Tag Archives: Ho Chi Minh City

the IBIT Travel Digest 11.30.14

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

The IBIT Digest is back, just in time for the holidays. Just the thing to recover from the shopping hangover of Black Friday.

The Christmas holidays may be “the season to be jolly,” but when it comes to Christmas weather, especially in the Northeast, there’s an awful lot of “Bah! Humbug!”

Our biggest travel holiday time of the year just happens to coincide with the worst weather of the year, snowstorms and freezing temperatures that can cause flight cancellations en masse back East. That can trigger widespread travel delays and generalized chaos across the whole of North America.

Unless sleeping in airports is your idea of a good time, you need to be ready for this before you go.

Airfarewatchdog has some great trips on how to minimize the personal expense and discomfort you inevitably will suffer when winter attacks.

By the way, if you haven’t already bookmarked Airfarewatchdog, you definitely should. One of the most useful air travel Web sites out there.


JetBlue, which has already extended its international outreach by partnering with South African Airways, is now looking toward Asia with its codeshare agreement with Singapore Airlines.

But the agreement doesn’t just give the New York-based carrier entreé into Asia. It also enables JetBlue to link its US-based route system to some of the European destinations that the Asian airline serves.

In return, Singapore Airlines gets access to JetBlue’s extensive US route network.

For passengers, that means one-stop ticketing, easier check-ins and seamless connections between US, Asian and European destinations.

Singapore Air is considered by many to have the best in-flight service in the world, regardless of where you sit on the airplane. Of the 118 categories in which the British airline rating site Skytrax grades airlines, there’s only one — “Dine-on-Demand Efficiency” — in which Singapore Air receives less than four or five stars out of five. It is one of only seven airlines in the world to win a 5-star rating from Skytrax.

JetBlue likewise has built a reputation as perhaps the most comfortable and passenger-friendly of the low-fare US air carrier. It is one of only two US-based airlines to win a 4-star rating from Skytrax (the other being Virgin America), the highest rating received by any US airline.


Think that climate change has nothing to do with you as a traveler? You might want to rethink that once you hear from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

According to Travel Weekly, the UCS has issued a report citing a direct threat to 30 different landmark site in the United States stemming from climate change. Among the sites under threat:

  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Ellis Island
  • The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland
  • The NASA Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral National Seashore in Florida
  • Multiple historic sites in Boston

Some US coastal landmarks and monuments will need new sea walls or other coastal protections built, in the view of one of the report’s authors. Others may need to be picked up and moved away from the shoreline to survive.


According to multiple media reports, Celebrity Cruises abruptly crossed Bali off its list of port calls in late November, citing a dispute with local Indonesian authorities that could have led to passengers being barred from going ashore or the ship blocked from leaving port.

Celebrity Millennium, sailing out of Singapore on a 14-night cruise, had been scheduled to visit Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. She was redirected to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and improvised an extended stay in Phuket, Thailand, as well as a visit to Bangkok.

Passengers who has bought shore excursion in Bali and Komodo are being compensated with shipboard credits and a 30 percent discount on a future cruise.

Celebrity isn’t going into detail on the nature of the dispute, saying only that it put the company’s “legal and ethical standards at serious risk.” The Indonesians, for their part, aren’t saying anything.

This bit of ugliness comes at a time when, according to TravelPulse, Indonesian tourism seems to be booming.


And now, here’s The Digest:


from The Daily Mail (London, UK)
When it comes to air travel and your health, jet lag isn’t your only concern.

from USA Today
Brazilian airline Azul, founded by the same guy who created JetBlue, now flying from Brazil to the United States.

from Travel Weekly
Merry Christmas, Seattle: starting Dec. 20, Delta begins flying directly from SEA to Maui. No more having to fly into Honolulu and then change planes. Wanna get away…from the rain?


from Travel Weekly
For families looking for a kid-friendly Hawaiian resort where they can spend next spring or summer, here’s a bit of good news: at least 11 resorts on five islands and ramping up their on-site activities designed to keep the little ones amused and engaged.


from Travel Weekly
The good news for cruise ship travelers: Cruise lines are increasingly embracing the idea of overnight port stays, going against the grain of the trend in the last decade to turn mega-sized cruise ships into destinations in their own right. The bad news: So far, it’s mainly the upscale cruise lines that are doing it.

from Travel Weekly
Princess Cruises sells one of its smaller ships, the Ocean Princess, to luxury cruise line Oceania, which will refurbish her in France next year and relaunch her as Sirena in 2016. This will be the vessel’s third owner in 15 years.

