European tourists in front of the Central Post Office in HCMC, February 21, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Nam.
After 15 years, this year’s International Tourism Expo HCMC scheduled for September will be canceled over Covid-19 fears.
“Ho Chi Minh City will not organize the annual international tourism fair in 2020 as planned,” said Tran Vinh Tuyen, the city’s Vice Chairman. Cancelation of this year’s event will help further prevent the spread of Covid-19, he added.
As planned, the three-day event would have taken place from September 4 to 6 at the Sai Gon Exhibition and Convention Centre (799 Nguyen Van Linh Street, District 7) with the theme “Gateway to International Tourism”. It is organized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and HCMC authorities.
Bui Ta Hoang Vu, director of the city’s tourism department, said it had sent a survey to foreign exhibitors who stated they are closely monitoring the Covid-19 situation and are limiting trips abroad at this time.
Since its debut in 2005, the event has annually attracted hundreds of foreign exhibitors and thousands of international visitors. It is a good opportunity to popularize Vietnam and its culture internationally. In 2019, the event attracted 250 foreign exhibitors from 42 countries and territories and over 30,000 attendees.
Vietnam has gone 81 days without community transmission of Covid-19. It has recorded 369 infections but no deaths, with 340 having recovered.
At a government meeting in Hanoi earlier this month, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said Vietnam was not yet ready to open up to international tourists given the lack of improvement in the global situation and the second wave of infections suffered by several countries in the region, including China and South Korea.
Ngo Tran Hai An, a travel blogger and photographer, has visited over 100 land and island border markers in Vietnam and around the world for 19 years.
When An visited Con Dao Archipelago in southern Vietnam with his family, he decided to track the A3, A4, and A5 landmarks. These are three of the 11 baseline location points, marking Vietnam’s territorial waters, which are located along its 3,260-kilometer coastline. Most of the points are on remote islands and difficult to reach.
An said in 2010, he started off visiting 11 landmarks in 11 years, Con Dao marking 9 out of 11.
A panoramic view of the Dong Lam Meadow, an ecological area of around 100 hectares in the north of Huu Lien Commune. The place has woken up to its own beauty and offers attractive ecotourism options in villages like Lang Ben, Lang Coc and La Ba.
Located about 25 km to the north of Huu Lung District in Lang Son Province, which borders China, and 150 km from Hanoi, Huu Lien has a total area of over 6,000 hectares and a population of more than 3,000 people, including the Tay, Nung, Yao and H’mong ethnic minority communities.
The commune captivates with its spectacular limestone hills, undulating vast grasslands, moss-covered waterfalls and emerald lakes.
At 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, Hanh, 30, takes a motorbike taxi to her Zumba lesson.
On the way, she tries her best to remember the Cha Cha Cha, a Cuban dance she had learned in her previous class.
Thirty minutes later, in a 50-meter-square room, the Zumba class kicks off with ten members. The oldest is around 70, the youngest 30. As the music starts, instructor Ho Thi Nhung, 28, leads the warm up.
After two months, despite steady improvement, Hanh is still a bit confused by some of the steps, leading to the odd collision with classmates or tables.
“Raise your hands, step to the right, move your body. One, two, three…” instructor Nhung encourages her students amid the thump of the speakers.
“What can a blind person do?” the shy Hanh, born with congenital visual impairment, used to ask herself. From northern Thai Nguyen Province, she came to Hanoi around six years ago to finish her high school education and work at a blind massage center on Ngoc Khanh Street.
On learning the blind association in Thanh Xuan District accepted new members from other provinces, Hanh joined up.
“I have been a member of the association for a long time, but never thought of learning Zumba. I was confused after registering, not sure how I could dance without seeing clearly,” Hanh recalled, adding the Zumba lessons has made her aware the blind could function just as well as those blessed with sight.
Nguyen Huy Cuong, 43, a senior blind dancer, often assists the other students to learn their moves.
Unable to follow the instructor, Cuong was anxious at first, but slowly managed to smooth out his movements.
Cuong (behind) shows a learner how to move his hands. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.
“Listening to the instructions and using our imagination, when we first started, some of us turned left, some right, some stepped too far aside, I guess the instructor was very tired,” Cuong noted. Now, “it is not difficult for us to learn advanced moves.”
Cuong is a masseuse. Weekly, he spends his Tuesday and Thursday mornings learning to dance and conversing with those that share his disability, which helps him feel more optimistic.
