Is it with puzzlement or a bit of envy that we look at ex-pats? Actually, there isn’t much difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant, except that oftentimes, an immigrant arrives to a designated country by design rather than by choice. In our travels over the last few years, I had met them from all corners of the globe: they had intended to just come on vacation, or had been assigned a short tour of duty or some such thing. Here in Hanoi, and subsequently in Ha Long, I had the pleasure of interviewing two gentlemen, on separate occasions, both of West European origin, who willfully settled in Vietnam. In an attempt to draft you with the magic of Vietnam, I am transcribing the two dialogues below.
My first queries were directed at Kurt Walter, General Manager of both the Hanoi Press Club and Emeraude Cruises, during a most pleasant lunch we shared at the Restaurant on the premises of the Press Club. He is a fairly young, handsome and dynamic chap who is married, for the second time, to a native Vietnamese.
I: How long have you been here?
KW: It’s about eleven years now; this is the right time to be in Vietnam. I don’t want to hop around anymore.
I: Why the right time now?
KW: Tourism is expected to double in the next two years; this is home to me now. Hanoi is the "real" Vietnam", whereas Saigon has been too westernized, first by the French, then by the Americans.
I: So you prefer Hanoi
KW: It’s very crowded as you have seen; also, now people are buying more cars. It costs about US$8,000 to purchase a small Daewoo.
I: What did you do before joining the Press Club?
KW: I was Food & Beverage Manager from 1994 to 1996 at the Saigon Floating Hotel
(Ed note: Saigon Floating Hotel was a barge that had been towed all the way from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the banks of the muddy Saigon River)
I: We were frankly a bit concerned at first about coming to Vietnam, with a bit of a scare regarding the avian flu epidemic.
KW: The US blows everything out of proportion….(pause)
I: How do you recruit non-managerial staff at the Press Club and Emeraude?
KW: We are involved with an organization called KOTO , which essentially helps underprivileged kids so that they may be intergrated into meaningful jobs in luxury hotels, for instance.
I: Who comes here for lunch? Or dinner?
KW: Everyone can come here anytime; we are now having a special springtime in Paris at the Restaurant right here; downstairs is mostly deli food. Our Chef was at the Hilton for sixteen years. He and I collaborated on a book called "The Food of Vietnam", providing financing and the photography.
KW: Last year, the Press Club won the prize for "Best International Restaurant" in Hanoi. We appeared in the Vietnam Investment Review. We have offices which are available for rent for businesses; we hold banquets, do catering, have party events.
I: Who owns the Press Club?
KW: Two French brothers own the Club; it was also designed by a French woman, and I don’t remember her name at the moment. In 1910, the original steamer that cruised Ha Long Bay was built by the French. We are inviting people to publicize our activities.
I: Did you attend the recent New York Times Travel Show in early March?
KW: No, I was not aware of this show. Please do send me the information about it.
I: How has the "doi moi" policy changed Vietnam in your opinion?
KW: Well, first of all, there are many more landowners than are reported; capitalists are everywhere, but they still represent a small percentage of the populace. But more people are coming to Viet Nam than ever before.
I: Tell me what sorts of people take the "Emeraude Cruise"?
KW: Predominantly French people; middle-aged and retired. And Australians. We go out no matter how many people are booked for the cruise, except when we prepare the boat for dry dock. We have 39 cabins and can accommodate 78 people.
I: Do you think people are discouraged because of the visa restrictions coming into Vietnam?
KW: Well, I don’t find it very easy, nor are U.S. customs very friendly to me when I come to the U.S. At least here, they are friendly. It has become such a hassle to come to the States.
The next day, aboard the Emeraude, I met Captain Dominique Malet. He was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his time before we left the shore. To facilitate dialogue, I spoke to Dominique in French
I: How long have you been here?
DM: 30 days; I got the job through the Internet.
DM: I’d like to introduce you to the real captain of this ship, Captain Tuan Long. ( TL and I shake hands; I learn that in order to obtain official registry for the ship, you must have a native captain on board.)
I: What is the greatest depth at Ha Long Bay?
DM: About 30 meters.
I: The music is so 1920’s, isn’t it?
DM: It’s done on purpose.
I: Is your family here with you?
DM: no, they are still in Lyon, but they’ll be joining me soon.
(We continued this the next day, as it was time to depart.)
I: Dominique, this cruise is too short
DM: they are planning to have yet another cruise that will do Hanoi, Nah Trang and Ho Chi Minh City.
I: I can’t wait that long, Dominique, seriously.
DM: No, no, no, this could happen as early as 2006, but it will require a different type of vessel, of course.
I: Of course.
I: Do you miss Lyon?
DM: Oh, no! This is a dream--imagine, at my age, being able to do this! Great weather, great food, great job. Oh, no!
Folks, mark your calendars!