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The Kalaw Party Bus

Anyone who has ridden a bus in Myanmar knows that busses here don’t run on diesel, an engine, or even wheels; they run on nonstop, eardrum shattering karaoke. The air conditioning may not work, the tires may be bald, the paint job a dubious affair, and the doors not closed, but the karaoke and the speaker system appear to be meticulously maintained.

It was a rather harrowing overland trip from Yangon to Kalaw. Sure, we could fly, but we wanted to see the countryside and experience the sights and smells involved with travelling “local-style”. We had even decided to take on the challenge of taking one of Myanmar’s scenic train rides from Thazi to Kalaw.

This all sounded good a fine until a wheel on the bus fell off at 2am, leaving everyone stranded for 4 hours, including those poor souls who were squatting on plastic stools in the centre aisle for the duration of the breakdown, squeezed between bags of rice and farm produce.

The bus ride had started out as promising as a bus ride could, all things considered. The VIP express bus we were promised turned out to be a less pimped out ride than pictured on the ticket – but it had air conditioning and we weren’t on a strict schedule, so it was no big deal.

We were cruising along merrily enough at 2am, trying to ignore the nonstop karaoke, until a sonic “BAM!” threw everyone forward, jolting the aisle squatting passengers into a heaping pile towards the front of the bus.

The bus stopped, the lights turned on, the karaoke remained blaring, and the engine remained running. The running of the engine was a promising sign; I whispered to my French companion, “I think it’ll be quick, they kept the engine running.”

Thirty minutes later, the engine turned off, but the lights remained on along with the karaoke, which I thought was beginning to resemble the sound of a hundred wailing babies. This time my French companion said, “I sink is OK, if it was really bad, they turn off light.”

Then the lights turned off, but as though it was the very bastion of hope itself, the karaoke remained. Until at last, even the karaoke succumbed and the entire bus seemed to let out a collective sigh of despair. It was going to be a long one.

Unfortunately the delay had thrown a wrench into our well planned itinerary and we would now miss our train to Kalaw. We eventually got there, though, walking into town triumphantly with the feeling of having conquered the odds.

On arriving, we met a rather fun French group who had hired a guide for the famous three day trek from Kalaw to Nampan in the Inle Lake area. They told me they were looking for an addition to the group, and not wanting to offend a French invitation, we put our names in the hat.

So, for an all inclusive price of 40,000 kyat each, the handful of us hired a guide for the three day, 62km long trek.

I had never hired a guide before, and the idea of doing so was frankly injurious to my pride. When I saw the route we were going to take on Google Maps, I second guessed my decision even more. Q: How hard could it be?

A: Very hard! Not because we were scaling the face of white capped mountains or crossing crevasses with ladders and ropes, but because there are no marked trails. There was not one trail, or two trails, or ten. In fact, every day we probably got on and off 15 different trails; I completely lost the small sense of direction I had in the first 10 minutes (not an unusual occurrence).

The trek itself was marvelous; we wandered around the back country of Myanmar’s highlands, which offer sweeping vistas over open farm land dotted with cows and gleaming stupas in the distant hills. The first night was spent in a villager’s house and the second at a monastery – both apparently in the middle of nowhere. A cook went ahead of us, concocting superb cuisine in advance of our arrival which we ate outside, stuffing ourselves by candlelight.

Having completed the trek, I would say the trekking experience is one of the best, although if you’re traveling to Kalaw by bus, you may want to consider taking one which pays as much attention to its wheel maintenance as it does to its karaoke system.


Myanmar Telecoms

As Myanmar makes its transformation from international pariah to the new darling of Southeast Asia, the international business community is keeping a keen eye on the country’s government. For five decades, the country was ruled by an oppressive military and, as the country makes tentative moves towards actual democracy, international observers want to ensure that the reforms that began taking place in 2011 are genuine.

One of the most high profile tests in 2013 came when the Ministry of Telecoms and Communications announced the two successful international companies were to be granted telecoms licenses alongside two local operators.