Previously, on June 24, four members of the dance club won the first prize at a local competition. They are now preparing for the next round.
Though many thought her a daydreamer for wanting to open the class, instructor Nhung believes teaching the blind something they had never done before boosts their self-esteem.
Nhung said her greatest tool during every class is her voice, since, unlike in a ‘normal’ class, her students cannot copy her movements by simply sight.
No matter the weather, her students never skip a lesson, inspiring Nhung endlessly.
According to Nguyen Tien Thanh, president of Thanh Xuan Blind Association, after commencing in December 2019, the class has grown from six to 12 dancers.
The association decided to host the class to improve mental and physical health, as well as self-confidence and strength among its members, allowing them to better integrate with their communities.
Nguyen Ngoc Lan (L), and Tran Vuong Thach, wear their Orders of Arts and Letters at a ceremony in HCMC, July 3, 2020. Photo courtesy of French Consulate-General in HCMC.
The Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters has been conferred on two Vietnamese citizens for their contributions to French culture.
French Ambassador to Vietnam Nicolas Warnery presented the awards to Tran Vuong Thach and Nguyen Ngoc Lan at the office of the Consulate General of France in Ho Chi Minh City Friday evening.
Thach is the director of the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera (HBSO). He has been deputy chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Musicians’ Association since 2010. He has been credited with several initiatives promoting France-Vietnam relations through cultural exchange programs and projects.
In particular, Thach worked to bring the opera ‘Fredegonde’ by famous French composer Ernest Guiraud and Camille Saint-Saens to HCMC. Vietnam became the first country to host the opera since it was featured in Paris in 1895.
Lan, meanwhile, has been serving as head of the Institute of Cultural Exchange with France (Idecaf) in HCMC since 2012. She has organized many significant events to build cultural connections between Vietnam and France, as well as other French-speaking countries. She has also played an important role in maintaining a library at Idecaf, the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia, the French embassy said in a release Saturday.
The Order of the Arts and Letters was established in 1957 to honor individuals around the world who make significant contributions to French culture.
Up to 200 people are honored with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters each year, according to French government guidelines.
In Vietnam, previous recipients of the Order include late musicologist Tran Van Khe, author Nguyen Huy Thiep, late artist Le Ba Dang, and fashion designer Minh Hanh.
Every Friday at noon, at The Recess Room in Fountain Valley City, Orange County, California, lines of customers queue for free food. The restaurant, famous for tapas and cocktails, now serves Vietnamese dishes such as rice with grilled pork, chicken, stir-fried noodles, broken rice, etc.
Among to the crowd, on Brookhurst Street, a board was set up calling on locals to support the restaurant.
“Free Food Friday” was the idea of Viet Pham, founder and co-owner of the restaurant, which saw its revenue drop to less than 10 percent and had 90 percent of its staff laid off.
“We decided to give away food to the elderly, students, the homeless, and the disabled since they are facing many hardships,” Viet, 38, told VnExpress.
Viet sorts ingredients in his kitchen. Photo courtesy of Viet Pham.
“1/8 families in the U.S. are in trouble due to the shortage of food during this period. Uniting and helping others is very important,” he maintained, adding his aim is to use the power of cuisine to spread positivity.
Viet was born in Los Angeles and grew up with a love of cooking, his mother having formerly operated a vegetarian restaurant in Westminster during the 1990s after leaving Vietnam for the U.S.
In 2016, he opened The Recess Room with some of his childhood friends: Pham and Victor Nguyen, Yahya Alwakza and Steven Duong. They all hail from Huntington Beach.
Joining in many community activities before, Viet and his friends did not hesitate to invite struggling members of the community to their restaurant to partake of free food as the novel coronavirus cripples the city.
Medics, emergency caregivers and those working in the F&B industry can all enjoy a 50 percent discount on food with proper identification.
The “Free Food Friday” menu is changed weekly, with most dishes Vietnamese.
“The community has given us positive feedback – we wish we had started this earlier. All we hope is to overcome this upheaval, and be stronger together,” Viet said.
Viet (R) and his friends pose in front of their community serving food joint. Photo courtesy of Viet Pham.
Since the free food program started in March, when local authorities required non-essential businesses to close to contain the spreading novel coronavirus, The Recess Room has handed out more than 10,000 meals. But Viet and his teammates do not want to stop. They are now using funding from family members and friends from several Vietnamese organizations to keep the fire in their kitchen lit.
“We see the demand, and we are here to help,” he claimed, hoping locals would treat each other nicely, “especially in this time of ordeal.”
