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Visit to Laos and Vietnam: Part One

Food and Beverage Fest

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 Vietnam.
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 of Vietnam.

Docking 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 Cambodia.

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.

A young girl drinking coconut milk in a shop the group passed on their journey through Laos.

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 return.
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 (1957-1975).
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 in Thailand.

A vessel crossing the Mekong River.

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 Laos-Vietnam border.

Boat departure times at Mukdahan docking.

Visitors with torpedo war weapons found in the area of Vinh Moc Tunnels in Quang Tri province, Vietnam.

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.

Elle Faraday
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

Chantanna 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 them.
Many attendees
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 Chiangmai Mail.

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

Cooking 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!’

Like 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

David 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

Tassanee 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

Rattanna and Robin Paul, Starbright Restaurant & Spa, Chiang Rai with CMM’s Murray Dickson.
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.
Successful event
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.