Being an avid traveler, I look for the best deals possible before putting together an itinerary. Best deals may be a subjective term, but to me, best deals are those that bring you closest to the local way of life, authentic, meaningful, personal and of course affordable. My short holiday to Saigon was no different. Months before the holiday, I spent many hours diving into Lonely Planet’s ThornTree Forum, reading reviews on TripAdvisor and flipping through guidebooks at a local bookstore.
We (my husband and I) started in Saigon, exploring the city by foot, meandering through alley ways, dodging many motorcycles and slurping bowls of pho. The city is a web of concrete block building with streets filled with endless traffic. There was a settled city chaos to it. We decided to escape from the creeping frenzy for something more tranquil, we chose Can Tho.
Being the largest city sharing the Mekong Delta, life at Can Tho pretty much depended on the waterways. Long tail boats, sampans and large wooden vessels carrying bricks and sand traversed the river daily. Squatter houses built with wooden planks and aluminum sheets lined the sides of small canals. Little doors in their shacks opened to the Mekong river and women went about their daily chores; washing dishes, clothes and bathing their children. Little ones played and swam in the same river.
I began to wonder about sanitary and hygiene issues and about waste water disposal in the city. My questions didn’t linger on without an answer. To my surprise, I met a familiar face, Ms. Xuan Thu Vo who happened to be the general manager of the hotel we were staying at – Victoria Can Tho. We had met at ITB Asia’s Responsible Tourism event in 2011 where she gave a talk at one of the clinics.
Inspiring and unexpected finds
I soon learned that Victoria Can Tho is perhaps the only hotel within the Can Tho vicinity to have a proper waste water treatment facility. Sadly, most of the hotels peppered along the Mekong river discharges their waste water straight into the river. For Victoria Can Tho, they realized earlier on that it was essential for them to do their part in minimizing pollution to the already threatened waterway.
Yearly in September, the hotel organizes a fun-day out with activities focused on environment education and awareness. “Green Day” as they call it brings together students from the local tourism school, staff and guests for a river clean up. Hundreds of participants head out from the hotel in a convoy of 50 boats to clean 200km radius of the Mekong delta. During the clean up, the participants also engage with the local community and educate them about proper waste disposal methods. In 2011, between two to three tonnes of garbage were collected. Clearly there is much to be done.
Reaching and impacting communities
As we chatted on, it soon became clear that the hotel also had a heart for surrounding communities. Entrenched in the hard-to-forget history of the Vietnam War, the country, till today still suffers from it. For farmers, their fields remain barren from bomb ridden soil and for some the signs are extremely telling, in the form of disfigured limbs, deformed facial features and handicapped in many ways from the effects of Agent Orange, a highly hazardous compound of dioxin that infiltrated forests, farms and rivers during the war.
A special school in Can Tho called Future School was set up by the government to provide victims of Agent Orange a fair chance of education. The hotel funded the school in kind for five years amounting to USD1,200 per year. This included teaching materials, equipment and furniture. After 2009, the hotel continues to support the school via donations collected from guests.
The hotel also does a lot in preserving the culture and heritage of Can Tho. Daily tours are offered to guests to visit the Cai Rang floating market. Here locals buy their vegetable and fruits, haggling for better prices while their boats bobble on the water, pho sellers dish out steaming bowls of noodles and coffee makers whip up refreshing ice coffee for hungry shoppers and the occasional tourist. Cai Rang is also where the hotel buys most of its fresh produce from.
I also learned that there is little food waste from the hotel’s restaurant as they do a good job in keeping the buffet spread to a minimal selection with only the best offered to guests. This result in ‘clean sweeps’ in the buffet line and compliments from guests for the great food quality. Other times when there is excess, the hotel sends it to pig farms.
My chat with Ms. Xuan Thu Vo proved to be more than a good catch up. I headed back to my suite after that and found a little surprise awaiting me. On the table was a brown woven bag filled with hill rice, a colourful woven pouch with fragrant jasmine tea and a bottle of homemade mango jam. These were gifts from all over Can Tho, the woven bags are handmade by women from the Cham minority, the mango jam was a house specialty and the rice and tea were handpicked from local plantations.
What an incredible experience it was…
(Written by: Deborah Chan. Photos by: Terence Ooi)