How to explore Asia like a savvy traveller, while avoiding the tourist hordes
John Tue Nguyen, head honcho of luxury travel specialist Trails of Indochina, spills the beans on Asia’s cache of hidden gems.
Twenty years ago, John Tue Nguyen was working as a guide shepherding small groups of tourists around his native Hue, Vietnam’s old imperial capital, when it occurred to him that there was a market for high-end immersive experiences that showcased Vietnam at its most authentic.
“I saw the opportunity clearly in my mind. And at the time, no other company was filling that gap,” he told CNA Luxury. Encouraged, he launched Trails of Indochina, a boutique agency that specialises in luxury, experiential travel. “Almost immediately, we got business from the Smithsonian Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. I curated their programmes and escorted their members through Vietnam and Indochina. It was a huge boost for us to be able to do that and we picked up momentum from there.”
Today, Trails of Indochina has 250 employees seeded in offices across South East Asia, Europe and the US – a bona fide byword amongst savvy, cashed-up travellers for its range of bespoke experiences that take them to hyper-exclusive cultural and special interest nooks in even the most aggressively touristy spots. Recent offerings have included visits to the Kyoto atelier of a master weaver of kimonos, and taking private lessons in Shodo, an ancient Japanese style of calligraphy.
“Our demographic has always been well-travelled people with money,” said Nguyen. “It is true that younger people have more disposable income, and we have evolved to cater to that trend. But it’s not really about age. It’s more about attracting travellers who see the value in authentic, hands-on, local experiences.”
Over the years, Nguyen – who, these days, divides his time between Hue and California – has fine-tuned his approach to delivering the immersive metric by working from a starting point of key themes that include culinary, philanthropy, wellness, and active. Everything else – whether hotels, meals, guides and even mode of transportation – is then built up, layer by layer.
The offerings are both broad-based and aspirational, invariably pitched at a level that’s inaccessible to most travellers because of their rarity and cost. Fees can range from US$500 (S$677) to US$1000 per person, per day based on twin share. Nguyen recounts long and patient negotiations with the elders of an ethnic Hmong community in Ha Giang, a remote mountain province in northern Vietnam, to open up a festival they hold each month to his guests.
“They were very reluctant at first. Vietnam’s ethnic minorities have often had a troubled relationship with the kinh people (Vietnam’s majority ethnic group, accounting for over 85 per cent of the population) and they did not take kindly to having us there. In fact, they even locked us up for 48 hours in a local home where they barely fed us and gave us filthy water. We eventually made in-roads with one of the local villagers and he helped smooth the way with the community chiefs.”
“It is true that younger people have more disposable income, and we have evolved to cater to that trend. But it’s not really about age. It’s more about attracting travellers who see the value in authentic, hands-on, local experiences.” – John Tue Nguyen
Such commitment to the cause is par for the course and, in many ways, it explains the quality of the offerings. A crown jewel of Trails of Indochina’s repertoire is the recent completion of renovations of five ancient royal houses in Hue. Once homes to the relatives of the Vietnamese emperors Khai Dinh and Tu Duc, they were, by the time Nguyen took them over in the 1990s, crumbled reminders of their heyday. Twenty years and US$3 million later, they now welcome a new generation of elite guests.
“The restoration has been a labour of love for me,” Nguyen said. “Hue is like nowhere else in Vietnam. The original charm is still intact. This project is a way for me to leave some kind of legacy and also to ensure that the city’s heritage and character are preserved.”
Not that Nguyen is resting on his laurels. There is too much to do, and competitors – among them, Abercrombie + Kent, and Remote Lands – to stay ahead of. To that end, he is constantly evolving his products and innovating, including expanding his market offerings beyond Southeast Asia into East Asian nations such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.
Changing demographics also present their own challenges. While baby boomers might still prefer to anchor their itineraries to big name luxury brands such as Aman and Six Senses, “younger travellers are more open to immersing themselves in local culture and history and learning more about different aspects of the countries they visit.”
In 2020, a sister company Heritage Line launches itineraries on the upper Mekong in Laos on a new custom-built boat, Anouvong. “We also observe travel trends such as multi-generational family trips and solo female travellers,” said Ngyuen. “Another sister company, Indotrek has been reworked from an adventure company into a specialist in active travel that caters to younger travellers who are interested in hands-on, cultural immersion.”
Nguyen is particuarly bullish about his Ultra Luxury division, which will also launch next year. For now, details are guarded and limited only to the fact that the new service will feature highly customised and personalised services, and cater to celebrities, VVIPs, and private jet clients.
“From the beginning, Trails of Indochina has approached travel from a very considered, refined perspective. We know intimately all the very best hotels and high-end experiences in the region. It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to deliver to clients who are willing to pay over US$50,000 for travel experiences and itineraries. These people expect the ultimate in luxury and they don’t care to be disappointed.”
“It takes a lot of skill and knowledge to deliver to clients who are willing to pay over US$50,000 for travel experiences and itineraries. These people expect the ultimate in luxury and they don’t care to be disappointed.” – John Tue Nguyen
Today’s travellers, Nguyen added, especially in the UHNWI category, are more willing to explore and they have certain expectations. Novelty is key, a quality one might imagine would be increasingly difficult to find in a world that’s already so connected and democratised.
Ngyuen, though, is quick to disagree, pointing to hidden gems in Borneo and the mountains of northern Vietnam. “Take southern Laos for example,” he added. “It sees very little footfall, but there are numerous fascinating things to discover there such as coffee plantations, natural wetlands, and historic sites. We are currently developing the Kingfisher eco-lodge in Pakse which will be a very exciting addition to our portfolio. There is still plenty of scope to open up these secondary destinations and develop great experiential travel for customers.”