Almost 100 expressions of interest were submitted from companies all over the world, before that figure was cut to 22, then 12 in April. On June 27th, following an extensive vetting process, the two winners were announced as Norway’s Telenor and Ooredoo of Qatar, with a joint venture between Japan’s Marubeni and France Telecom selected as the reserve choice should one of the license grantees be unable to fulfill its commitments.

Even the companies and consortiums that were unsuccessful at the bid stage spoke promisingly about how free and fair the whole process had been. Clearly, it was a test that the government passed.

Telenor’s inclusion was generally expected. The company, partly-owned by the Norwegian government, already has a strong presence in Southeast Asia as a market leader in neighbouring Bangladesh and with operations in Malaysia and Thailand.

Ooredoo, however, was less expected and surprised even the most well informed analysts. Despite early promises of investing an incredible $15M in the country over the 15-year license period, many expected either Singtel or Digicel, the latter of which that had been on a particularly aggressive marketing campaign, to get the nod.

Of Myanmar’s estimated population of 60 million, less than 10 percent have access to a mobile phone. Compare that to other countries in the region – Indonesia has close to 100 percent and Thailand 110 percent – and it gives you some idea of the growth potential in the telecoms market in Myanmar.

Since the bid announcement, however, optimism has waned. While the new Telecommunications Law was passed in October, at the time of print the licenses had not yet been issued to the successful bidders – thought to be due to minor disagreements over certain aspects of the new bill – and the ministry has to ensure that it does not let the good reputation it has built for itself begin to slip as the wait for live telecommunications continues.

When the winners were announced, it was promised that operations would be live within nine months – meaning that by March both companies should be able to roll out their services – and while that target is still not impossible, with the licenses still not granted and little progress taking place on the surface, observers are skeptical as to whether that deadline will be met.

There are other issues for Ooredoo and Telenor to deal with besides the lack of clarity on laws and licenses. Land prices, human resource problems and a lack of infrastructure are issues for all international companies coming into the country to consider, but Ooredoo and Telenor must add the building of towers in hard to reach places to that list.

Part of the remit for successful companies was to ensure almost 100 percent (as well as truly nationwide) phone coverage within six years, but as parts of the country, particularly in the north and the west, continue to be hit by ethnic tension and violence, it remains to be seen whether the operators can construct their towers in these areas.

Ooredoo, too, has its own set of unique issues to contend with. In the past year and half, Buddhist-Muslim violence has spread across the country. While the bulk of the violence has taken place in western Rakhine State, it has been perceived by many as an attack on the Buddhist identity of the country, leading to a fairly widespread anti-Muslim sentiment.

Coming from and being backed by a Muslim country – particularly as part of the fear is of Muslims taking over the economy and driving out Buddhist businesses – some prominent members of society have called on people to boycott Ooredoo products. Additionally, the Myanmar Insider has spoken to some mobile phone shops in Yangon who are wary about stocking Ooredoo products due to their connections with the Qatari government.

While Ooredoo has not publicly addressed the issue, it is in the process of working hard to ensure that the brand is seen in a positive way. In recent months, Ooredoo has been on a charm offensive, sponsoring a number of civil society events in an attempt to win over the public’s trust, with many more announcements expected soon. It remains to be seen if they can do enough to turn public opinion enough so that it can compete on a level playing field with Telenor.

Telenor, however, might not be its only competitor. Recent reports have suggested that the two domestic telecommunication companies – state-run Myanmar Posts and Telecommunciations (MPT) and Yadanapon Teleport – are courting international companies to implement a joint venture to allow them to compete with the two new players in the market.

Until now, MPT has been the sole operator in Myanmar, but has shown that, on its own at least, it will struggle to compete with companies coming in with experience on the international stage. If, however, it can team up with international companies that have experience in building networks, then the sector could become more competitive than many expected. Companies thought to have expressed an interest in joining with MPT include Vodafone, Singtel and Orange.

