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Meet Urbanist Travel, Saigoneer's Sister Company Bringing the World Closer to Vietnam

Loyal readers might know Saigoneer as a home where all things fascinating, whimsical and insightful about Vietnam are celebrated, but not many are aware that for the past years, we have been a tiny bit more than just writers. Two years ago, we officially welcomed our sister company Urbanist Travel into the family.

Urbanist Travel, inspired by our previous name Urbanist Vietnam, is an international travel agency that came into existence to further realize Saigoneer’s long-enduring aspiration to “explore Vietnam and beyond.” Full disclosure: Châu Cecilia Nguyễn is its co-founder and also the life partner of Saigoneer co-founder Brian Letwin. As natural as a family lunch, the two entities work together under one roof, in one room.

A director, a mother, and a travel enthusiast

I don’t know if it’s because of her job in the tourism industry or it’s just her nature, but it seems to me that Châu can never sit still for long — she’s always on a business trip, traveling, meeting partners, or picking up little Luna from school. Rarely have I come across anyone with a wealth of positive energy and relentless drive like her, both in her work and during our lunch banters. Thanks to her, I’ve learned many neat tips and tricks for my own trips, like timing my flights, picking hotels, transportation, and getting into the right mindset to travel with family and kids (something we all cringe at). But above all else, in talking to her, we somehow feel like we’re also seasoned travel junkies.

Majoring in Japanese language at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, organizing tours for Spanish tourists in Vietnam, working for a travel agency in Saigon, losing her job to the pandemic, and finally finding new footing in Urbanist Travel: Châu sees every milestone in her career as the results of “fate.”

Photos by Đỗ Anh Chương.

“Looking back, I even want to say thank you to the pandemic,” Châu reminisces. Those dreary days spent within the four walls of her home were also a time of reflection when she discovered so many more travel destinations and reassessed the growth trajectory of Vietnam’s tourism industry. Over 12 years working in the scene, for her, the classic heritage trails have become well-treaded paths, even though the allure of central Vietnam is still irresistible. Everyone is on the run to unearth new locations to see their striking contrast to other time-honored itineraries.

No matter how experienced it is, a travel company, in reality, can’t tailor its service to all demographics of travelers. Right from the formation of Urbanist Travel, Châu has decided to aim her expertise at middle-class and upper-class travel aficionados. They are those who always yearn to garner as much life experience as possible, especially within the elegance of nature. They love immersing themselves in unique activities, like adventure sports amid the wilderness, or a day at a heritage site that doesn’t exist on tour packages. Of course, the degree of excitement comes with a significant price tag to ensure the safety of participants. Safety, to Châu, is a top-of-mind concern. Most international travelers also share this sentiment, though Vietnamese tour seekers are only starting to pay more attention to it in recent years.

Apart from trips for corporate staff, Urbanist Travel also accompanies many tourists visiting Vietnam and those already living and working in the country — these groups amount to nearly 80% of its clientele. Still, this percentage is changing every day as more Vietnamese travelers are reaching out to Urbanist to organize their trips, and not just for one time.

Exploring modernist structures in Saigon. Photo by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

The riddles for a travel boutique

Imagine a company team-bonding trip where you have to socialize on a day when you thought would be a time for luxuriating in bed and sunbathing at a private pool. Forced fraternization is never fun. To Châu, however, team building also has the potential to be memorable — even for introverts — if organized in a sensible, thoughtful way. “I want a non-traditional team bonding experience. I want the hundred staff members of the company to be excited to participate,” Châu recalls the tall-order request from a HR executive regarding their company trip to Lăng Cô.

The challenges for trip organizers didn’t stop there. “The MC can’t just start everything with ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ must be able to host bilingually, and organize creative but simple games. It didn’t end there, towards the last days, the client slashed the team-bonding budget to channel to a five-star stay,” Châu explains. “But when we figured it out, it was a smooth ride, even though the MC and I spent a sleepless month brainstorming non-traditional activities that are financially manageable and can make use of readily available amenities at the resort. We really should have paid the MC more.”

Photos courtesy of Urbanist Travel.

Devising plans for team-bonding sessions is not uncommon for travel agencies, but planning one that’s out-of-the-box, doesn’t involve inappropriate touching, doesn’t have gauche body-shaming remarks or cloyingly formal greetings is not a cakewalk. In Châu’s experience, many hosting partners, upon hearing such requests, will either subtly decline by hiking up their quoted rates way above the client’s budget or (rarely) accept the commission with eagerness.

Tourism is innately an ever-changing, ever-moving industry, so sticking to plain old formulae can be very soulless. For tour veterans like Châu and others with 15–20 years of organizing under their belts, such specific demands provide a great source of motivation for them to deviate from the oft-traveled path.