In an interview with a local newspaper in March, Viet admitted he and his friends are “a little crazy” doing this.
“We literally feel like we are in the scene in ‘Titanic’, but we are the ones playing music while the ship is sinking just to calm everybody down,” he said.
“If we are gonna go down, we are gonna go down in style!”
Sin Suoi Ho, situated at an altitude of 1,500 meters and 30 kilometers from Lai Chau Town in the namesake province, also offers visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in the daily life and ethnic culture of the local H’mong people.
Morning: Local fair – daily ethnic life
In the local dialect, Sin Suoi Ho means “stream of gold”. The air here is crisp and cool throughout the year.
Visitors are enthusiastically welcomed by locals and immediately served a cardamom drink in a bamboo tube. The spiced drink has a refreshing effect and soothes the throat.
The H’mong make this beverage since they think that travelers from the plains could get sore throats due to the dramatic temperature change. Cardamom is grown in Sin Suoi Ho’s forests and is the main source of income for locals. The spice is also used in their food.
Cardamom drink in bamboo tubes.
Like other ethnic villages in the mountains, the Sin Suoi Ho fair is held every Saturday morning. The marketplace is a circle with slabs of rocks for stands. The items sold there are mostly produce grown by the locals or harvested in the forest. Traditional handmade costumes are also on offer.
Visitors can not only shop but also watch art performances, participate in games and try their hand at grinding corn. The traditional meat soup (thang co) here is also a must-try. In the H’mong language, thang co means a “big pot of water”. It is traditionally made from the meat and offal of horses or buffaloes.
A corner of the weekly market in Sin Suoi Ho.
Before the marketplace was established, households mainly grew their own produce or bartered among themselves. If they wanted to visit a market, the nearest was 30 kilometers away in Lai Chau Town.
In 2015 authorities recognized Sin Suoi Ho as a destination for community-based tourism. It was then that its residents decided to set up a market. The fair was to be both a marketplace for the H’mong and a tourist attraction. The village chief, Vang A Chinh, led the initiative by donating a piece of his own land.
He says: “As village chief, it was my duty to help my people and be a role model. The market creates jobs for seniors; they can sell their poultry and livestock here without having to travel a great distance to earn some extra income.”
The villagers planted trees, placed rocks and built other things needed for the market.
Sung Thi Ly, a local, says: “With our own marketplace, it is easier now to buy and sell. We can also sell our produce to tourists when they visit or barter with other people in the village.”
At around 10 a.m. visitors begin to make their way around the village with locals acting as tour guides. They get to try their hand at authentic local tasks like sewing a traditional ethnic dress and making day cakes.
Noon: a taste of the northwest
Northwestern Vietnamese cuisine.
At noon, visitors are brought back to their homestay accommodation for lunch and some rest. On a large banana leaf, a simple but delicious spread of traditional dishes awaits them. The meal usually consists of six or seven local dishes.
Their signature dish is roast pork wrapped in forest pepper leaf and dipped in a unique northwestern sauce called cham cheo. The forest pepper leaf has a sweet and sour flavor with a slight tang that makes the dish intriguing.
Tourists also get to try glutinous rice naturally colored with leaves. The bamboo shoot salad and fern salad are must-try specialties. Sometimes, guests are served local alcohol in eco-friendly bamboo tubes and cups.
Grilled pork, a specialty of the region.
Afternoon: Heart Waterfall – Bungalow
Around 1.30 p.m. visitors begin the trek to Love Waterfall (Thac Tinh Yeu), also called Heart Waterfall. They pass through a primary forest and beautiful hills with tsao-ko cardamom trees. The distance is only over a kilometer but a round trip takes around two hours due to the steep paths.
At 4 p.m, visitors have the choice of visiting some homestays, gardens and bungalows. Children in the village usually gather here to play in the afternoon and visitors can interact or play soccer with them. Sunset at Sin Suoi Ho is another lovely sight.
With their patent honesty and affectionate attitude, the H’mong of Sin Suoi Ho have received great appreciation from tourists. They are friendly and eager to show visitors the culture of the H’mong.
“I’ve been to many places but felt most welcomed in Sin Suoi Ho,” Thanh Huyen, a tourist, says.
“They are more than keen to share everything. I noticed that none of the locals smoke, drink or quarrel. They are well-mannered and courteous.”
Children here reportedly ike interacting with tourists.
