Vietnam: My Experiences


vietnam-istock_000001893968medium1I first visited Viet Nam in 1994 as a new employee of ATA and then again leading Smithsonian Study Tours’ first tour to country the following year.  Since then, I’ve returned to graduate school, studied Vietnamese language, history and culture, and even started work on a doctoral dissertation examining border trade between China and Viet Nam.  In all that time, I’d never actually made it back to Viet Nam.  I’d come close – Cambodia, Thailand, even looked over into Vietnam from the Friendship Gate close to Pingxiang, China, but I hadn’t been able to make it back for nearly 14 years. 

Finally, in October, 2008, I was able to make the trip.  People who’ve traveled there a lot told me I wouldn’t recognize the place, and based on my experience in China, where I frequently visit, I was expecting a complete transformation.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  To be sure, there were changes – the ride from the airport into Hanoi at midnight was along an elevated highway, crowded at the time with motorcycles overflowing with flowers headed to the wholesale flower market.  14 years ago, the road to the airport was at places unpaved and meandered through villages and farms.  There are now skyscrapers in Hanoi, mixed in with the elegant old French colonial buildings.  But it’s still recognizable as Hanoi.  Unlike their counterparts in Beijing, the Vietnamese haven’t torn down the vast majority of their city and replaced it with a hodgepodge of oddly shaped, hyper-modern buildings, or row after row of identical apartment buildings.  The old quarter looks very much as it did when I first explored it:  chaotic and colorful.  There are more cars on the road, and many, many more motorcycles, but it still feels like Hanoi. 

The biggest change I noticed was in the people.  Part of what I loved about Viet Nam when I first visited was the people  — friendly, smiling, welcoming.  They’re still that way, thankfully, but now there’s a sense of optimism and confidence that I didn’t detect before.  People in their 20s and early 30s have grown up and come of age in a period of relative openness and unprecedented economic growth, and they seem to have the feeling that anything is possible.  In the early 1990s, there was a lot less certainty.  Doi Moi had just begun, and no one was sure what would happen.  They seemed tentative, wide-eyed toward the outside world.  No more.  At least in the places I visited – admittedly all very much on the beaten track – people were hip, connected, well-informed and cosmopolitan.  I, being none of those things, felt a little out of place!

14 years ago on my first trip to Viet Nam, I received no fewer than 3 proposals of marriage from young women (none of them serious, but then again they probably weren’t completely unserious) who foresaw that their lives in Viet Nam would be bleak; this year I received none.  I like to think that this is not (only) because I am old, fat and generally unattractive but rather because the Vietnamese themselves like where they are and where they are headed.

Chris Roper
Senior Program Manager

Academic Travel Abroad 

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Traveling and the unexpected…

thumbnailWe all count down the days until departing on an overseas trip to a new place we’ve never experienced before or even one which we dearly love.  The day arrives and the eager anticipation overwhelms us.  We meticulously plan out every day while we’re gone – right down to how many pairs of socks and what color tooth brush to bring.  Our bags are taken by the luggage clerk and we board the plane, now able to relax a little before all the excitement begins.  Everything’s accounted for, all is foreseen and planned to the “T.”  From this point, everything always go according to plan, right?

Well, not always.  Any number of minor inconveniences can throw a stick in our spokes such as a delayed flight or missed train.  Small headaches arise here and there, but we overcome. Now, consider something more severe.  Think of those who were traveling in China when the earthquake struck, or others who might have been caught exploring beautiful Tibet during the recent uprisings and riots, or even travelers falling ill mid-journey.

Academic Travel Abroad (ATA) is a well established tour operator which prides itself on its distinct ability to manage such situations while hosting travelers on their many worldwide tours.  ATA realizes that anything from delayed flights to mother nature to local political and social disturbances can occur at any time without warning and can immediately effect the tour itinerary or operation.  ATA staff are trained for these disturbances and quickly react in a way that can provide safety, comfort and a sense of normalcy regardless of the level of adjustments needed to the tour.  ATA has been in business for over fifty years and has encountered many such situations in the past and has refined their skills and abilities when addressing such issues while on tour.  The safety and satisfaction of our travelers is our primary concern at every step along each tour.

Although traveling on your own can render a sense of freedom while abroad, there are many reasons to consider traveling to new destination with a managed tour as they can provide resources and staff trained to handle everything from language barriers to medical needs and provide a real and tangible sense of security and enjoyment while abroad.

Safe travels!

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Educational Travel Abroad Professionals Bring Unique Experiences.

At Academic Travel Abroad, the term “travel professionals” only skims the surface of the overseas experience of our staff. Overall, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to over 99 different countries across the globe, spanning all seven continents. Our most-visited destination is France, with Italy running a close second. England, Germany, Greece and China are not far behind as some of the most frequented destinations. We’ve ventured to these far-away destinations for a multitude or reasons including business, studies, vacationing and places of periodic residence. The diverse travel experiences of our staff helps us ensure that the tours we offer are rewarding, culturally rich and travelers can have their questions answered by someone knowledgeable and experienced with respect to the destination.

Within the Travel Services Department, almost every member of our staff has studied abroad in a variety of countries including: England, Germany, Greece, India, Peru, and Spain. We also speak 3 languages: French, German and Spanish, which makes a walk through the office seem like a visit to the UN. This wealth of knowledge is put to good use as our department assists travelers in preparing for their chosen tours so that their experiences are that much more rewarding.

Hardly a day goes by without a staff member recounting a unique travel experience or having the opportunity to connect with a future traveler on the phone about a past or future adventure abroad. With so many of our staff having been to the countries that we travel to, there is almost always someone around to make a recommendation as to what to do, what to eat, and where to stay.

