A love of Vietnam has made one Frenchman decide that he will take his last breath in the country.
He is a broad-minded, good-natured and cheerful man. He loves what belongs to the specific culture of different regions. Working at the hotel for 17 years, he knows the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa better than anyone else and manages it as he would his large house and treats his staff as though they are family. These comments come from his staff, in talking about Mr Claude M. Balland, General Manager of Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa.
A French national with nearly 20 years in Vietnam, Mr Balland understands and loves the country and its people, especially in a peaceful and historic land like Hoi An, where he has spent most of his time here. Previously, he could never have imagined that he would live and work in Vietnam for such a long time and would live out his days here, because he didn’t choose Vietnam. Vietnam chose him.
He came to Vietnam for the first time in April 1996 on an assignment with M.Grand - a Thai company specialising in hotel management, then moved to work for Victoria Hotels & Resorts in Sapa a year later. In 1997 he then headed to the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa and has remains there since. “I came to Vietnam because my Thai company sent me here,” he recalls. “I didn’t choose Vietnam, but I want to thank the company for the opportunity they gave me, which has changed my life.” Vietnam won his heart within his first days here and “I decided to work on long-term business in the country.”
In talking about why he chose tourism as a career, he said it was because he loves to travel and introduce sightseeing spots to other people. This also explains why, when working in Hoi An, he has organised many tours for his friends and foreign tourists to discover rural landscapes and the highlands by motorbike sidecar, such as Dien Bien Phu or Tay Giang (a mountainous town in Quang Nam province, near the Lao border). For him, such tours came from his inspiration and creation and are not simply about business.
Hoi An was one of the first places he visited when he arrived in Vietnam. At that time the ancient town was very “sleepy”, without restaurants, hotels or any service providers except for the modest Hoi An Hotel. The peaceful features of the town, with its many historic and cultural stories, attracted him and he recognised quickly the potential of the area as a tourist destination. “People there could not imagine what it could be because they did not realise that Hoi An had great potential,” he said.
Wonderfully, the ancient town of Hoi An is now exactly as he predicted and has received many awards from UNESCO for preserving the world cultural heritage and has become an international-class tourist destination.
In 2000 he had the chance to work in Hoi An as the General Manager of Victoria Hoi An International Resort (which previously belonged to France’s Victoria Investment and Hotel Management Group). However, when starting a new business in Hoi An at that time, he faced a few difficulties, especially the fact that local people remained unfamiliar with tourism services. He therefore decided to train local people in the professional skills necessary. “It was a hard job, mostly starting from zero,” said him. “But I recognised that the local culture was very special and this provided the foundations to utilise and upgrade it to international standard.”
Now, under his management, Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa has become a much-loved destination of tourists whenever they come to Hoi An because of its quality, high service standards and friendly way of dealing with guests.
In talking about the differences between Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa and other resorts in Da Nang in particular and in Vietnam in general, Mr Balland said proudly that not only Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa but all Victoria properties are distinctive from their peers. Victoria properties are not simply places to stay but somewhere that exhibit the local culture in their unique design, excellent customised services and multiple activities. “You might experience many modern and comfortable hotels in Hoi An and Da Nang, but only Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa is able to show you the story of Hoi An,” he said.
The four-star Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa is situated 30 km from Da Nang International Airport and only 5 km from the ancient town of Hoi An along a stretch of white sand beach. The resort replicates a traditional fishing village with small streets, water ponds and village houses with clay-tiled roofs, providing a warm and restful environment.
For Mr Balland the success of the resort firstly comes from its name - Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort, meaning that the success of the Resort and the success of tourism in Hoi An are in harmony. Secondly, it was the first resort established on Cua Dai Beach, focusing on foreign tourists who then shared their experience with friends. “As a result, many tourists come to us by word-of-mouth, which is the best and perhaps cheapest way of marketing,” he said. “Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa is where I’ve spent the longest time in all of my life. I stayed three years at each property I worked at to gain different experiences and in Hoi An I can apply what for me is the best solution to make the company successful.”
With those differences and high quality services, the resort welcomes about 5,000 guests on average each month. In 2013 it welcomed 60,000 guests in 109 rooms. “That’s a good result,” he said proudly. In order to gain success, together with his efforts he also greatly appreciates the contributions of his staff. “Without the Victoria team I could not do my job, as they are all key staff in the right positions,” he said.
In his opinion, central Vietnam has significant potential for the development of tourism, with many mountains, rivers, beaches, sightseeing spots and, especially, world heritage sites. However, to develop tourism in the region the local government should pay particular attention to the following issues: environmental protection; scientific and sound planning of tourism sites along the beaches; the expansion of Da Nang International Airport to allow for more international flights; and prioritising personnel training in professional skills and foreign languages, to ensure perfect services are provided at all stages so that guests will return for another visit.
Apart from his job, Mr Balland has a great passion for collecting vehicles and other objects. Placed around his hotel’s property are dozens of 50-year-old Russian-made motorbike sidecars, once used by the Vietnamese Army and security forces, and two old Renaults, which he bought when the hotel was built. He usually takes his French friends around the ancient town of Hoi An in these cars. He is also keen on motorbikes he has asked Vietnamese friends to rebuild for him, to be used as a special means of transport for tourists to remote areas in Vietnam. “For a long time I’ve liked old cars and motorbike,” he said. “During my time in Switzerland I had more than 30 different old cars. If I kept them in good condition I would be very rich now.” The sidecars have become a symbol of the resort and are available to take tourists around town.
He also collects many other items, such as a 100-year-old bed, wooden puppets, and photos taken by the French of people and landscapes in Vietnam a century ago. He finds it relaxing to ride his motorbike or sidecar to Da Nang beach with his dog.
For him, nothing would make him happier than buying a plot of land on the river near Hoi An when he retires, building a small house and organising unique tours for those who share common interests. “Here I will happily live out my life,” he said. “The natural surroundings are very beautiful and the local people are gentle, simple and friendly.”