Saturday, October 18, 2008

Friends at Aurora Travel

This is one of those stories that will live among the milestones of my life, since my friendship with the owner and staff of Aurora Travel has the most unlikely beginnings. My correspondence with the owner, Mai Anh Nguyen, started a few months before departure first trip to Viet Nam, as I had landed on her website page doing research for the trip. I will also tell you that after two trips to this country, and exchanges of pictures and emails and all sorts of wonderful things, I still have not met Mai Anh. One of the reasons is that she doesn't live in Ha Noi anymore, but rather in Bangkok and has some extremely capable people working for her in Viet Nam. How fortunate for us, because everything they touch turns to gold.

A couple of months ago, we learned that our dear friend Van had a baby, and she sent us photos. It's hard to imagine Van pregnant; like most Viet Namese women, she's very slight, feather thin, and demure. Bong is a beautiful chubby baby, and here are some of the first photos:
Let's revisit our first trip: Mai Anh had arranged some of our itinerary as I had had no contact with anyone else; we had decided that even though we had more than three weeks, we could not possibly see Sa Pa. In hindsight, that was the right decision. We packed so much into the trip, and since we wanted to visit Sai Gon (HCMC) and Hà Nội, I knew that one of the treks would have to be via train. So we headed north by plane, and returned south by train, with two stops en route back to HCMC. It was practically seamless, so much so, that we felt much more comfortable on the next trip to enjoy the trip to Sa Pa by train once more.




At the time of our initial journey, Aurora had a different name; it was called Vietnamstay.com and their website still bears that name. I had the joy of becoming their English editor, and that was another great way for me to learn about new places and cultural treasures for subsequent visits. Their offices are located very conveniently in the center of town. We managed to walk there from our hotel on the second go-round. We had such a hard time finding this place the first time, we almost gave up. At first it looked closed; then at the very place it was located was a garage door, and it was mostly down,-one would not think this was an office. Thankfully, someone finally came out to greet us!

Of the entire crew you see below, Van is still there, and I think most of the others are gone. She is seated fourth from left, and I am right next to her. The gentleman sitting next to me is actually quite funny, and his English is fairly good!
So you might be thinking, OK, so what's the big deal? Let me tell you about one incident which endeared Aurora's people to our hearts. Naturally, it was very very exciting to get to Viet Nam. I had too much luggage, and Chuck had too many cameras, and photographic equipment. Part of this very expensive photographic equipment had been forgotten in Sai Gon as we had left on a late train, and had to check out of our hotel, the Lucky, much too early. We had some of our things in storage, and when we left, it was not easy to take inventory.

Chuck became aware of his missing gear after we arrived in Hà Nội, and were training it down to the ancient imperial capital of Hue. When we arrived at the hotel, I suggested we call our travel experts. This is what happened: someone from VietnamStay in Sai Gon went over to our hotel, picked up the camera equipment and brought it to the Continental Hotel where we had made reservations. How many travel agents do you know that will do this?
By the way, Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he is fondly called, is Viet Nam's hero, and you'll find his photo is most places you visit. The original offices of Aurora had this photo at the entrance, and a large map highlighting Viet Nam's familiar S shape. There are many places which commemorate him, but we missed seeing them as an episode of food poisoning kept me in bed for three days. It is interesting to note that the Viet Namese have kept Ho Chi Minh's body in much the same way as Russia's Lenin. His body is embalmed and has been visited by millions. Despite his wish to be cremated, the government violated that wish, and decided to honor its hero in this way. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is located in Ba Ðình Square in Hà Nội.

Aurora chose our hotels in Hà Nội, Hue and Nah Trang. As you will see on this blog, each and every one of them had charm, was very comfortable and at times luxurious, even though the latter is not a criterion when we travel. It's a nice bonus though.
the new offices now

On another occasion, we had to call Van from South Korea on a stopover. We had lost some luggage and had been thinking about flying into Hà Nội a day earlier. Our stop over at Incheon airport was too long (over 24 hours), and we thought we might take a flight that was leaving at an earlier time. Van did confirm what the agent at Incheon had told us: you do not want to arrive in Viet Nam prior to the time confirmed on your visa. Trust me on this one.
There are more people working at Aurora now; Van is wearing the pinkish zippered sweater.

On our last trip to Hà Nội, Van gave us some lovely gifts. Mine is still with me, and dear to my heart. It is a stunning black wool embroidered shawl, - and the decoration is very fine, in a contrasting auburn color and no matter where I go, when I wear it, everyone wants one. On our last day in the capital city, Van also arranged for us to have lunch at the famous Pham Anh Tuyet; that was not only a treat but a surprise as well. We really had no clue this was in store.


Here we are chatting in the ante-room; I had brought Van a baby gift
for Mai Anh as she had just given birth to a baby girl!!

It was wonderful to see everyone, and we were leaving for Sa Pa and knew we would be seeing them again before departure. We had discussed how to get from Lao Cai into Sa Pa, and apparently, there are enough mini-buses, and hawkers, as we found out when we arrived. We offered to take the crew to lunch, but they could not leave the office.

We have never hesitated to tell anyone to go to Aurora for their travel plans. As a matter of fact, I was meeting a business associate in Hà Nội on this trip. He was coming from Manila and had his own set of issues. Yet, Van was fabulous with him; just as she was so fabulous in getting us a car to take us to a paper making village I wanted to see, and that no one had heard about. The visit for me was nothing short of historic. I have no doubt that I'll be seeing Van again.

1 comment:

Van Hoai said...

Sat, Oct 25, 2008 at 1:35 AM

A thousand thanks for your kindness, your love for Vietnam and Aurora, and me. I like your new post very very much. I shared the blog with my colleagues and my husband and they all enjoyed it.

If Bong (now 10 months), can say a word, she will say hello to you, too. Regretfully, I have no new photo of Bong here to send you.

It is nearly 2 years, since your last trip to Vietnam, we do hope to have you return in early future. Whenever you have a plan to return home in Vietnam, please email me and I and Aurora team will assist you at our utmost effort.

Mai Anh, my GM had just finished 10 days trip to Chile and she is now in Singapore for ITB Asia. I have given her the link to your new post.

Miss you a lot.

Van