from Travel Weekly
When Holland America Line puts her new cruise ship Koningsdam into service in 2016, she won’t just be Holland America’s largest ship but also the company’s first vessel — and one of the few anywhere — to offer oceanview cabins expressly designed for single travelers.

from Travel Weekly
American Cruise Lines launches a 22-day cruise the entire length of the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to St. Paul, MN, aboard its new replica paddlewheel steamer American Eagle. Ten states, 17 stops, 150 passengers. A mere $12550 per person.


from the Toronto Sun
In some quarters, at least, it seems that mezcal is now more a more hip drink among the bar set than tequila. Didn’t see that one coming.



from the New York Times
Addis Ababa is a) the capital of Ethiopia b) the seat of an ancient and vibrant East African culture c) Ground Zero for a burgeoning new jazz scene d) all the above. The correct answer is…d.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Good news from Tanzania: International outcry prompts the nation’s president to promise the Maasai they will not be evicted from their lands for a private hunting reserve. The Maasai are delighted. IBIT is skeptical, because we’ve heard that promise before. But for now, it’s all good.


from the New York Times
A road trip along the border that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic lays bare a tense and sometimes turbulent relationship between the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola, as well as hope for a better future.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Montevideo is unspoiled, un-touristy and probably unlike any other national capital you’ve ever seen. When folks here say they move to the beat of their own drum, they have the beat — and the drums — to prove it.


from the New York Times
New Zealand — it’s not just for hikers and backpackers anymore. A bike tour through the NZ wine country.


from The Guardian (London UK)
Christmas in Europe. Tips for enjoying the holidays in four great European capitals.

from BuzzFeed
A Christmas list for your bucket list — 39 European Christmas markets worth a visit.

from the New York Times
How to enjoy Italy’s compact, historic and lovely Cinque Terre coastal mountain towns on a molehill budget.

from the New York Times
Stalking bargains in a Paris flea market.

from The Guardian (London UK)
File this one under Go Figure: One of Spain’s soccer superstars lists his family vineyard on…wait for it…Airbnb.

Spotted something you’d like to see in the next IBIT Travel Digest? Send me a message using the handy form below:



A roundup of the good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

Pacific sunset
Sunset from San Clemente, taken from the Amtrak Surfliner | ©IBIT G. Gross

Travel writers love making lists. We all do it. And so does the New York Times.

They’ve published a list of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012.”

At the top of their list is a place near the top of mine, Panama. Vibrant, a growing economy, small enough to explore, and a mix of indigenous, Latin and African cultures.

It’s an extremely eclectic list. It must be if it includes Myanmar and Oakland, CA in its top ten. And that’s just part of what I love about it.

Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has his own list of places to go if you want a better understanding of the rapidly changing world we face. Top of his list, India and China.

He especially recommends breaking away from the big cities like Beijing and Mumbai and getting out into the countryside in both those countries. Good advice, but tough to do when you have only a handful of days “in-country.”

Your best bet is to do some research, decide what interests you the most, and focus on that.

London’s daily Telegraph is reporting that one of China’s four main airlines, China Eastern, has just trained 20 of its flight attendants in kung fu. The company considers the pilot project so successful that they will now train up all 2,600 of their attendants.

The idea, apparently, is to enable them to act as the first line of defense against an on-board terrorist attack, and give the air marshals (who are on every Chinese flight) extra seconds to intervene.

You can read the entire Daily Telegraph story here.

Don’t be surprised if the other three major Chinese air carriers — Air China, China Southern and Hainan Airlines — adopt similar measures.

For years, Los Angeles traditionally has hosted a major travel show each winter bringing together tour companies and travel experts with would-be travelers. This year, there will be two.

The Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show, which had been held for the last couple of years at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is moving back to Long Beach, where it had been held in years past. That one’s scheduled for this weekend.

Then there’s the Los Angeles Times Travel Show, which will be held at the LA Convention Center Jan. 28-29.

Confused yet?

The Times, after several years of co-sponsoring the other travel show, decided to break off and do its own thing.

Each will have its share of high-powered presenters with the likes of Andrew Zimmern, Samantha Brown, and Rick Steves. But my two favorites are always the man I call the Godfather of Travel, Arthur Frommer, and his daughter, Pauline, herself an accomplished travel writer.

This is the kind of overload I like!

Believe it or not, one of my favorite travel activities is to watch television. You can learn a lot.

One of the things you learn is that there’s a lot of great stuff being aired around the world that will never make its way to the States. Another is that network news elsewhere in the world is not the joke it has become here.

While in Paris, I was able to compare CNN, the BBC, France 24 and Al Jazeera during their coverage of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Al Jazeera blew them all away — thorough, professional, level-headed, fresh.