Photos courtesy of Urbanist Travel.

Thanks to the constant innovation of behind-the-scenes forces like Châu and her colleagues in the industry, even the stodgiest team-building trips can become a valuable chance to connect for a multinational, multicultural corporate entity, especially in the context of Vietnam’s increasingly more globalized economy.

We can only be sustainable by working together

When we set foot on a land few tourists have tread, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by a drive to respect its pristineness, a special attribute setting it apart from other destinations. “Naturally, our mind will strive to protect that place, especially among those who have traveled to countries known for sustainable tourism. We seek to gain more experience to help care for nature and the local community at future destinations,” Châu shares what she learned from her own vacations in a few European localities.

In Vietnam, the responsibility will fall to travel agencies, like Urbanist Travel, to teach their clients about sustainability in traveling by demonstrating the difference during their stay in Vietnam. For instance, Urbanist Travel encourages transport partners to switch from giving out individual water bottles to providing a huge water dispenser on buses to reduce single-use plastic waste. Urbanist Travel also requests that trip participants bring their own tumbler to refill water from the bus jug — this is also written clearly in the agreement for clients.

When asked about one destination that has left a lasting impression on her, Châu surprises me by dropping Laos as an example. Even though the language barrier is still more pronounced in Laos than its neighbors, the affable nature of Laos tourism professionals is unmatched. The secret lies behind the harmonious ecosystem of service providers.

Châu giving a presentation at the HCMC University of Economics. Photo courtesy of Urbanist Travel.

“Right when tourists step off the plane, they will immediately be greeted with a smile from airport staff. No activities have started yet but you can already feel the difference,” Châu raves. If only tour organizers and accommodation partners make an effort, that good impression is only limited to one segment of the tourism experience. To Châu, the collaboration of every stakeholder is the cornerstone of delivering a fantastic travel experience. Achieving that requires a unified front by all of Vietnam’s tourism sector to build our national image.

Most videos, photos, and documentaries promoting Vietnam are produced by foreign broadcasters or travel bloggers. This inevitably denies us an active role in writing our own Vietnam narrative, leading to a mixed message, and those aspiring to visit Vietnam are lost in a sea of information.

Hidden no more

Vietnam’s wealth of natural landscapes is often pushed to the forefront as a comparative advantage attracting tourists. “It’s not wrong, but it’s way too general,” Châu opines, asserting that it’s probably time to get to the specifics. “A nation of rich heritage,” is a vision that Châu and many industry veterans are working to develop, for our nature can’t fully reflect the expanse of the country’s human, culture, history, architecture and literature. From north to south, every place has many relics, both named and unnamed, waiting to wow tourists with stories that Vietnam has held onto for centuries.

“Once we have a clear direction, companies can lean into it to come up with products and promotional materials to emphasize the strengths of Vietnam compared to other nations. It’s no longer a time for ”hidden charm,” Châu muses, referring to the national tourism motto “Vietnam, the Hidden Charm” that was once omnipresent across the country. Even though efforts to conserve prominent architectural marvels in Vietnam are still sorely lacking, Châu is always on the prowl for more approaches to tell the story of a heritage-rich Vietnam. “Previously, Urbanist Travel collaborated with Tản Mạc Kiến Trúc to hold a workshop for our tour guides to educate them on ancient, Indochinese, and modernist architecture styles. Tản Mạn Kiến Trúc is also a frequent contributor to Saigoneer for years with their thorough essays about Vietnamese history and architecture. We really need contribution and research from young Vietnamese so government departments can understand more about our hopes to promote and preserve our national heritage,” she shares.

Tourists on Urbanist Travel's Modernist Architecture Tour. Photos by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

Using these research projects and Saigoneer’s many articles on local architecture styles, Urbanist Travel designed a specific city tour exploring some iconic modernist buildings in Saigon. On this day trip, travelers from both overseas and in Vietnam have an opportunity to observe and discover some storied corners of the southern metropolis. Moreover, Urbanist Travel is launching a street food tour in Saigon, whose destinations are no other than places featured on Saigoneer’s long-running Hẻm Gems series so newcomers to the city can try their hand at “eating the city away” on a bike.

Photos courtesy of Urbanist Travel.

Even at just two years old, Urbanist Travel has proven to be a capable partner for any company seeking an out-of-the-box experience or inquisitive travelers with a passion for exploring Vietnamese history and culture in depth. Châu and her collaborators are always on the move to add value to Vietnam’s tourism ecosystem to bring more of Vietnam to the world.

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