Posts Tagged ‘vacation’

The two most common businesses that you see all over Vietnam, are Karaoke Bars and Massage Spas. At the rate both of these services seem to be in demand, you’d imagine someone getting a spa on the one side, and at the same time, singing away on a Karaoke Mic. If such a combo offering is not yet on offer, that could be one big business opportunity in Vietnam!

That apart, Vietnam has a lot of similarities with India.

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I presume at many levels, the two countries are similarly placed economically, at least where an average citizen is concerned. With a larger scale and size, and perhaps a longer run at private enterprise, and English language advantage, India is a bigger economy overall, but to the common man, Vietnam and India, could seem very alike.

Emerging economies, offering a lot of opportunities for its respective citizens, industrious people, working to make a decent life for themselves.

Language though, is a big challenge in Vietnam. Most people on the road – from taxi drivers to hotel staff to the average worker – don’t get English well. Or at all. There are many who do. Our counterparts at Mirum Vietnam office, don’t believe that language is much of an issue. But for a tourist, it can be a bit of a pain.

Of course, due to that reason, Vietnam may not be able to compete in the BPO world for English speaking projects, in the near future.

As I had reason to drive around a fair bit (well, “driven around” strictly speaking), I got a chance to see some countryside parts of Vietnam. I took a 3-hour long drive from Ho Chi Minh, an hour long drive from Da Nang, and a 4-hour long trip from HaNoi.

In almost all of these drives, I could barely find barren land. One small town (village?) led to the next. Almost.

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And the characteristic with all these small towns / villages was that the people there all seemed to be reasonably settled. Unlike in India, where often, as you leave the cities and go to the interiors, you see a shade of poverty, that was not the case here in Vietnam. There were proper houses, sometimes large ones, there were many small stores, with proper rolling shutters in most cases.

What seemed strange was that a lot of these stores were closed. In any case, there weren’t a lot of customers to be seen anywhere. Or in fact, there weren’t a lot of people to be seen. So that, in fact, was one of the bigger differences between Indian and Vietnam. All else remaining same, the people were a lot lesser. Both, in the cities, and in these smaller towns.

So we saw these small towns, with good homes, lot of stores, but with a lot of shutters down, and very few people on the roads or at stores.

I would believe that besides Karaoke Bars and Massage Spas, two other areas where Vietnam may be highly over-indexed (per capita usage wise) are two-wheelers and plastic tables and chairs.

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For a population of around 90 mn, I understand that Vietnam could be having as many as 40 mn two-wheelers. I wonder if these are to the benefit of Indian giants like Hero and Bajaj? Whoever it is that benefits, what we see on streets of all cities, like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, etc. as well as the smaller towns, are the large number of these zipping around. However, they are much more disciplined in their driving compared to what we see in India. And pretty much, every one wears a helmet. Though the helmet is not the astronaut kind covering the entire head and face, but in fact, just a half-helmet, covering the head. But I can’t remember seeing any two-wheeler rider without one!

And then comes a phenomenon that would certainly please Neelkamal Plastics, if it was a supplier here.

There’s lots and lots of street food, and then there are an extremely large number of simple food joints that could accommodate say, anywhere from 20 to 100 people at a time. Almost ALL of these have simple plastic chairs and tables. Even the street food vendors will have tiny plastic chairs or stools, and you are expected to sit on these and have a bite, unlike in India, where you stand across the bhel-wala and have your sev puri and such!

And then there’s the crazy currency! Well, crazy for a foreigner!

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Vietnamese currency VND’s rate is VND 100,000 to INR 300. So you change say, USD 100 and you could end up having upwards of VND 2 million in change! Which: a) will last you a while, and b) are a handful to carry around and figure the notes, and the change and what not.

So a water bottle could cost VND 20,000 or a glass of sugar cane juice could cost VND 10,000 or a shirt could cost a whopping VND 350,000 and you’re never sure without constantly calculating, as to whether it’s a fair price or not! Didn’t need to practice my Sudoku, as I got plenty of math exercises just figuring the money!

With all these, the one reason you’d visit Vietnam is of course, the amazing natural beauty. From a sea to a river to lakes to wonderful mountains. You get it all. And everything is pristine. There is a fair amount of tourism professionalized, so you get good hotels and food and transport. And yet, the currency factor ensures that you get a good vacation that does not necessarily drills out a deep hole in your pocket!

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We flew out of Christchurch and into Sydney. The flight from Sydney to Singapore has a morning time, so the only way we could come back from Christchurch was on the previous day, and then stay over in Sydney for a day.