Today, a SIM card in Myanmar fetches upwards of $150, even on the black market. That is a significant drop from years ago, when they could cost as much as $1,000.

New mobile phone network operators in the country should go a long way to greatly improving the country’s economic performance, as well as access to information for many of its citizens, but it remains to be seen how long it will take before this becomes truly nationwide as the government has promised.

Flamingo Bar

Finally. A forward thinking bar that brings a unique underground vibe and is committed to promoting a cool international sound to an eccentric mixed crowd. An intimate venue full of character (with a slight industrial feel to it), it’s similar to the underground warehouse venues in London. They try to keep the industrial feel and have added some new decor to liven it up even more. The club already boasts an impressive sound system and serious lighting setup, which makes for a truly unique experience. They are still undergoing renovations to enhance the overall customer experience; large television screens that display cool graphics, even more improvements to the decor and a bigger bar area are all being implemented at the time of this writing.

The aim is to create a real focus on the music and entertainment aspects, bringing a touch of the familiar from home for the expats and a lot of new for the locals, creating the perfect night out for one and all. In terms of menu price, Flamingo Bar is extremely competitive and the bar/club is open 7 nights a week starting at 9:30pm till late. It’s centrally located with easy access and lots of parking.

The sound is similar to that of London, Ibiza and parts of the US, and they are also bringing some new sounds from developing Asia. You can expect top quality tunes from the best local and international DJs and various unique themes throughout the many different nights of the week. Some nights you’ll hear the best in house/deep house/tech house and modern garage, while on other nights you’ll find big room progressive and trance pumping through the sound system. It’s not unheard of for Flamingo Bar to take you back to the old school hip-hop and garage days, but some liquid drum & bass nights can also be expected. Their resident DJs focus on building a musical identity for each night and will no doubt create an open minded crowd who will grow to trust the musical vision.

While promising quality upfront electronic music, Flamingo Bar also has many live band nights, a blues and jazz night and the always popular disco nights. They pride themselves on hosting forward thinking parties with exceptional service, each and every night, as well as a very unique Yangon experience. They believe in their music policy and they encourage dancing, so go prepared!

Dont follow the crowd – follow the underground!”


Progress For Ooredoo

Digicel Asian Holdings, comprised of the Digicel Group, the First Myanmar Investment Co. Ltd and Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd, has signed an agreement with Ooredoo Myanmar to develop, construct and lease telecommunications towers in Myanmar. We understand from management sources that detailed terms regarding ownership and capital outlay for the consortium are still being negotiated and will be announced in due time. Digicel Asian Holdings’ company in Myanmar, Myanmar Tower Company, will construct multitenancy towers in Myanmar and aims to work with multiple telecommunications operating companies, including Ooredoo’s, to facilitate its commitment to rapidly achieving coverage across the country after winning a coveted license.

In June of 2013, Myanmar authorities awarded two telecommunications licenses to Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo. As part of the reported requirements, winners of the tender must launch their services within nine months of the licence being granted and install a network to cover a quarter of the country within a year, and three quarters within five years. Given that this is a mostly green field project in an undeveloped country, it makes tremendous sense for both telecommunication players, and for the local telecommunication companies, as well, to outsource the build out and share resources to manage costs and gain strategic synergies.

Commenting on the announcement, Mr. Denis O’Brien, Chairman of Digicel Group, said, “We are delighted to work with Ooredoo to help develop a high quality telecommunications network across the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, contribute to the growth of the Myanmar economy and benefit Myanmar citizens across all of the country’s States, Regions and Union territories.”

Mr. Serge Pun, Chairman of Yoma Strategic and FMI, added, “Today’s announcement is a significant step in the economic and social development of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. We are delighted to play our part in such development and look forward to working closely with the Government, authorities, telecommunications operators and other local companies.”

About Digicel Digicel

Group Limited is a leading global telecommunications provider with operations in 31 markets in the Caribbean, Central America and Asia Pacific. After 12 years of operation, the total worldwide investment to date stands at over US$4.5B. The company is renowned for delivering best value, best service and best network.

