Visit to Laos and Vietnam: Part One
“From the battle filed to the tourist attraction”
Story and photos
by Phitsanu Thepthong and MI staff
This time our destinations in Laos were Savannakhet, Dansavanh, Lao Bao, and
Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, Danang and Hoi An in Quang Nam province in
From July 6 to 9 2006, Khon Kaen-based Mekong Institute (MI) staff traveled
to central Laos and southern Vietnam as part of their annual retreat
program. They toured the new ‘three-nation tourist route’, starting from
Mukdahan province in Thailand, passing through Savannakhet into Laos, and
onto Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, Danang and Hoi An in the Quang Nam province
at Savannakhet border check - point in Laos.
The MI staff, eighteen in total, were led by two men; one from Thailand and
the other from Laos’s Vientiane capital, and together a female guide in
Vietnam. They visited some very interesting places in both countries. The
group travelled together in a minibus along Highway 9 which is the so-called
“East-West Economic Corridor” that starts from Myanmar’s Malady town,
passing through Thailand, onto Laos and Vietnam’s Danang City.
A Japanese-built bridge, linking Mukdahan with Savannakhet in Laos, is
scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. The bridge is expected to
significantly reduce travel time between Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and
Some tourist firms in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) have begun
promoting a ‘three-nation tour’ package deal: tourists will have breakfast
in Thailand, lunch in Laos, and at dusk, dinner in Vietnam.
The first day of the tour included breakfast in Mukdahan, Thailand, lunch in
Laos, and dinner in Hue, Vietnam. In Vietnam, two nights were spent in Hue
and one night in Danang City, exploring tourist spots, shopping, and
learning about Vietnamese history, traditions, customs and so on.
young girl drinking coconut milk in a shop the group passed on their journey
The journey started from Mudkahan, crossing the Mekong River into Laos by
boat, and then going further into Laos and Vietnam by road. At the Mukdahan
crossing point, the service charge for passengers is 50 baht, while border
passes cost 10 baht.
Boats leave regularly between 9.00am and 4.30 p.m. six days a week, and from
9.30 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. on Sundays. Chartered boats cost about 2,400 baht
Each boat can carry 38 passengers. Crossing the Mekong takes 15 to 20
minutes. The boat docks at Savannakhet, with further immigration procedures
to be completed before onward travel.
Savannakhet was the first border check point of Laos to be recognized by the
French, and is about 250 kms from the Vietnamese border check point at Lao
Bao. It takes three to four hours to reach along Highway 9, and the trip
takes you past a town called Xeno, the former base of the Laos People’s
Army, and also through primitive Laotian villages in Veerabouly and the gold
mines of Xe Pone. The group had lunch at Muang Phin that day.
The MI party arrived at the Vietnamese border at Lao Bao in the afternoon,
and crossed into Vietnam. There are a number of bureaux de change at the
border, typically selling Vietnamese dong at 400 to the Thai baht.
After travelling form Lao Bao, the group arrived in Quang Tri province,
where they spent about two hours in the late afternoon visiting the
well-known village of Vinh Moc of Quang Tri province which is a central
Vietnam province well known for the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels are in Vinh Linh village in Quang Tri province – a
place famous for its extensive network of tunnels, almost like an
underground village, constructed as a bomb shelter during the Vietnam War
Situated 13 km east of the national highway 1A and just 6 km from the coast,
Vinh Moc Tunnels have become a favoured destination for tourists, especially
American war veterans.
The spectacular tunnel network stands as a testament to the endurance,
wisdom and bravery of the local people in their fight for independence. The
tunnels used to be thousands of meters long. Now there remains only 1,700m.
The underground network is linked by 13 doors; seven opening to the sea and
six to the hills. The structure is divided into three layers, the deepest
being 23m down. They are connected by a 768m main axis, 1.6m to 1.8m high
and 1.2m to 1.5m wide. It was linked to the sea by seven exits and to the
hillside by six, which also functioned as ventilation shafts.
Along the two sides of the main axis are housing chambers. There is also a
large meeting hall with seating capacity for 50 to 80 people, which was used
for meetings, movies, art performances, surgeries, and even as a maternity
ward (17 babies were born here). There are also four air wells, two watch
stations and three water wells. The village featured unique Hoang Cam
stoves, named after the General who invented a stove that allowed cooking
without emitting smoke, thus evading discovery by the enemy.
Before entering the tunnels, visitors are shown displays of the brutal
period. They provide a sharp contrast to the vitality of the people seen in
photos celebrating on victory day.
The war forced many people to either leave their villages or live beneath
the ground. Vinh Moc residents opted for the second solution. Few could
imagine that the rubber and pepper tree plantations found here today used to
be a fierce battleground, when Vinh Moc was used as a base to pass food and
ammunition on to Con Co Island.
The area suffered greatly from the tens of thousands of tonnes of bombs
dropped by the US. The Allies wanted to return the area to the ‘stone age’
and launched a major offensive. It is estimated that the Vietnamese here had
to endure the equivalent force of 500 heavy rockets per day.
