Beautiful Vietnam
Never too many irons in the fire
  • | | November 16, 2009 11:31 AM

At 4 am when it is still dark and quiet, Denis Bissonnette gets up and begins work on his computer at home.

“The quiet can help me work more efficiently,” say Denis.

The silence is only broken by bird song, he says laughing, and when he chuckles his eyes laugh too.

The 50 year old man, who usually has a smile on his face, is known among friends as a project junkie. He is in his eighth year in Vietnam, where he has been working mainly on helping to build a sustainable tourism sector.

After having lectured while travelling extensively for the last 25 years in more than 40 countries, Denis finally chose Vietnam as a place for a long-term stay.

“Because Vietnam is really special,” is the answer Denis gives anyone who asks him why he loves the country so much.

“Even though I travelled throughout Vietnam many times, I still get excited encountering its sights, sounds and people.”

Denis first came here in 2002 with the World University Service of Canada, an NGO dedicated to improving the education in Vietnam. His initial work gave him the chance to start lecturing on tourism at Hanoi Open University. During the past few years he has specialized in sustainable tourism, including ecotourism and community-based tourism projects.

More than 700 students have graduated from his class and many have put their skills to good use.

“We appreciate his enthusiasm and love for the job and for Vietnam,” says Nguyen Van Thanh, deputy chief of the Faculty of Tourism at Hanoi Open University.

”We were touched when he volunteered to stay for a long time to help us in return for very modest pay, which is similar to what Vietnamese teachers earn.”

While lecturing, Denis continues to work on a series of projects. An early success included work in 2005 on founding the first national youth hostel association in Vietnam, with six hostels in Sa Pa, Hoi An, Cat Ba Island and Hanoi.

“Vietnam Hostels (VHI) helps travelers in Vietnam find safe, friendly and cheap hostels,” he says.

“It is an efficient means for young people to discover the culture and learn from each other.”

Shortly after his VHI work, Denis set up the I Love Vietnam Travel Co-op in Hà Nội, Sa Pa and on Cát Bà Island, in conjunction with Hà Nội Open University. The co-operative focuses on community-based tourism projects in the North-west of Vietnam.

It is not easy for Denis to remember all the projects he has worked on in Vietnam. He is also an English-training consultant at the Sofitel Plaza and Metropole Hotels, tour consultant for Exotissimo Travel and an advisor for the Vietnam Community-based Tourism Network. And when he has any free time he’s a freelance writer, tapping out articles on destinations across Vietnam.

But he says that he’s happiest with one project that wasn’t directly related to tourism.

“In some ways, the project that has brought me the most personal satisfaction has centred on distributing reading glasses to the needy in remote ethnic minority communities in the north-west.”

The Vision Vietnam project, which began in 2006 as a joint venture between Canada and Vietnam, was set up by Denis and give women from Quebec, Canada who put their heart and soul into the work.

“We were shocked to realise that very few people, especially within ethnic minority communities in the north, wore glasses,” say Denis.

“At that time, we had the pleasure to distribute over 100 glasses and sunglasses to the people of a small community to the North, the Red Thai.

“The joy and hope in their faces were clear. The glasses helped them see better. The older women could work again, for example, by sewing, and literate men and women could read again. Some could also begin driving in a safe manner and countless other daily tasks were made easier. Imagine one day, one minute, one week without corrective eyewear when you need it.”

However, Denis is the type that will never test on his laurels. Most of the time he’s trying to come up with a new project that may provide assistance where help is needed.

Promoting festivals

One part of the tourism sector that could do with a helping hand is promoting festivals.

“What a pity that foreign visitors don’t know about Vietnamese festivals,” says Denis.

“The Vietnamese Government doesn’t know yet how to best promote itself. It’s a big challenge. They don’t know what foreigners love in Vietnam, and therefore what’s good to promote.

“The destinations that are too famous like Ha Long Bay, and the image of the conical hat, buffalo, đàn bầu (a type of one-stringed musical instrument) do not need to be promoted anymore because everyone knows about them already.”

Denis says tourism promoters need to take a different approach.

“I think Vietnam should now promote Sa Pa, ethnic minority people, and places such as Hue, Nha Trang, Đa Lạt and Mui Ne.

He says promotions need to build a new image of Vietnam across the world, as many foreigners still associate the country with the devastating war with the United States.

“My mother and many people abroad only know about Vietnam as a country of war.”

But to lure travellers to Vietnam with the promise of a good time, the nation needs a professional tourism sector that won’t disappoint visitors when they arrive.

With that aim in mind, Denis is planning to open the first Tourism Hospitality Event Management Institute (THEM) in Vietnam, building on work that he’s already carried out through his three-month-old THEM consultancy group.

“Vietnamese students often lack management skills, it’s what holds them back when they apply for jobs at hotels after they graduate from university.

“Look at the hotels in Vietnam. All big managers come from big hotels in Germany, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. Vietnamese people don’t have enough money to go for management training broad.

“I hope the new institute will be a pioneer in introducing an advanced model of training, creating an opportunity for all Vietnamese citizens to get access to vocational training and work in the tourism and hospitality service industry.”

The new institute, which Denis plans to open in eight months, is just one of the main projects he has on the boil. But despite the hectic lifestyle, Denis says he still finds time to enjoy life.

“Everyday is different here, there are no routines,” he says.



By Bach Lien (Travel Live)