Evening: H’mong cultural performances
Tourists can spend the evening in the village and watch performances by locals. There are currently ten homestays, an inn and three bungalows in Sin Suoi Ho, all run by locals.
*Before traveling to Sin Suoi Ho
Transportation: It takes about an hour to get to Sin Suoi Ho from Lai Chau Town, about 30 km. Visitors can rent a motorbike or take a 29-seat bus or taxi from Lai Chau.
Weather: There are two seasons in Lai Chau: dry and wet. It rains from mid-April to early September. During the rainy season, the roads become slippery and harder to maneuver.
Scenery: Sin Suoi Ho has truly breathtaking sights to see throughout the year. When it gets close to the Lunar New Year holiday in early year, visitors can see cymbidium flowers blossoming beautifully. The rice terraces turn yellow in September and October, and wild sunflowers bloom in November and December.
– Village entry ticket: VND20,000 per person ($0.86)
– Homestay at the village: VND250,000 ($10.8)/night per person (breakfast and one lunch/dinner included)
– Traditional costume rental: VND50,000 ($2.2)
– The rent for a vehicle in Lai Chau is VND150,000 ($6.5) per day for a motorbike and VND1 million ($43) for a car (self-drive). Taxis are also available in Lai Chau.
Thanh, 32, who beat a 15-year drug addiction, was cooking in the small kitchen of adrug rehab facility in Hanoi’s Phuc Tho District, when an employee rushed in and reported his father’s threat.
Thanh laughed, wiped the dripping sweat from his face. He was not perturbed. “Now he is struggling with the addiction, so his mind is not stable. A few days later, when he wakes up, he will understand that I am doing this for his own benefit.”
The young man understands what his father is experiencing, having gone through similar withdrawal pains two years ago. Once he beat the addiction, he turned his attention to his relatives, and brought his father and two uncles to the capital city for treatment.
Thanh and his relatives are members of the Thai ethnic minority community who live in Thanh Chan Commune in Dien Bien District, Dien Bien Province. The district has a border with Laos, from where a lot of drugs are trafficked into Vietnam.
A 2018 survey found all 25 communes in this district having a fair share of drug addicts.
When he was just a kid, Thanh witnessed his mother being beaten and tortured by his father, who was, and is, addicted to both alcohol and drugs.
“Many nights, my mother took my sisters and me to my grandmother’s to sleep because my father would be cursing loudly,” he recalled.
His father’s behavior left Thanh depressed when he was a bit older. When he went to hang out at the houses of some of his friends in the neighborhood, they comforted him, saying: “Don’t be too sad. Just come here make a few sips of wine. That will make you feel better.” He was just 13 then.
Addiction ran deep in the family. Two of Thanh’s four uncles died of drug abuse and the surviving two are heavily addicted as well.
At 15, Thanh dropped out of school and followed in the footsteps of his relatives. The tears of mother and three sisters could not stop him.
Things in the house, including furniture, began disappearing one after another. When there was nothing left in the house to sell, the 15-year-old boy became a thief.
Once, seeing his sister accidentally leave the key in her motorbike, he drove it off and sold it to get money to buy drugs.
His addiction obvious, he was shunned by people. He still remembers an instance when he gave some candy to one of his neighbors’ cute kid, but the mother pulled the child back and scolded it: “Why are you playing with him. He is an addict.”
In the neighborhood, whenever something was lost, Thanh was always the first suspect.
“Whenever I went out, I bowed my head and did not dare to look at anyone. My mother did the same since she was so embarrassed,” he said.
His addict father taunted him, too. “My father always said: ‘If you can quit, I will follow you,’” Thanh recalled.
Thanh was tired of his dependence on drugs and being ostracized and discriminated against. He really wanted to quit. He even chained himself, but the pull was too strong.
In a raid by Dien Bien Police in 2013, Thanh was one of many drug addicts in his commune who were taken to a rehab center. A year later, his dad came to the facility to take him home.
But the first thing he did on reaching home was to ask his dad for some money to “buy wine as a gift to send to my friends in the center.” The father refused and he begged his mother for it.
His mother knew the truth since he kept asking for money day after day, for more than two weeks. “My mother said nothing, but her eyes filled with tears. After I took the money, I quickly turned away and did not dare to look her.”
Chastised by his mother’s grief, Thanh returned home and chained himself.
Moment of epiphany
His four-year-old nephew came up to him with a piece of candy. He placed it in the palm of Thanh’s hand and said: “Uncle, keep fighting.”