In 1976 the Ministry of Culture and Information recognised the Vinh Moc
Tunnels as a national heritage site, and included them in a list of special
important historical sites. To ensure security for visitors, the tunnels
were restored with reinforced concrete and internal lighting.
At the Mukdahan boat landing
A vessel crossing the Mekong
Thai tourists in a tunnel at
Vinh Moc (photo by MI staff)
Travellers board a passenger
boat before crossing the Mekong is readied to cross the Mekong River between
Mukdahan and Savannakhet.
A tunnel at Vinh Moc.
Making a living at the
Boat departure times at
Visitors with torpedo war
weapons found in the area of Vinh Moc Tunnels in Quang Tri province,
A beach nearby the Vinh Moc
Tunnels well-known as an underground village constructed to avoid
bombardments during the American War (1965-1966).
Lao young women enjoy talking,
playing games and taking a photo on their mobile phones onboard.
The group minibus on Highway 9
from Laos to Vietnam, driving on the right-hand side of the road, of course.
A Vietnamese cold drink café.
A group tour of Thai tourists
in front of Mukdahan Immigration Office before their journey across the
Mekong River into Laos and then by road into Vietnam.
Food and Beverage Fest
Rudy van den Berg, Managing
Director and Joon Srisuk Operations & Sales Manager of HORECA and Murray
Dickson, General Manager, Chiangmai Mail at the opening of the HORECA F&B
Show & Seminar at the Sheraton Hotel Chiang Mai.
Monsoon Valley and Warsteiner
Beer, two of the displays at the HORECA F&B Show.
The Horeca Food, Beverage and related products Seminar that took place at
the Sheraton Chiangmai on Thursday 20th July is the premier event of its
kind in northern Thailand. Rudy van den Berg and Joon Srisuk, who together
run Horeca Wholesalers, developed the idea in an effort to promote business
in the north.
Future for Chiang Mai
Songsang, Sales & Marketing Manager of Italthai Food & Beverage Division
(centre) with Bussarin Janthakul, Sales Manager-Upcountry (left) and
Thipphawan Pornchai, Northern Area Sales Executive.
Both Rudy and Joon foresee Chiang Mai developing fast and the
only way for businesses to survive, regardless of size, is to adopt a
professional approach offering only the best service. They are developing
ways to train and help local businesses take advantage of a market for
quality products. The food show was designed to showcase the premier
products available and demonstrate innovative and exciting ways to market
The event was invite only and saw over 200 guests through the
doors before 10:30.Those in attendance ranged from 5-star hotel owners to
guest houses and managers of top class restaurants as well as local bars.
All the participants are looking to increase their businesses to grow at the
same rapid rate as the city itself is growing.
Suchinda Thanachot, Regional
Sales Manager and Tassanee Sittiratana-Na-Nakkhon, Consumer Food Specialist
Manager of Nestle, Thailand with Elle Faraday and Muanfan Harris from
Suppliers in attendance included Apple Honey Cider,
Dilmah Tea, Erdinger, ItalThai, Lucky Brand, Nestle Dairy and Siam Foods.
The suppliers were able to market some of their new products as well as meet
with many retailers and answer any questions.
Fine wine importers with new products
up a feast. Nestle Thailand takes centre stage.
I met with Chantanna Songsang, the sales and marketing manager of
Italthai, a leading food and beverage group. She explained that Italthai
have been established for 50 years importing and supplying fine wines,
spirits, and food, even trying their hand at real estate — they own the
Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. Their most successful food product is their
dehydrated potato flakes. This instant mash potato is imported from Idaho
and is perfect for businesses. Italthai supply wines from seven different
countries including Italy, France, Australia and Chile and they are also
Thailand’s principal supplier of premium port. The company are just
launching their brand new product which is a fruit juice, AC Fresh, made
from 100% real fruit. It is a new adventure for the company as it is the
first time they are selling their own product. AC Fresh comes in either pink
guava or kiwi flavours. Pink guava is the national fruit of South America
and is very rare in Asia. AC Fresh offers a little taste of Latin America in
a bottle. It is extremely nutritious and exceptionally tasty (this I can
guarantee as I couldn’t get enough of it). AC Fresh is targeted at those who
want to look after their bodies while still enjoying rich flavours and will
no doubt be a hit throughout Thailand and beyond.
‘If you see a void, fill it!’
your tea shaken, but not stirred? Dilmah Tea has the know-how.