Digicel runs a host of community-based initiatives across its markets and has set up Digicel Foundations in Jamaica, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Trinidad and Tobago, which focus on educational, cultural and social developmental programmes.

Digicel is the lead sponsor of Caribbean, Central American and Pacific sports teams and individuals including the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, and Special Olympics teams throughout these regions. Digicel also sponsors the West Indies cricket team.

About YSH Finance Limited

YSH Finance Ltd is part of the SPA Myanmar Group, one of the leading business groups in Myanmar, with companies active in key business sectors, including financial services, real estate development, automobile distribution, agriculture, manufacturing, services, retail and travel, and tourism.

YSH Finance Ltd is owned by the First Myanmar Investment Co. Ltd (“FMI”) and Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd (“Yoma Strategic”), two public companies within the SPA Myanmar Group.

In 1992, Mr. Pun set up FMI, a public company in Myanmar with over 4,500 shareholders, all of whom are Myanmar nationals. Employing approximately 5,000 people within the Group, FMI is active in a broad range of activities in Myanmar.

In 2006, Mr. Pun led Yoma Strategic to a successful listing on the mainboard of the Singapore Stock Exchange, which is today an internationally publicly listed company offering investors direct exposure to Myanmar.

Company Registrations

Myanmar authorities have indicated that they will speed up company registration by cancelling the “temporary permit” issuance. Up to now, companies in Myanmar are setup in two stages. In the first stage, the company is granted a temporary permit. Once the required portion of the company’s minimum capital is remitted, a final certificate is issued.

The Directorate of Company and Investment Administration (DICA), which oversees company registration, will now abolish the first stage. Companies will immediately receive their final documentation, which includes a Permit to Trade and a Certificate of Incorporation. The move is aimed at reducing the administrative burden connected with company establishment for both authorities and investors.


Sixteen Winners Selected For Onshore Blocks

The Myanmar Ministry of Energy has announced which companies have been awarded contracts for its tender of onshore oil and gas blocks.

Petroleum Brunei, the Italian ENI, and the Canadian (but Singapore based) Pacific Hunt Energy Corporation, are among the winners. PTTEP, Petronas and MPRL, which all have interests in Myanmar, were awarded blocks, as well. Petronas, ENI, MPRL and Pacific Hunt Energy were each awarded 2 blocks. The awarded companies and related blocks were announced by the Ministry of Energy (MOE) on the 10th October, 2013, and the list was published on the Ministry’s website. There are a few interesting takeaways from the onshore awards, which can teach us something about the upcoming offshore round: Sixteen Winners Selected For Onshore Blocks

• Can a contractor be awarded more than one block? Clearly, yes. It seems that the Ministry looks at the bids that came in on a block per block basis. Whether one contractor ends up with more than one block is simply a matter of that contractor having the better bid for each one of those blocks.

• Existing players, such as PTTEP, Petronas and MPRL, have an edge over the newcomers. This is not a matter of policy from the Ministry. It is simply easier for contractors that already know Myanmar to propose a more aggressive bid. They are not troubled by as much uncertainty as newcomers are. We may see this again with the offshore round.

In January of 2013, the Myanmar Ministry of Energy (MOE), on behalf of the Myanmar Government, announced the invitation for sealed bids for Myanmar Onshore Blocks Second Bidding Round. The Round offered onshore blocks for Petroleum Operations to be conducted on a production sharing basis. A total of 18 onshore areas were offered, 15 Production Sharing Contracts (PSC) and 3 Improved Petroleum Recovery Contracts (IPR). Only 2 blocks from the 18 were not awarded, notably PSC M and IOR 3, due to a lack of bids.

The Ministry plans to invite sealed bids for the two remaining blocks, but details have not yet emerged as to schedule. A press release by the MOE stated that “the tender evaluation team led by the deputy minister scrutinised and gave a score to final proposals according to the selection criteria, such as exploration period, work schedules and expenses to be expended, production share ratios,experience of company, and signature bonus”.