Which is what we had to do.

In fact, as per plan, we were to go and see the England-Australia test match that was going on at that time, and that one day that we were in Sydney, was the fourth day of the test match. We had taken advance tickets for the same too.

Except that Australia decided to win the test match in only 3 days, and there was NO play on the 4th day. So our tickets went for a refund, but we had not planned anything else to do in Sydney.

We went off to the harbour, and did some stuff there, before heading back to the hotel, as it was extremely hot out there, in Sydney.

Some photos from this one day at Sydney, on our way back:

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Post Sydney, we headed to Singapore, where we chose to take a short 3 days break, before returning back to Mumbai.

Singapore is a modern and efficient city, with new things coming up all the time.

Check pictures of our 3 days at Singapore..

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With the Singapore leg ended our fabulous vacation of Dec 2013-Jan 2014.

And we headed back home to Mumbai, and back to routine.. 🙂

How did the idea come? 

2013 was a big year in life. I completed 50 years in October, and 25 years of marriage in December.

The significance of the year had been on my mind for a while, and one of the things I wanted to do, was to take a good vacation, and celebrate the dual events in life.

I looked at options like Scotland, other parts of Europe, the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, and Australia-New Zealand. I was to travel in December, that was for sure. The key thing that worked out in favour of the Southern Hemisphere destinations was the fact that in December, Southern Hemisphere would enjoy longer days, and in fact, destinations like Canadian Rockies would see really short days! That was a clincher of a reason, and so it was to be – Australia and New Zealand were decided.

I planned a good, overall, month-long trip, with the first half being in Australia, across various interesting spots, and then New Zealand.

Unfortunately, due to some developments at work, I was not able to get out as planned, and had to push my departure date. And this was AFTER all tickets had been booked and plans were in place. At that late stage, it was impossible to reschedule everything and keep the original itinerary, and that ended up converting the one-month Aus-NZ vacation to a 17-day NZ-only vacation.

And that is how the trip came about happening..

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Preparing for New Zealand

There are popular destinations where several of one’s friends have travelled, or one knows many people residing there, and can take tips. New Zealand was not quite like that.

Few friends had visited (and I certainly got tips from them) but otherwise, it was left for me to do my own research, on the web. Combined with tips from a few friends and the web research, I was able to identify a decent itinerary for NZ.

This covered landing into Auckland, and driving from there in North Island, across various intermediate places, and down up to Christchurch in South Island, from where we’d fly back.

mapWhile one can use road and air to go across the country in New Zealand, one of the popular ways to see the country, is by road. The reason being that, there are several interesting locations right across the length of the country, and one can plan for a schedule that goes from one place to the next, by road, and thereby cover the entire country well. Moreover, driving on New Zealand roads is easy, for an Indian driver, and it is almost a pleasure to do a self-drive tour of New Zealand. So that is what we decided to do.

Then there were decisions related to travelling into NZ and out of it, the car rental within NZ, and where to stay in each place, etc.

In terms of air travel, my tickets were already booked into Australia, as per the original itinerary, and also combined with the fact that there are better connections to Sydney or Melbourne, than to NZ cities, I stuck to the same entry point. We had chosen to fly Qantas, via Singapore, where in fact, the Mumbai-Singapore sector was on Jet Airways, on a Qantas code-share.

So now had to figure out best option to get from Sydney to Auckland, and then from Christchurch back to Sydney.

Online research showed up several options including Qantas, Virgin Australia, JetStar, Tiger Air and Air NZ. Online research was necessary to find the best deals and we zeroed in on JetStar finally, as the airline of choice, to go from Sydney to Auckland, and then from Christchurch back to Sydney.

As for the car rental options within New Zealand, again, it was a matter of online research. I found Apex Car Rentals to have good options, easy to find the details that one needed, and also prompt and clear in responding to email queries. After making the original booking with them, I needed to make changes on 3 occasions, and all of those were smoothly done, with no friction at all. It was a pleasure to work with a service provider of this kind.

278With Apex Car Rentals, one needs to choose the vehicle, the plan, add accessories, the dates, the pick up and drop off point, whether one is taking the car across from North to South Island (on ferry), and give your credit card details. The card is not charged at time of booking, but only when you actually rent the car, after reaching the pick up point.

