty fare, don’t be surprised if he or she is cranky.

If you know of other airports that have day rooms, please add them.

Another question for business and leisure travelers is would you use day rooms? If not, what alternative plans would you make? Very few travelers want to live in an airport. And eight hours in captivity feels as if it’s a life time.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis; and is currently in transit in Asia.

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Airport services beyond shopping and fast food might help save time

Written by admin on October 31, 2008 – 1:10 pm -

There are always last minute details left undone before leaving on a trip. For many, it’s not having the time to get a flu shot. A new service has been introduced at some U.S. airports and it’s spreading like wildfire. There are doctors and nurses on site to give you a jab so you won’t get sick. Travelers like it because they can cross off something from their “to do” list.

Perhaps airports should take the hint and implement other services that many people, especially frequent fliers, don’t have time to do at home. This would be a blessing for road warriors who spend much too much time in airports and vacationers who simply run out of time before having to race to the airport.

Let’s face it, we all have plenty of time at airports after checking in and passing through security. Sometimes we find ourselves at airports for long layovers and have even more extra time.

Eating and drinking have always been options. But the choices are relatively limited to fast food. A sit-down somewhat upscale restaurant would be nice to see on occasion. I know that several airports like Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt Rhein Main, Minneapolis and Washington Reagan have some decent dining options. It would be nice to see that idea spread.

Shopping is the other airport activity of choice — mainly because that is normally the only other choice. But shopping (even duty free) leaves a lot to be desired unless you want to buy cigarettes or liquor. For example, the perfume and cosmetic shops are enticing, but if the person for whom you’re buying has specific preferences, don’t be surprised if these satellite boutiques don’t have the items in stock. For most domestic airports shopping means books and souvenirs.

The airports in Frankfurt and Zurich actually have supermarkets and drug stores available. They have been a lifesaver for many travelers who need emergency items and a timesaver for many businessmen and families who can buy groceries conveniently on the way home after a trip.

The supermarket at the Zurich airport has become one of Switzerland’s busiest since it is open seven days a week and has promoted itself to the community as a shopping center for the local citizens. The added revenue from this non-travel spending has been more than welcome.

Many Asian airports offer massages and there’s no dearth of takers. While in transit, having a back or head rub can keep one going.

Some travelers would love to have their hair done, a manicure, a pedicure or a facial. By the way, it’s perfectly all right to bring your own implements if you’re not 100% certain about the facility’s sterilization procedures. (For some international travelers, that is a consideration.)

Why don’t more airports have gyms? Considering the numerous and lengthy layovers, a gym could calm  passengers’ nerves, making life a lot less frustrating and consequently easier for flight crews.  Many airports are big enough to accommodate a good-sized gym, including locker rooms where people can shower and change.

Again, this idea of a fitness facility at airports has been tested successfully overseas at Frankfurt and Zurich. Closer to home, many travelers head to a nearby airport hotel to use the fitness centers during a long layover. Almost all airport hotels have 24-hour shuttles and day rates for their fitness rooms and pools. Having the facility right in the airport would be more convenient.

As someone who’s traveled extensively, my dental work has been done in more cities than I can remember. Don’t think I’m unique. Many frequent  fliers are in the same boat and would appreciate being able to have their teeth cleaned or a cavity filled when they’re going from one place to another. That means in the airport, not the far end of town, especially considering how bad traffic is getting to and from airports all over the world. If people are going to sit in a dentist’s chair, there had better be a wall  plastered with certificates guaranteeing they are licensed.

I’ll bet the services I’m describing — and others you might think of —would be in great demand. Am I right?  What do you think? Add any other good airport services you would like to see to the comment section. I’ll write a column with the best and most outrageous ideas.

Karen Fawcett is president of www.BonjourParis.com

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