That was a moment of epiphany for Thanh.
“I was enlightened in that moment, realizing that family was the only one there for me when all of society had turned its back.”
However, his determination faltered yet again. After 10 days, he removed the change and returned to his habit. A tormented existence continued, swinging between longing for the high of the drugs and repentance for his actions.
In 2017, one of Thanh’s cousins returned from Hanoi and recommended that he gets himself admitted at a rehab facility in Phuc Tho District. Thanh was afraid . He had never left Dien Bien. His sister shouted: “Now there are only two paths, either to the rehabilitation facility to find a way to live, or to stay here and die….”
The cousin encouraged Thanh, showing him clips of activities that patients in the rehab center engage in.
Undecided, Thanh left the house and did not return for two days. On the third day, he called his sister.
“I think it is over, I want to live.”
At the rehab facility, Thanh struggled like others to overcome the craving for alcohol and drug. But this time, he endured the suffering. He knew that if he quit now, he would have squandered his last chance.
Thanh was immeasurably helped by the center’s staff to fight his demons.
“I have never been anywhere else that people have been so kind to me. They stayed up all night massaging and giving me acupressure treatment to relieve my body aches. They kept encouraging me through my most difficult days.”
After five months of compliance at the facility, he was allowed to visit home for five days.
Bui Ngoc Minh, manager of the rehab center, said: “Just like other people who used to be addicted, when he returned to his hometown, our staff in Hanoi waited anxiously. Although Thanh made a very good impression, my faith in him was only about 50 percent.”
The first thing Thanh saw on returning home was something shocking. His father and two uncles taking drugs. One of his uncles invited him: “Want to have some?”
Thanh shook his head, saying: “I have given it up. I don’t want to use it anymore.”
The polite yet definitive answer surprised the three adults.
The next morning, Thanh borrowed his sister’s motorbike. To test him, his sister counted some money and put it in the trunk of the vehicle. The money had not been touched when he returned in the afternoon. For five days in the countryside, he only ate meals with his family and visited relatives.
On the day Thanh returned to Hanoi, his mother voluntarily gave him money for the first time, but he refused.
After a few more trips back to his hometown, his neighbors started seeing that Thanh was no longer an addict. One neighbor said: “He looks stronger and more handsome lately.” The woman who pulled her child away from Thanh also began trusting him.
Now, his mother fondly and proudly tells people her son’s recovery story. She has begun enjoying going to the market again and visits places around the village instead of going straight home with a bowed head.
“Relatives in my family have seen and are praising my brother for being able to kick the drug habit,” said Huan, also beaming with pride.
Thanh lifts weights, demonstrating his return to good health. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.
Sharing the cure
Thanh told his uncles about the changes that have happened to him and advised them to follow suit and regain control of their lives. After a near-death experience from a drug overdose two months ago, one of his uncles went to Hanoi.
Thien, 52, Thanh’s uncle, said: “After I came down here for two months, I have gained 4 kilos and am eating well. My mind is clear, too. I am older, but I am glad I listened to my nephew.”
If he can completely withdraw from drugs, he will encourage his children and other relatives to avoid drug abuse and if they have started, to stop it, the uncle said.
A few days ago, Thanh returned to visit his family. His father had broken the promise he made to his son and returned to alcohol and drugs.
Afraid that he would he would lose his father to drug addiction, Thanh urged him and the other uncle to go to Hanoi and get detoxified.
His uncle agreed, but his father refused.
Unable to persuade his dad, Thanh and his sister organized a trip to Hanoi to go around the capital city and visit relatives. This was a ruse to get his father admitted to the rehab center.
Today, Nhut, his father, is under treatment. His mind is not alert and he often curses his son. So the manager had to move him to another facility about 12 km away to temporarily separate the father and son. Every day, Thanh asks the staff about his father’s health.
“Please tell him that when he is fine, I will take him wherever he wants to go,” he said.
Head held high
Thanh is completely cured, but he has not left the facility.
He is so grateful for what it has done for him that he wants to help others through their addictions. Every day, he goes to the market to buy food and cook for about 15 people, both addicts and staff.
At night, according to the shift he is on, he wakes up to massage and take care for patients who are experiencing what he had gone through.
Explaining his staying on at the center, Thanh said: “I want to thank the people who had saved me.”
He said that when he returns home for good, he would grow vegetables and raise chicken or get some vocational training, get a job, get married and have children.
“I will live a better life so I will never have to lower my head when I go out again.”