What made me think of this today is word that a six-part mini-series is in the works about the life of Nelson Mandela, an international production to be shot in South Africa. It’s to be called “Mandiba.”

You can pick up more details about the series from The Guardian story here.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:


from We Blog the World
Here’s a thought: Instead of donating money to charity, why not donate some of your frequent flier miles? Yes, you can do that.

from Eurotriptips
Some tips for avoiding add-on fees on low-cost European airlines.

from Budget Travel​
Another day, another fee. Airlines are adding a $6 fee to cover a “carbon fee” imposed by the European Union. Still, considering what US airlines charge to check a suitcase, it’s hard for me to get too upset.

from the New York Times
Another list from the Times, this one of useful Web sites for saving money on flights, lodging and a whole lot else. Many of them are the “usual suspects,” but you’ll find a few new names, as well.

from USA Today
Before we write off airport security as a total joke, TSA screeners say they’re finding an average of four guns a day at US airports. Say WHAT?

from Pushing the Limits
His name is Andy Campbell. He’s paralyzed. And he’s out to travel 30,000 miles around the world…in a wheelchair. What was your excuse again?

from Smarter Travel
The ST crew gives you their outlook for cruise travel in 2012. The good: new ships, refurbished ships, a big year for river cruising. The bad: smaller cabins and more add-on fees.

from USA Today
The comeback continues. Cruise ship sailings are breaking marks set prior to Hurricane Katrina.

from Travel Weekly
After three years’ absence, Royal Caribbean resumes cruising the Panama Canal.

from USA Today
Have you heard of or seen a “5-D” movie? The next new Carnival cruise ship will boast a 5-D movie theater.



from the East African Business Week (Uganda)
Hundreds of elephants and other wild animals are stampeding out of Uganda’s largest wildlife reserve and into inhabited areas, trashing farmers’ crops and generally raising hell. The suspected culprit: oil exploration inside the park.

from the Citizen (Tanzania)
Tanzanian tourism officials crow after their country cracks the top ten of the NY Times’ list of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012,” and look to build on that momentum.

from the Herald (Zimbabwe)
Tourism minister rails against “shylocks” whom he says charge exorbitant prices at the country’s tourist resorts, inhibiting tourism growth in the country. ​


from USA Today
If you live within easy travel distance of a US national park, the upcoming Martin Luther King holiday weekend would be a good time for a visit. Admissions are free.


from the Los Angeles Times
Turning ice into art in the Chinese city of Harbin. SLIDESHOW

from the Quirky Traveller
Hanoi is emerging from the shadow of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) as a tourist destination.

from the Telegraph (London UK)
A massive snowfall in Austria strands thousands of skiers. ​

from CNN
North Korea. Rogue state…cult of personality…tourist destination? Really?


from msnbc
Cheapest European cities to hit in 2012.

from Budget Travel
How to fly around Europe for ridiculously small amounts of money. One key advantage, low-fare airlines. Another, smaller airports. The tradeoff, a longer cab, bus or train ride to your destination.

from the Guardian (London UK)
Brussels may not get as much respect as Paris when it comes to cuisine, but these folks know how to throw a food festival. For one thing, theirs lasts most of the year. Turn a tram into a resto? A dining room suspended from a crane? Top that, Monsieur Michelin!

Edited by P.A. Rice


TRACY GROSS: Vietnam on Two Wheels, Part 2

The lowdown on the Highlands

boat guide

By far, this was the most grueling part of my trip, emotionally and ride-wise.

In Dalat, I was rushed by groups of Asian tourists wanting to take my picture, pull my hair and take pieces of it as souvenirs. Tour buses tried to get me to pull over to be ogled and pinched.

What I thought would be a relaxing massage turned into a staff lesson on Black anatomy — including parading around my bra and poking at my breasts and the color variations across my body. At the tribal markets, women continually felt me up, thinking I was pregnant and possibly lactating.

This area had the largest concentration of indigenous or hill peoples. The Highland minorities were collectively referred to as “Montagnards” (French for “mountain people”) or nguoi thoung, Vietnamese for “Highland citizen.”

And like minorities around the world, they have been poorly treated by the majority.

The government has been “Vietnamizing” the country cultures. A major thorn in the side of this was the guerrilla organization FURLO ( Front Unifee de Lutte de Races Opprimees) or the Unified Front For The Struggle of the Oppressed Races. Their existence is not officially acknowledged by the government. At best, they were relegated to embarrassing blurbs in foreign-printed guidebooks that the government couldn’t censor.

In many instances, special permits were required to enter indigenous zones. We were ordered not to photograph or interact with any of the tribespeople. Requests for further explanation were politely rebuffed: “It is forbidden…please to not.”