What I would recommend specifically, in regards to car rental, is to pick the right size of the vehicle. If you are doing (like we were), say 15+ days of travel, in the car, you would also be carrying bags to cover that kind of travel. Ensure that there is enough space in the trunk to accommodate your luggage, and then there is enough space to be comfortable, for all of the travellers. Also ensure that it is a vehicle that you can manage to drive. While a motor home / camper vehicle may seem interesting to use, you need to be sure that you can manage to drive a heavier vehicle. Also in that case, you’d ideally like to have multiple drivers in your group, so a driver does not get stressed out. Finally, if you are thinking in terms of a camper, you must recognise the need to look for, and park at specific camper locations, where you can refill your water and other supplies, and also clear your bathrooms, etc. That does take a little extra toll, and you also lose the flexibility that a simple car provides you. So weigh those pros and cons before deciding on a camper vehicle vs a car.

What I also cannot overemphasise is the need for the GPS unit, in the car. This is offered as an optional additional accessory. It is definitely worth the money to ask for that one, and get it. As one drives around New Zealand, at close to 100 kmph, there is no way that a navigator sitting next to you, with printed maps, can cope up with the turns and the bypasses. A GPS unit, giving voice instructions and of course, a moving map, is definitely the answer. I may also add that at various places, where we drove, the cellular signal was often not there, but the GPS still functioned. So any thought of using Google Maps on your iPad instead of the GPS unit, is not such a smart idea, please note!

Anniversary and New Zealand 024We were just the four of us, and I was likely to be driving for most, if not all the time, and we opted for a simple sedan. While I had estimated trunk size to be sufficient, when I booked, by the time we reached there, and our bags were finalised, the trunk was very tight, and needed some creativity to put all luggage in there. But we managed!

Coming back to the car rental company and choice, once in New Zealand, besides cars of Apex Rental, we also spotted a lot of vehicles of Jucy Car Rental service, which must then be, one of the other very popular service providers. We did see the popular global brands like Hertz and Thrifty, but they were very few in comparison with Apex and Jucy.

Once you have your broad dates frozen, and broad itinerary done, you want to figure out the hotels at the various places. In most cases, one just needed a place to spend a night at, as one would be out and seeing the place, most of the day. And yet, you do need a good bed to lie down at, a clean room, good bathroom, and hopefully, free Wi-fi. Additionally, as vegetarian Indians carrying some food items as backup supplies (to restaurants, etc.), if you get a kitchenette with your room, it is a good bonus.

Motels work well, in such cases. Also as one travels from one small place to the next in NZ, motels are indeed, the most likely place where you will stay. And several of these motels offer kitchenettes too.

New Zealand is not cheap, one must appreciate. If you compare with the US, you would find all costs, like car rentals, air fares and hotels, to be little more expensive, for the same quality. That may primarily be because there are fewer people and a lesser business, from which people still need to make a living. So the per capita spends go up, to cover that!

That overall fact being accepted and recognised, as you look for hotel options, you can find a wide range of places and prices. That’s when you dig in to see what really works for you. You want to be sure the location is not too far off. You want to see some pictures so you know the real feel, beyond just words of description. And perhaps, you want to see some reviews. Perhaps. Once those are taken care of, you look at the best price.

Enquiries of this kind can be done on a whole host of sites. And they are not too different from each other. So you need to find one which gives you comfort. For me, that turned out to be hotels.com.

hotelsdotcomEasy to find places, terms well laid out, searching options was easy, and in most cases, either I did not need to prepay, or full-refund cancellations were possible, till almost the last day. Then there were advantages like getting one free night for every 10 nights booked, etc. So with all that, did all of my bookings via hotels.com. And since my program went through a few changes, it helped to have that flexibility of easy cancellations.

One thing to watch out for, while looking for hotels, is to see specifically, that the room has its own private bathroom. Several cheaper options may look good in all other respects, but you might have not realised, and they may actually NOT have a private bathroom for the room. Unless you are comfortable to go and use a common bathroom in the corridors, also frequented by others who are staying at the hotel, you would want to have a private bathroom in your hotel room. So ensure that you look for the clear mention of this, as you search for your perfect hotel room!

We were four of us, and it helped to look for and find, a room for four pax. That was definitely cheaper than 2 rooms for 2 pax. I did not find those options everywhere, but wherever I did, it was useful to get the price benefit. Plus, when we used those kinds of rooms, in most cases, they were extremely nice and roomy, with a few of them, even being large suites, in fact! Across the country, the average cost per room that I got was about NZ$150 per night, but that included a huge skew to a very expensive rate, on Dec 31st and 1st Jan, when we were in Fox Glacier and Queenstown areas.