Myanmar Prepares Draft Law On Electricity

The Myanmar Government has released an advance draft of the new Electricity Law (the “Draft Law”), a comprehensive piece of legislation covering licensing, a new regulatory commission, standards, inspection, tariffs and restrictions.

The Draft Law is intended to replace the Electricity Law of 1984, which was amended in 1990. The Draft Law divides projects into “small” (up to 10MW), “medium” (between 10MW to 30MW) and “large” (upwards of 30MW).

A new body, the Electricity Regulatory Commission (ERC), has been created to formulate policy, prepares tariffs, advise the Ministry of Electric Power (MOEP), set standards and forms inspection bodies. The ERC will include nongovernment employees.

Under the Draft Law, states and regions can issue permits for small and medium power plants. In cases where these plants are not connected to the national grid, the Union Government Ministry is not the primary authority involved.

The authorities have a legal right to use land for the purpose of power plants under the Draft Law and have the right to expand and maintain their facilities. The Draft Law also provides that the authorities can build transmission lines in accordance with existing laws.

Importers of electrical equipment must follow the standards and guidance of the rules which will be issued under the Draft Law.

Furthermore, the Draft Law restates and modernises some of the existing law’s provisions on safety and inspection from the original 1984 Electricity Law.


Vietnam is now firmly on the world stage, but only since the early 1990s did travellers start arriving. Brilliant green rice fields stretch to the sun, bustling city streets where grand colonial buildings rub shoulders with gleaming new luxury hotels are everywhere, glorious mountain scenery with beautiful ethnic minority people, delicious cuisine, bustling markets, quiet temples and pagodas, and deserted beaches. This is Vietnam today.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the commercial powerhouse of the country, with shiny new shopping malls, banks, international hotels, old markets, museums and a China town. Café life plays a major part in Vietnamese culture, and you will always find people enjoying coffee usually with sweet condensed milk and loads of ice (ca phe sua da) or black coffee with ice (ca phe den). There is even a new Starbucks! The Saigonese love to snack, and there are plenty of opportunities. The signature dish of Vietnam is Pho; a noodle based soup with either, chicken or beef. The dish is a cheap, healthy, nutritious meal with fresh herbs, onions, chilies, ginger, cinnamon, bean sprouts, fresh mint and much more. A day or two is probably sufficient to see the major attractions in Saigon, which really should include the Old Saigon Post Office, with its ornate façade and splendid interior, and the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. Nearby is the former Presidential Palace.

For those with an interest in passed conflicts, a visit to the War Remnants Museum will give you a gruesome insight to the horrors of war (not for the feint hearted!).

Stroll down Dong Khoi Street to the Opera House and the colonial style Continental Hotel (as featured in the movie of Graham Greene`s “The Quiet American”. On the way, pass by the magnificent classical City Hall, all of which are easily accessible on foot. Further out of the city centre is the bustling China Town, known as Cholon. Here you will see Binh Tay Market, the largest market in Vietnam, and the Thien Hau Temple, with coils of incense creating a timeless atmosphere. Before leaving Saigon there are a number of interesting places to visit. One is the unique Cao Dai Great Temple where the religious sects practice Caodaiism and come together to worship in harmony. This can be done while visiting the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, an incredible underground network of tunnels on three different levels, constructed by the Vietnamese resistance fighters during their struggle for independence.

A trip to the Mekong Delta, either for one day or longer, is not to be missed. It will provide an unforgettable experience. Encompassing some 39,000 km2 this vast water world of paddy fields, orchards and fish farms is a labyrinth of canals threading their way between lush green islets and emerging into wide tumultuous rivers.

Discover the delta by boat and visit one of the early morning floating markets at which you can sample the local produce, coconut candy, a variety of exotic fresh fruit and the local rice wine. You can learn to understand the different beliefs among the Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer and Cham people living in the region and even home stay in a local house and share the daily life of your hosts.

