Mar 21 2012
Nalini Sadai started work for Britain’s Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) 10 years ago. She started off in London and then, in 2007, moved to Jamaica as Vice-Consul. She’s now the Consular Regional Operations Manager for Vietnam and Burma. I met with her to discuss her consular work and to find out what advice and help her office can provide and to whom in Vietnam (a second post, focused on advice regarding theft and passports, will follow).
Of course, being part of the British Embassy, the consular section exists to help British nationals — as well as nationals from EU countries that aren’t represented in Vietnam — however, the advice they provide is generally relevant to all nationalities. While she is based in Hanoi, with a team, the office is also represented in Ho Chi Minh City.
“I really enjoy my work; it varies day to day. It can often be reactionary, when something goes wrong, but it’s balanced with proactive activities, such as outreach to other areas in Vietnam,” Nalini told me. “The work here is very different to the work in Jamaica. Jamaica has an established tourism industry so a lot of our work was prisoner focused, particularly drug trafficking, but in Vietnam, tourism is more of an emerging market so the issues are different.”
Nalini summarised her department’s desire as “wanting people to have a trouble-free holiday”. As many of you will recognise, one small issue can ruin a trip, so it’s best to avoid those issues. “We want people to think about things before they travel to ensure they have a safe holiday,” she said.
While more people are travelling independently, many don’t research the countries they are visiting, leaving more room for problems to occur, Nalini said. What research people should do? “For example, a lot of people have problems at the hotel they are staying in, because they just turned up, it was cheap and so they decided to stay there. But then after they’ve had a bad experience they look online and find that other people have had similar problems. If they’d known that first they may have avoided the issues.”
I point out that independent travellers often don’t want to book in advance and like the flexibility of being able to show up and find somewhere that’s good value; Nalini understood this, but we agreed that compiling a shortlist of recommended hotels in advance, maybe booking the first few nights and then exploring other options/places once you arrive is a good idea.
Nalini said she and her team wanted to highlight a few of the recommendations the FCO makes to tourists. Firstly, stay in touch with family. “You might have left an itinerary, but send an email or a message when you get somewhere new so they don’t worry; have a good time but don’t forget about the people back home,” she said. “Be aware that Facebook is not always accessible in Vietnam so don’t rely on it for communication.”
As well, she said, find out about local laws and customs in the place that you are visiting; specific sections within the FCO travel advice for each country should help you understand the key areas you should know about. She notes that at the moment it’s avian flu season, with some reports of people catching it, “so be aware of where you’re going and take precautions if necessary. Food hygiene is also important; be careful of what you’re eating.”
A big one is travel insurance, the mention of which makes Nalini shake her head in dismay at the number of people who travel without it.
“People apply UK standards to the rest of the world, and this isn’t always going to be the case… In Vietnam, if you don’t have health insurance it may be difficult to access healthcare. In an emergency you will get treated, but there will come a point when the hospital admin will take over and problems will arise if your fees aren’t covered. This doesn’t only affect you but also the people travelling with you. And bear in mind that pre-existing conditions aren’t usually covered.”
Finally she warns of getting too close to Vietnam’s borders: “If you’re trekking on your own you might not realise you are close to a border or in a restricted area and it could result in you being arrested.”
The British Embassy in Hanoi is located at 31 Hai Ba Trung and the address for the British Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City is 25 Le Duan, District 1. The Embassy and Consulate are open until 16:45 and the consular sections have public opening times from 08:30 to 11:30 Monday to Friday, and take emergency calls until 16:45 (not including public holidays). If you require help in an emergency outside of these hours you can speak to someone in the FCO Global Response Centre, charged at a local Vietnam call rate using an option from the switchboard number.
All types of travelling: www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/your-trip/
Gap year: www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/gapyear/
Responsible tourism: www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/be-a-responsible-tourist/
Travel advice by country: www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/
British Embassy and consulate general site: www.ukinvietnam.fco.gov.uk/en
Vietnam specific travel advice: www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/asia-oceania/vietnam
Travelfish.org always pays its way. No exceptions.