A few other things to keep in mind while planning the trip:

1. The Indian driving license works just fine, to rent cars in New Zealand. Although, I took the effort to get an international driving permit, it was not even found to be necessary, as they did not ask for it. Make sure you carry your Indian license with you, if you intend to drive in NZ.

2. The visa takes a few days to come, and demands a fair amount of paperwork. Budget for the time to get it, if you are planning a trip.

With all this preparation, we were set for New Zealand and couldn’t wait to get there.. !

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I have been an owner of a Sterling Holidays Timeshare vacation plan, since about 1996-97. I have also opted for the RCI extension that comes with such timeshares, and have used the RCI membership for many a holiday, both in India as well as outside India, over these years.

For a long while in between, Sterling Holidays was in deep financial trouble, and I was wondering if my so-called 99-year membership plan, was going to die an early death. Somehow Sterling resurrected themselves, and stayed in business, and I could continue to get some benefit out of my membership.

Except for the initial 1-2 years, I have not used Sterling Holidays to actually stay at a Sterling resort.

Most of the holidays I have used are with RCI membership and at locations, outside of the Sterling resorts, and few times, outside India as well.

It has been a reasonably rewarding experience over the years, which is what you expect out of a timeshare membership.

In recent years, RCI has been constantly increasing their fees, and the exchange fees as well.

The RCI membership being of a shorter term nature each time, they have the right to revise their terms periodically, and I have accepted these changes over the years.

I have valued the fact that it is so simple to get a holiday set up.

1. Ask Sterling Holidays to deposit your week into RCI – a quick and simple affair.

2. Look for and find the RCI holiday you like. Get it, pay for it, and you are done.

The ease of usage, and the variety of RCI resorts that one had access to, still kept me going with RCI, in spite of the increase of their fees.

Recently however, when I was trying to follow the above-mentioned steps, I ran into problems with Sterling Holidays.

Here’s what happened:

1. I asked RCI to deposit my week from Sterling, as usual. They initiated the process.

2. Couple of days later, I get intimation that they could not do so, as Sterling had regretted the same.

3. I checked if I had paid my annual charges to Sterling, and I concluded that I had paid. So there should not have been any issue.

4. I waited for Sterling to get in touch with me, for reasons why they had denied the deposit of the week. NO such intimation came. I could have kept waiting for ever! Don’t think this regret from their end, triggered any process, to get in touch with their member..!!

5. Finally I got in touch with Sterling, and I was informed that I had to pay another charge now, when I am depositing the week. This was a new, new thing that had never happened before, and for which I had not got any prior intimation, so I was naturally not happy about it.

6. I asked them for details, which they provided on phone, and briefly on email, as this being a new process that they have initiated from April of this year, etc. etc.

7. So my point simply was:

– why did they choose to wait till I am depositing my week, to inform me about this??

– why is it not on any public platform, like their website, or their FB page?

– why was it not conveyed via email to the many members, or via a print circular?

– was this a trivial change? I am sure MANY members deposit their Sterling week, and claim a holiday via RCI. So if there are changes to the terms, and not an insignificant one at that, isn’t it their duty to intimate members proactively, when they initiate the change??

– more importantly, do they have a right to do this at all? There is a certain contract in place, where a fixed amount had been charged, and where a certain small, annual fee was expected to be paid thereafter. But each time you took a holiday via RCI, Sterling could charge you a certain extra – is that even allowed as per the contract?

– if so, how come for so many years, they never charged, and they are beginning to charge only now??

– and if they have charged a sum x this time, can they on their own whim, increase the charge to 2x or 3x in coming years?? After all, as they say, “terms and conditions are subject to change”! You have already paid the initial sum for purchasing the timeshare, now where can you go, except keep giving in to their demands like this??

8. The moot question at this point is, if a Timeshare membership in general, and a Sterling Holidays membership in particular, even worth taking?? If they retain the right to “change terms and conditions”, whatever it is that they promise through ads like the following one, can only be a lure to get you in. Thereafter, they could spring a surprise on you, and ask you for more money?!

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9. Most importantly, does the economics of Timeshares work out then? Say, one takes a decent vacation only once in 3 years. Then, one is still paying annual fees to Sterling, annual fees to RCI, then an exchange fee to RCI when you take the vacation, and now the newly introduced additional fee to Sterling, to enable you to deposit the week, to RCI. All that against the cost of just booking a hotel and staying there? Is it viable or interesting at all?

If not, WHY WOULD YOU LOOK AT TIMESHARE AS AN OPTION AT ALL??