When these unique qualities and experience are matched with our valued partners like Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, Yale Alumni Association, American Museum of Natural History, the International Monetary Fund, the Brookings Institute and so many more, the educational and cultural travel experiences we offer are unmatched.

To learn more about our staff and read their individual bios, click here.

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Academic Travel Abroad On The Road This Fall!

This is a particularly busy fall for ATA staff! Many of us are traveling to far flung parts of the world to research new itineraries, touch base with key contacts, discover new special touches, and keep abreast of opportunities that will enhance our programs.

Although we conduct an extraordinary amount of research as arm chair travelers from Washington, sometimes there is no substitute for being there. Our investment of time and resources in staff travel makes an impact on the quality of tours we offer around the world.

Research Trips

President Kate Simpson will be heading to Morocco to put the finishing touches on our new itinerary. Senior Program Manager Michelle Korczynski will accompany Chairman David Parry to Ethiopia, a country with resurging interest among ATA’s clients. David is just back from hiking in the Italian Dolomites, where he tested the difficulty of the trails that are planned for next year’s Smithsonian Institution members.

Inspection Trips

Senior Program Managers Chris Roper and Janet Varn will be inspecting new luxury ships in Vietnam and Greece, respectively. We expect to showcase several of these new vessels in our 2010 tours.

Upcoming Conferences

Direct Marketing Manager Emilia Pawlowski and Smithsonian Service Center Manager Megan Pierce will be attending the National Tour Association’s annual convention in Pittsburgh. ATA is active in the NTA, a trade organization of thousands of tourism professionals involved in the growth and development of the packaged travel industry. They will delve into the convention’s “green” theme, bringing back ideas for conservation, both on tour and in our offices. Vice President Chase Poffenberger, Senior Program Manager Janet Varn and President Kate Simpson will attend the World Travel Market in London, a four-day global travel industry event that brings together worldwide buyers and sellers from every sector of the industry. Finally, Chairman David Parry will gather in Cairo with fellow members of the American Tourism Society, a destination marketing organization representing the Baltics, Central Europe, Russia and the Mediterranean, for ATS’ annual meeting.

And In Our Spare Time

Director of Business Development Larry Guillemette is retuning from Norway where he spent his vacation touring Oslo, Bergen and the lovely Norwegian fjords. And Michelle Korczynski will vacation in Columbia later this month and see how the country is living up to its new reputation as the next “up and coming” destination!

What destinations will you be exploring next? Tell us!

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Dispatches from the East: Episode #3

The sun has finally made an appearance on our second full day in Beijing.  Our local guide Debra, led us on a exciting morning excursion to investigate and explore contemporary Beijing.  We began with a visit to the city’s Urban Planning Exhibition Center where we were able to see a great series of architectural models of all the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic venues. 

Olympics fever has overtaken Beijing and our Study Leader, Dr. Elvira Hammond tells us that it has been this way for quite some time.  There is a huge countdown clock in Tiananmen Square, as well as in several other places.  There are “official Olympics stores” throughout Beijing, where you can buy just about anything with the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics logo printed on it.

 The Urban Planning Exhibition Center provided great context for understanding the meticulous planning that has gone into the Olympics, as well as providing an incredible overview of the master plan for the city of Beijing. 

It is tremendously interactive and the architectural models of the city include many parts of greater Beijing, not only the iconic places like the Forbidden City, but also for significant buildings throughout the city, as well as those Olympic venues which will certainly have reached the iconic stage in the weeks building up to 08-08-08, when the Summer Olympic Games begin.

 From the Urban Planning Exhibition Center, we walked just a few short blocks over to Tiananmen Square.  The space, which we were told is the largest public square in the world, was teeming with people on this bright sunny winter day.  Many people were in a swiftly-moving long queue to get into Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, where they were able to see the Chairman’s remains in a crystal casket. Other groups, including ours, stood around the square taking pictures of the building, their companions, children, and colleagues. 

A festive energy seemed to flow all about.  After hearing Debra describe the various buildings surrounding the square, we all wandered off to make the best of our 15 minutes of independent exploration.  A few of us headed to the “front” of the square where we could get the best views of the Forbidden City building across the street, where the Chairman’s photo hangs in it’s place of honor.  We encountered a barricade, which someone explained was there to allow for preparations for the ceremony to be held the next day to welcome the Olympic Flame to China for it’s five month journey throughout the country prior to being placed in the Olympic caldron at the Opening Ceremonies.

 Following our visit to Tiananmen Square we headed off to lunch, and on the way to the restaurant, we were able to get very close to many of the new Olympic venues.  All in the final stages of completion before the games, there appears to be no worry about anything being completed in time, as there was in Athens in 2004.  “The Nest,” which is the nickname that has been given to the new Olympic Stadium is even more awe-inspiring when you’re up close than it is in any of the photos that you might have scene in the press. 

We passed the “Water Cube,” which will be the home of the majority of the swimming and diving events, as well as the Olympic Village where the athletes will live, the hotel being devoted entirely to visiting press, the media center, and the venue which will host one of the favorite sports of any summer games — gymnastics.

 The afternoon found us joining “The Sistas,” for a lively tour of Factory 798 in the Dashanzi neighborhood, which is the home of Beijing’s ever-growing contemporary arts district.  The Sistas, are Megan and K.C. Connolly, two American young women who have lived in Beijing for sometime and who have developed quite a business of helping visitors navigate this amazing part of Beijing and they took us on a great tour of the most important hot beds of avant garde art, which included a wonderful visit to several artist’s studios and galleries.

Larry Guillemette

Director of Business Development