Ingenuity, persistence pays off for Malaysian hotelier in Vietnam

The Rakyat Post

James Segaran serving his customers at the d'Lions Restaurant in Hanoi.
James Segaran serving his customers at the d’Lions Restaurant in Hanoi.

Hanoi: When James Segaran pioneered the halal hotel in Hanoi in 2011, the business struggled for more than two years.

Having been in the hospitality industry for over 26 years, he saw a potential in the Muslim market in Hanoi, which was establishing itself as a top travel destination.

Lonely Planet Traveler, the world’s leading tourist magazine, rated Hanoi the best destination in Vietnam for city life in 2012.

The city also made the 2012 top 10 attractive destinations in Asia, as chosen by Smart Travel Asia, a Hong Kong online tourist magazine.

Yet, Segaran noted, there was no halal hotel nor restaurant in Hanoi at the time, while there were at least a dozen Muslim restaurants in Ho Chi Minh city, south of Vietnam.

So with a local partner, he decided to buy over a hotel.

Despite a surge in tourist arrivals to Vietnam, there was still a lukewarm demand for halal food or hotel.

“I refused to give up and decided to embark on intensive marketing and promotional activities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei by telling people that they can enjoy Vietnam within an Islamic environment,” he told The Rakyat Post.

Segaran leveraged on the price of accommodation and food in Vietnam which was very reasonable and also made full use of social media such as Facebook.

The 48-year-old from Seremban, who started out as a chef with Shangri-La in Kuala Lumpur in the early 1980s, said Vietnam was a paradise for street food lovers, but the choices were limited for Muslim tourists due to halal concerns.

“In order to provide halal food, I brought in a chef from Malaysia to train local cooks.”

Segaran also obtained halal certification from the local mosque and Muslim organisation.

The d’Lions Restaurant in his first hotel in Hanoi is also CrescentRated at AAA, the highest rating that can be given by CrescentRating.

CrescentRating is a private audit that offers an indication of the level of services and facilities a hotel offers to Muslims.

While he has yet to establish a business empire, the determined Segaran is proud of the three hotels he now operates in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and the northern resort town of Sapa.

On a related note, he said Vietnam should not be seen as a competitor to Malaysia in terms of tourism business, as the two countries were different.

“It is cheaper to travel around in Vietnam, but Malaysia is a two-season holiday destination while Vietnam has four seasons, not to mention the different cultures.”