Travelling away from the frantic city of Saigon to the coastal city of Nha Trang will provide a complete contrast. This picturesque city in Central Vietnam on the shores of the East Sea is endowed with peace and quite all year round. Surrounded by islands, mountains and white sandy beaches, the warm climate and spectacular location make this an ideal tourist destination. Nha Trang Bay is considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world, with its clear waters and abundant coral reefs around the outlying islands a haven for divers of all skill levels. There are daily flights from Saigon that take less than one hour. However, the transfer from arrival at Cam Ranh Airport into the city can take as long as 30 minutes. Nha Trang is a very laid back city, and life mostly revolves around the beach. There are watersport centres, diving and snorkeling facilities and good restaurants. Cycling is the best way to see the countryside, as is often the case.

During the months of March and April, when the weather is very hot during the build up to the rainy season, the French Colonialists used to move to Dalat, a cool retreat in the central highlands. Here they developed a new town that has now become a big tourist spot. The journey by road from Nha Trang to Dalat takes about 4 hours, and snakes its way over mist shrouded mountains and through deep valleys. It is without doubt one of the most spectacular overland journeys in Vietnam. The town is set amongst lakes and pine forests, making it ideal for both mountain bike enthusiasts and hikers, as well as nature lovers.

From Saigon fly north to Danang, the third most “important” city in the country, and experience the ancient Cham civilisation. The city has the largest collection of Cham artifacts in the country, but as Danang does not offer much in the way of sites, most visitors travel on to the ancient port town of Hoi An.

Dating back to the 15th century, Hoi An`s eclectic mix of architectural styles stand testament to its illustrious past as a flourishing trading port. The town was, at various times, home to the Champa people, as well as Japanese, Dutch and Indian traders, who all brought their own individual cultures, which are reflected in the town’s rich heritage. Nowadays, Hoi An is a Mecca for tourists, who buy the colourful handmade lanterns, ceramics and textiles. Of particular interest are the 400-year old Japanese bridge with adjoining Buddhist pagoda, the merchant’s houses, and the market. There is an interesting Vietnamese cooking school in Hoi An, known as “The Red Bridge Cooking School”, for those interested in discovering the secrets of the local cuisine. Take the time to visit My Son, the former capital of the Champa people. Scattered throughout the lush green valley are many ancient towers dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries.

The coastal route from Hoi An to Hue is possibly one of the most scenic in the country. Just beyond Danang the road climbs over the Hai Van Pass, or Pass of Ocean Clouds. This is the highest pass in Vietnam and is also geographical and physical division between north and south. Finally, the road enters the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue.

Hue was once the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, and the numerous architectural monuments reflect this rich cultural era that includes the impressive Citadel, recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This tranquil city lies on the banks of the Song Huong river, also known as the “Perfume River”. A boat trip along the river will unveil many historical treasures, including the Thien Mu pagoda (the official symbol of Hue) and the tombs of Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Khai Dinh.

Hue is renowned for its excellent cuisine, often spicy but fragrant with an assortment of dipping sauces. For a flavour of Hue cooking, try Ban Xeo, a delicious hot pancake filled with shrimp, pork slices, bean sprouts and herbs. It is accompanied with a fish sauce and carrot dipping sauce. Also, Banh Beo is a small steamed rice pancake with fresh savory toppings. Bun Bo Hue is a Hue style beef vermicelli dish. There are many variations on this recipe and all are delicious.

There are some excellent cooking schools in the city offering classes to aspiring chefs. It is possible to spend time living and working with the local farmers in nearby Tra Que Vegetable Village.