We also were told that the secret police were following us, which we doubted — until we got an escort out of town, with sirens.

Leaving Dalat, covered 300 kilometers in one day. Crossing the former DMZ, we bypassed to arrive in Hoi An.

When we arrived in northern Vietnam, we received a new guide, Loi.

Loi pointed out that my riding partner and I were a lucky omen. Murray Small and Tracy Gross — quite literally small and big, black and white, male and female. Yin and Yang on wheels.

Our reward for riding long and hard was a much needed three-day break in a five-star hotel and the ultimate in shopping opportunities. In addition to its natural beauty and status as a UNESCO Heritage Site, Hoi An is an artisan town, is filled with galleries featuring traditional lacquer, ceramics and wood-working, as well as silk embroidery paintings.

But the biggest draw was the hub of tailors. As in Hong Kong, designer wardrobes can be reproduced at a fraction of the cost and time to buy retail. Cobblers recreate designer shoes while you wait.

From Hoi An, we side-tripped to the village of Buon Ma Thout. We visited a traditional Edi tribe longhouse for a cultural performance. After the restrictions we experienced earlier, I was afraid that it would be a bit depressing, like American Indian reservations or Aboriginal Designated Territories, but it was surprisingly sincere and truly welcoming.

Next, we ventured to the top most mountain town of Sapa.

At the time, Sapa was full because there was a four-day celoebration of two national holidays, Reunification Day and Liberation Day. We hiked Vietnam’s tallest peak, Fabsapian Mountain, to reach the Hmong Lau Chai village. There, we encountered the Red Hmong, Black Hmong and the Flower Hmong peoples.

The Hmong are a darker people and the women wear elaborate head dresses, so I didn’t faze them at all. They just figured that my braids were how my people traditionally wear their hair. In the midst of sales pitches, I was presented with offers to trade goods for showing them how to cornrow.

Some of them thought I was a hill person from Dalat!

From Sapa, we rode to Lo Cai to board a train onto Hanoi.

Lo Cai was quite literally an Asian version of Tijuana. It is the regional train hub and a border crossing point into China. Our train was part of the “Reunification Express”. Historically known as the Transindochinois, these tracks ran directly from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

Vietnamese railcars comes in four classes: There is a hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper category. Also known as first-first class, first-second class, second-second class and third-second class. First-first class is a soft sleeper with air conditioning.

If you are ever in Vietnam and take the train, go first-first.


We spent one night in Hue and then re-boarded the train to Hanoi the next afternoon.

Hue was the Vietnamese imperial capital. The last bastion of the Nguyen dynasty, Hue housed tombs of the emperors and the famed Citadel on the Pearl River. The tombs and pagodas dedicated to the old royal family took a particular beating from both the Vietnamese and the Americans during the war. Rescued from decay, Hue was declared a World Heritage Site in 1993.

Outside the city we found marble rock formations known uniformly as Marble Mountain. We climbed what felt like a million steps carved into the white and pink marble mountainside. At first, there was a series of Buddhist temples and mountain-to beach-lookouts. Then we worked through a row of Indiana Jones-style cave entrances and climbed into the mountain’s belly.

Concealed in the rock outcrops were the most spectacular Buddhas.

From the ceiling, natural chimney shafts allowed in streaming sun rays from outside the caverns that any Hollywood director of photography would have killed to re-create. Apparently these caves served as a secret Viet Cong hospital during the war. There were no official guides or markings. The only indicator that the caves were open to tour was a small booth next to an active quarry.

At the entrance was where local children and elderly women sold trinkets. As it is illegal for them to take payment for leading you on the pathways, they circumvent this by selling you a marble carving or stone piece.

For my “non guided” tour, I was adopted by a tiny old lady. Barley five feet tall with teeth reddened from chewing betel nuts, she took us deeper and deeper into the caverns until we reached a beautiful pink marble reclining Buddha. Still further, hidden behind the first Buddha, she revealed there was another incarnation of the Buddha. This one is solid white marble and nearly forty feet tall- The resplendent enlightened standing Buddha.

In pidgin English, she recalled her early childhood, her teenage years marked by the war erupting around her and her constant struggle to survive. She told us how she had been befriended by American soldiers, who gave her food and offered to take her to the United States. She then sold me some incense and showed me how to make an offering.

As we prayed our mantras, she smiled at me. Her eyes twinkling in the low light, she reached over and patted my arm in a grandmotherly fashion. Perhaps remembering her encounters with Black GI’s she said to me, ” You soul sister. Black too. We same-same, but different”

Images by T. Gross and M. Small. all rights reserved.