Robin Paul and his wife Rattanna are soon to open their very
first restaurant and spa in Chiang Rai. It is to be called Starbright and
will be an American themed establishment featuring pictures of stars such as
Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. It will serve premium
Martinis, fine wine, and high quality food. The restaurant area houses a
dance floor that will be utilised at night and hopefully guests will be able
to enjoy a few numbers by Robin himself as he used to be a professional
singer. He is looking to settle in Chiang Rai as he loves the city but sees
the lack of good steaks and fine wines so he followed Bill Heinecke’s advice
of ‘if you see a void, fill it!’. Rattana runs a spa in California which she
is bringing to Chiang Rai. The second floor of the restaurant will be
dedicated to this professional spa facility with the third floor
accommodating guest bedrooms. It will be a first for Chiang Rai. They plan
to open in December in time for Christmas so it could be a great option for
a traditional Christmas dinner! They travel back to the US at the end of
August and will be back in November to prepare for the big opening.
Building brands and supplying premium products
Kennon, Commercial Manager, Siam Food Services.
Siam Food Services is an established food provider based in
Bangkok who have been in business for 20 years. They specialise in meat and
poultry, seafood, vegetables, bakery and dairy as well as offer many other
products – totalling over 600 items. The company covers all areas of the
food and beverage business, supplying establishments in Bangkok, Pattaya,
Hua Hin, Phuket and Samui. They supply to Chiang Mai through Horeca and
jumped at the chance of attending the food show. David Kennon, the
commercial Manager of Siam Food Services, met with me to explain their
motivation for attending this event. Siam Food Services is focussed on
building brands and supplying premium products from all over the world.
Their major brands include White Stripes, an Australian meat supplier;
Marine Harvest the world’s largest producer of Salmon and Pritchitts, for
cream and non-cream dairy products. They also look to distribute quality
products from quality international suppliers and believe that with the
growth taking place in Chiang Mai, many companies will be looking for
quality products rather than the cheapest. The new tourist market attracted
to Chiang Mai are not just backpackers, they are quality tourists and expect
high quality service and food. David hopes that through Horeca, Siam Foods
can help supply the new consumer needs in the north of Thailand.
Popular stand with tasty products
Asswagovitwong, Dilmah Tea.
Nestlé Dairy’s stand was one of the most popular of the entire
show. They had samples of delicious grilled chicken which was marinated in
natural yoghurt and French mustard and also served tuna with yoghurt and
mustard dressing. Both samples were a huge success -they even offered an ice
cream for dessert! I met with Tassanee Sittiratana-Na-Nakhon and Suchinda
Thanachot of Nestlé Thailand who wanted to discuss their product ranges,
their motivation behind the products, in particular their new orange juice -
Orange Juice Fibre Plus. Tassanee told me of their plans to promote dairy
products to the Thai people and introduce yoghurts and creams into local
recipes. Nestlé offer a healthy alternative to condiments such as mayonnaise
with their natural yoghurts containing no fat and no sugar. They want to
promote the use of natural yoghurt in cooking. After tasting their recipes,
I am now convinced yoghurt is the new mayo! Their fibre plus orange juice is
also a healthy alternative to many of the juices found on supermarket
shelves. It is pure orange juice and incredibly refreshing. Nestle want to
promote well being for everyone, regardless of age, gender or nationality
and are looking to help people eat and live healthier. They believe for a
person to be truly happy, they must first be truly healthy.
Tea for the connoisseur
and Robin Paul, Starbright Restaurant & Spa, Chiang Rai with CMM’s Murray
Dilmah Tea is a Sri Lankan product which is incredibly popular in
Thailand and exports to 92 countries throughout the world. I was given a
sample of their finest tea and was highly impressed. I was then treated to a
selection of cocktail tasters made with the very same tea I had just
enjoyed. I never for one minute believed that an alcoholic cocktail would
serve tea as its base. The cocktails were delicious and all had a twist. I
sampled a rosehip cocktail and an Italian Almond flavoured one. I can
honestly say that I have never been more impressed by a cocktail. Tassanee
Assawagovitwong talked me through the history and culture of Dilmah Tea. The
company currently produce over 50 flavours of tea, some fruit, some herbal
but all incredibly tasty! Dilmah Tea is a premium tea that tastes noticeably
better than many well known brands. The company attended the food show to
promote their vast range of teas and to show retailers that by spending just
a little bit more money on a quality product they will attract more
customers resulting in an improvement in their business. Dilmah Tea promotes
tea to people of ages – even children. They serve tea mixed in with ice
cream which attracts children and adults alike. They don’t want herbal teas
to be limited to adults only but want families to enjoy it together. I have
certainly been converted to Dilmah and no doubt when others try it, they
will be too.
The Horeca event was highly successful and both exhibiters and
visitors were enormously impressed. Rudy and Joon worked incredibly hard to
get the show up and running and should both be very proud of their efforts.
I spoke with Joon at the end of the day and although very tired, she could
not stop smiling. They are planning to hold a similar event next year and
hope that it will be even more popular. Their main aim was to promote
quality products and prove that the cheapest option does not always offer
the best value for money. This aim was achieved and not one person left
disappointed. With Horeca working together with local businesses, quality
and service standards in Chiang Mai are sure to improve and increase growth
and prosperity throughout the city.