Nguyễn Việt Loan Foster returned to native Hà Nội after a long stay abroad and used her multicultural and entrepreneurial background to good effect. Now she has become the poster woman for luxury tourism that promotes deeper cultural experiences and understanding.
She was born in Hà Nội and lives in the capital city now, but Nguyễn Việt Loan did not grow up here.
She lived, studied and ran businesses in several European and Asian countries and territories including France, Italy, Germany, mainland China, Taipei and Hong Kong before returning to her native city.
In 1990, she set up the first business consultancy in Hà Nội, facilitating foreign investment and representing foreign investors in the early days, when the embargo still prevented US businesses from investing in Việt Nam.
Today, her name is almost immediately associated with luxury tourism in the country.
Her company, Journeys to the East DMC Ltd, came out of a 1995 assignment with famous hotelier Robert Burns, in which her job was to find locations for five-star hotels and resorts.
Going by what many eminent personalities have said about Loan’s venture, her success seems to lie in the fact that she has taken it beyond the traditional five-star concept to include a serious appreciation of the country’s art and culture.
This has earned her the moniker of a cultural ambassador.
Loan’s work in promoting local culture is exemplified by her own house, Villa la Residence, an amazing restoration of a 1910 French colonial villa. Adjacent to this house is a homestay she has opened called Villa la Rose, a blend of French and Vietnamese architecture with sophisticated interiors.
One feature of the Villa la Residence is the incorporation of reassembled and restored pieces of a Mandarin Ancestral Hall House that Loan is credited with rescuing from destruction.
The villa made the cover of international magazine Architectural Digest, which features the work of top architects and designers, in January 1998.
The homestay, meanwhile, is decorated with the best of Vietnamese art and craft products. It also displays cultural relics like 2000-year-old Đông Sơn drums, ceramic items, wine vessels as well as porcelain from the period of the Trần dynasty.
Loan said her company, Journeys to the East, launched in December 2014, is an effort to “steer away from the mass market and design unique travel experiences”.
Today’s discerning travellers are looking for high-end experimental travel that enables an in-depth exploration of the social and cultural fabric of a destination, she explained.
For instance, in the mountainous province of Hà Giang, if local accommodation is a bit rough, the company will help local hosts make it more comfortable via “personal touches” without losing its original character.
Through joining the daily activities of locals in the fields and markets, joining them in enjoying maize wine and traditional meals, the aim is to provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the culture and lives of the hosts, she said.
“We are also committed to engaging the local population and helping them preserve their culture and traditions. We interact with them to raise awareness of environmental protection and sustainable tourism,” Loan said.
She said that for her, luxury tourism has moved away from the hedonistic and the extravagant, to a slower-paced, more socially-aware experience.
You do not run from one destination to another, but relax and enjoy authentic local culture and cuisine, learning and experiencing a different way of life.
Tours are designed with a focus on social responsibility, simplicity and a back-to-nature concept, recognising that technology should be more about helping than complicating one’s life.
The idea is also to stress that service is the key to success and sustainability, Loan said.
Loan’s efforts have won her widespread recognition.
The Wall Street Journal has called her “one of Hà Nội’s most fashionable hostesses”, and the Vietnam Entrepreneur Magazine has referred to her as the “Ambassadress of Cultural Tourism”.
She has accompanied dignitaries including former first lady Hillary Clinton and former French president Jacques Chirac, and hosted celebrities like Sir Michael, Shakira Caine, movie star Brendan Fraser and entrepreneur Sir David Tang.
Pete Peterson, former US ambassador to Việt Nam, said he would highly recommend one of the special tours organised by Loan’s company for anyone wishing to experience the “WOW” factor in their travels.
“It is a truly unique cultural and culinary adventure led by a professional operator with an exceptional flair and sense of style,” he said.
Jill Lever, wife of the UK ambassador to Việt Nam, spoke of a cooking class she joined in Loan’s house last year.
“I had a superb morning and a delicious lunch. The conversation was very stimulating and I learned a lot from the market visit and the cooking class. Chef Hung’s Kung Fu demonstration was an unexpected delight and very special indeed.”
Last month, US ambassador Ted Osius presented Journeys to the East with the AMCHAM 2016 Corporate Social Responsibility Recognition Award for good governance and sustainable business practices.
Loan has just returned from a conference on luxury travel organised by the New York Times in Singapore. She was invited to host a lunch roundtable with the attendance of the food and travel editors of the New York Times on new trends in luxury tourism.
In a note of appreciation, Eva Nguyen Binh, counsellor on technical co-operation and cultural action at the French embassy in Hà Nội, wrote: “Your sense of hospitality and your good taste for everything that has to do with hospitality is to be underlined as it is also a great part of why people always come to you.” VNS