Arief Gunawan first came to Vietnam as a professional hotelier and consultant, but fell in love with the city and chose it as his home. In an interview with The Saigon Times, he talks about Indonesian cuisine and his opinion on Vietnam’s hospitality industry and tourism bouncing back in the future. Excerpts:
The Saigon Times: Please tell us about your background. What brought you to Vietnam?
Arief Gunawan: I am from Indonesia. The first time I visited Vietnam, I was as a professional hotelier and consultant, but I fell in love with the city as soon as I saw it.
Did you first come here for travel or business?
Both, first to travel and visit other countries and then as part of business.
What are some of the places here that you visited and enjoyed?
I have worked across several cities from the south to the north of Vietnam and love them all. Hue is my favorite ancient city for its royal heritage.
Was moving from Indonesia to Vietnam a big transition?
It’s not really that different in terms of nature, culture and food. That’s why I could live comfortably in Vietnam
Let’s talk about gastronomy. Food is such an important part of culture. Tell us about Indonesian food.
Indonesian food is so rich and white; it involves so many dishes and spices, not very different from Vietnam. However, in Indonesian cuisine, many spices are cooked together to culminate into a unique taste. In Vietnam, whatever I tasted had fewer spices. That’s probably the one difference I noticed.
So, you’ve experienced Vietnam through travel and work. What is the next step? Have you settled in?
Yes, since 2005, I have been travelling back and forth to Vietnam. It’s like I am connected to Vietnam not only to live but also for business. I returned to Vietnam four years ago to manage a luxury boutique hotel here.
Yes, the Villa Song Saigon Hotel. It’s a beautiful place. Tell us what differences have occurred here since you became part of the team?
It’s probably the environment. The hotel catered more to international business travelers and tourism. But since the pandemic in March 2020, everything changed since international travel stopped. Therefore, it forced me to think about how business could be sustained. We have now become a community—or neighborhood-based business. We are very blessed to have stayed open during the lockdown, and business continues until today.
The last two years of Covid here in Vietnam have been terrible, especially for tourism. That transition from the international tourism market to the domestic one must have been difficult.
Since we were catering to just the domestic market, we had to up our game by creating more activities. As the hotel is located by the beautiful Saigon River, we decided to use this to our advantage by creating water sports, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and even jet skiing and speedboating. This helped develop local demand.
Tell me a bit about the food and beverage here. Have you been concentrating on Vietnamese food or international food?
I love food. I love spices. And since the pandemic, we changed our food to cater to different customers. We’ve also decided to focus more on Vietnamese food, but haven’t left out international food. We offer Thai food, Indonesian food, and even international food such as pizzas and pastas.
Apart from hotel rooms and restaurants, we also cater to weddings and corporate parties. Depending on requirements, we have indoor events, or outdoor if they prefer to have them by the river. If it is a big event, we even organize events in the garden and turn it into a party place. We provide the stage, sound system, and even lighting.
Besides weddings, what other types of events do you have here?
Since the pandemic, we’ve explored different kinds of events at Villa Song Saigon. Whether it’s weddings, corporate or entertainment events, it’s all about pleasing the customer. Since October, we’ve started pool parties. We also have the “Sunday Market”, which has become a favorite, wherein we allow local kitchens to share their food and local products with our guests. It’s an event that brings the local community together.
On Sundays or the weekends, we also have an event for pet lovers, where they gather for “The bark day” or “Happy bark day”. So “Happy bark days” have become a favorite among residents. Here, they are all pet lovers and the pets also enjoy themselves in the open air, garden on grass and by the river.
It sounds like you’re full of modern ideas that haven’t been seen here in Saigon for a long time. What do you think of the changes the industry is going through?
It’s all about community-based and neighborhood-based. That’s why even though we are in the restaurant business, we still accommodate the local kitchen. We open up our hotel to the community that has a kitchen at home, allowing them to sell or deliver food. This is the difference between the business then and now. Loving our neighbors and helping each other is the way forward. We support each other.
What are your predictions for the future? What do you think will happen to the hotel industry here in Vietnam, maybe in the next five or ten years?
For the next five years, business will return. My prediction is that in two years, the hospitality and tourism in Vietnam will bounce back like before. As for Villa Song Saigon, we hope to continue operating in the hospitality and tourism business even better than before.
It has been a difficult two years, but we will welcome back international travelers and even more domestic travelers, as they become comfortable traveling.
Yes, the two years of the pandemic have only made us more resilient and stronger; we will only get better from here.