If time allows, drive north through the lush countryside to Bach Ma National Park. Stretching from the East Sea to the Laos border, this vast tract of wilderness is teeming with wildlife. If you can reach the summit of Back Ma Mountain, the reward will be a stunning panorama. In the far north lies the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi, on the bank of the Hong River (Red River). To reach Hanoi there are regular flights from Hue and Danang. The city exudes a quiet charm, despite the traffic, with ochre-coloured colonial buildings, tree-lined

boulevards and large lakes. Hanoi demands that you spend time to savour and enjoy its 1,000- year old history. Home to the revered Ho Chi Minh, a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is essential, as well as a visit to Uncle Ho’s residence. Then, on to the lotus shaped One Pillar Pagoda, resting on a single stone pillar rising from a small lake, and to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first University. The “Old Quarter” of the city provides an insight into the ancient trading practices in Hanoi, and retains the old street plan and architecture. The streets are named after each trade, such as silk, jewellery, cobblers and coffee. A tour through this fascinating area should be taken by cyclo, which is a three wheeled cycle rickshaw. At the end of the day, a visit to the Thang Long Water Puppet show is a must. Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnamese art form dating back to the 11th century depicting folk tales.

Take a break from city life and travel to Halong Bay, with its 3,000 spectacular limestone islands soaring dramatically from the emerald green waters of the bay. This World Heritage site is one of Vietnam’s gems. Stay for the day or overnight on a traditional wooden junk, exploring caves and the small isolated beaches. Relax on the sundeck, swim or kayak. The tranquility of the bay will leave you spellbound.

A two hour drive from Hanoi will bring you to Hoa Lu; the ancient capital and economic, political and cultural centre of the first centralised feudal state in Vietnam (from 968 to 1010BCE). From here it is a short drive to the Van Long ecotourism area; an area of outstanding natural beauty, surrounded by impressive limestone mountains. A two hour boat trip on a local sampan though the rice paddies to the famous Tam Coc Caves affords a glimpse into the pristine rural landscape. There is the opportunity to cycle along the narrow paths and visit some of the hamlets in the valley. For the curious and energetic, a visit to the Yen Tu Pagoda will test your stamina as you climb the seemingly countless steps.

There is an overnight train that leaves Hanoi for Lao Cai, arriving at 6:30am. Upon arrival, overland transport will take you to the misty hilltop town of Sapa, in the far northwest near the Chinese border. Sapa hangs like a jewel between the sky and the earth, overlooking the deep valleys of the Hoang Lien Mountains, where cascading rice terraces cling to precipitous hillsides. Here you can climb Mount Fan Si Pan, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, follow the paths of the local people beside the mountain streams, or hire a motorbike and explore the region in your own time.

This is home to the colourful ethnic minorities of Black H’mong, Red Dzao, Thai, Yeo, Tay and Flower H’mong. Visit the local markets of Bac Ha, Mung Khuong and Cao Son and admire the decorative costumes of the friendly ethnic people. There are few words that can fully describe the breathtaking beauty of this region. It is said that Sapa has four seasons in one day, and I can vouch for that. A word of caution: Sapa has now developed into a highly popular tourist destination and, as such, the ethnic people are now “business savvy” and tend to follow tourists everywhere with their wares. An unfortunate but inevitable side effect of mass tourism!

Useful Information On Vietnam Geography

Vietnam is bordered by China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west and the East Sea, well, to the east, which washes the shores of the long eastern coastal region extending some 3,260km north to south.


The seasons vary from the north to the south. Generally, the dry season in the north lasts from November to April and during this time the weather can be quite cold and damp. A good time to visit is between May and October. In the south, the rainy season starts around May and can extend to November (and sometimes into December). However, it doesn’t rain all the time. During these months the land becomes fresh and bright with the rice fields turning emerald green. The warm sunny days return in December and usually last until the onset of the rains in May.


Approximately 85 percent of the population are Viet Kinh. The remainder are ethnic Chinese, Chams, or members of the ethnic minority people who live in the central highlands and in the mountainous northern regions close to the border with China.


Vietnamese is a tonal language that uses the Roman alphabet, and can be quite difficult for foreigners to master. Nowadays, English is widely understood and used, especially in tourist areas and hotels.


Buddhism is the most common religion in Vietnam. About 8 percent of the population are Catholic.



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