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TRAVEL INSIDER : Vietnam’s ‘Open Door’ Not Without Challenges : Tourism: Though most restrictions on U.S. visitors have been lifted, there are still no direct flights and parts of the country lack a well-oiled infrastructure.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Vietnam is not an easy place to visit. But since 13 months ago, when the U.S. government quietly eased its restrictions on tourism there, American travelers have shown accelerating interest in the “new frontier” of Southeast Asian tourism.

On Dec. 17, 1991, the U.S. Treasury Department made it legal for American travel agents and tour operators to sell airline tickets, hotel accommodations and package tours to Vietnam--for the first time since U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon more than 17 years ago.

Though the Bush Administration stopped short of lifting all its restrictions, the move sent travel businesses across America scrambling for position in the new market.

“I get calls all day long about this. The demand is quite extraordinary,” says Sarah Timewell, Indochina specialist for InnerAsia Expeditions in San Francisco. And though Vietnamese officals say there are no up-to-date statistics available, Nguyen Dinh, Third Secretary to the Vietnamese Permanent Mission to the United Nations, estimates that American tourism is up substantially in the last year.

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Now travel professionals are hoping the Clinton Administration will dismantle the remaining elements of the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. But even if that action is slow in arriving, the beating of an American tourist path through Vietnam has already begun. Here’s a quick survey of logistical challenges that this year’s visitors there will find on that path:

* Two-stop travel. Before the United States softened its position on Vietnam, most Americans going there had to book trips to a neighboring country--often Thailand--and make arrangements to enter Vietnam from there. Even with American companies selling Vietnamese travel directly, getting there is still a two-stop undertaking, because direct flights between Vietnam and the United States are still prohibited by the U.S. government. Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore and other neighbors remain crucial gateways, originating flights and housing various travel operations that operate in affiliation with U.S. counterparts.

* Paperwork. To travel to Vietnam these days, Americans need a passport and a visa, which they can get though the Vietnamese Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York or through a tour operator. (Tour operators say they can secure tourist visas for as little as $40 each, compared to the $90 fee that applicants may face working through Vietnamese government officials in New York.) American travelers must pay $10-$20 each for government travel permits, though at least one Vietnamese official in New York believes that a visa alone is sufficient. Further, travelers face an airport tax (about $5 upon departure), and might or might not be assessed another fee of $25 or so upon entering the country. None of this is written in stone. “The rules change all the time,” says one veteran Vietnam tour operator.

* Limited mobility. On the ground, the going is slow. It’s only 100 miles from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, one tour operator notes, but the trip includes river and harbor crossings by ferry and can take six hours, depending on the season. Foreigners traveling alone (the vast majority visit in groups) may be required to travel with a guide outside major tourist areas. And Americans are likely to be barred altogether from certain areas, such as Pleiku, former site of a major U.S. base.

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* Unfamiliar skies. The only air carrier inside the 1,500-mile-long country, Vietnam Airlines, scares some Americans. “They don’t tell you to strap in. They don’t give you safety instructions beforehand. You just fly, hopefully,” says one past customer. Another describes the carrier’s equipment, much of it supplied years ago by Russia, as “fairly amusing.” Tour operators do say standards are rising.

* Spending ceilings. Under U.S. Treasury restrictions, American travelers may spend up to $200 a day in Vietnam (transportation and communication excluded) to purchase “items related to travel.” Credit card use is prohibited. A $100 value limit is set on merchandise Americans bring home from Vietnam (excluding educational materials such as books, maps and posters), and receipts are required. (In addition, Vietnamese authorities are said to be very strict in opposing the exportation of antiques.)

That’s a substantial list. But it seems to be only the beginning of the peculiarities of Vietnamese travel.

“Once you get into the central part of the country, the infrastructure is really lacking,” warns Gregg Geoghegan, sales manager for New York-based travel agency and tour operator Absolute Asia. “Travelers must be aware that things go wrong in Southeast Asia, and not expect the same degree of comfort and service that they get over here,” says Joseph Muti, sales director for Diva Worldwide in San Francisco. “And never, ever lose your temper. They’ll just completely stonewall you. It’s just not done in Southeast Asia, in public.”

The roads, especially in the monsoon season of May-October, are often washed out. The railroad, which runs on equipment largely rebuilt since the war, runs slowly and often hours behind schedule. Medical facilities are modest, and doctors and hospitals, the U.S. State Department says, “often expect immediate cash payment.”

Many Vietnam-based guide companies--most notably Vietnam Tourism, Saigon Tourism and their regional offspring--are government agencies. Visitors describe them as less dictatorial and arbitrary than Russia’s old Intourist system, but more authoritarian than many Westerners expect.

The Americans who venture into this landscape are a select group: veterans of the war there, Vietnamese-Americans returning to see the old country, and many experienced Asian travelers who Geoghegan of Absolute Asia says are “looking for a new frontier.”

A sampling of travel agencies and tour companies serving Vietnam is below. I haven’t field-tested any of the companies, but their backgrounds further illustrate how rapidly and recently Vietnam’s tourism profile has risen.

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* Absolute Asia (which did business as Adventures in Paradise until last fall), 155 West 68th St., Suite 525, New York 10023, (800) 736-8187. Absolute Asia started as a Thailand tour operator, but began organizing Vietnam trips in 1989, routing travelers and paperwork through an associate office in Thailand. Sales manager Geoghegan estimates that Vietnam trips now make up a quarter of the company’s business. After the government eased its restrictions, he says, “our business picked up incredibly . . . people felt safer.” Starting in March, the company plans to step beyond its individual and special group packages and begin arranging monthly group trips to the country.

* Diva Worldwide, 123 Townsend St., Suite 245, San Francisco 94107, (415) 777-5351. Diva, a 3-year-old travel agency and tour operator, started handling Vietnamese travel in 1991, using affiliate offices in Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. The company has a sibling office in Long Beach, Diva Tours and Travel (2142 East 10th St., Long Beach 90804, 310-987-3351), that caters mostly to Vietnamese-Americans and Cambodian-Americans visiting their old country.

* InnerAsia Expeditions, 2627 Lombard St., San Francisco 94123, (800) 777-8183 or (415) 922-0448. The 10-year-old company started offering Vietnam tours last year. Sarah Timewell, the firm’s Indochina specialist, was in Vietnam in November and reports that hotels and other businesses are rapidly readjusting their offerings to lure more travelers from the West.

Other sources of information:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (404-332-4559) say Vietnam includes the usual tropical health threats. No vaccinations are required, but CDC officials recommend anti-malaria pills and inoculations against hepatitis and typhus, particularly for travelers heading for rural areas.

Vietnamese Permanent Mission to the United Nations, 20 Waterside Plaza, New York 10010, (212) 213-5796 or (212) 213-3779. Officials say visa applications usually take three weeks to process.


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