About Vanuatu

A short history on just about everything

The Republic of Vanuatu is a chain of around 80 islands in the South Pacific.  Port Vila, the capital city of Vanuatu, lies 2.5 hours due east of Queensland, Australia, 3 hours north of Auckland New Zealand, and around 2 hours west of Fiji. With 80 islands, you can imagine how many beaches there are! The first people to inhabit Vanuatu arrived by sea around 3500 years ago from the north, probably from South East Asia. Mixing with the inhabitants of nearby island chains over the centuries, their culture, food, and customs are still alive and well in modern Vanuatu. In more recently times, the Spanish claimed the islands, hence the name of Espirito Santo, the largest island in the north of the country. In the 1880’s the British and French governments both claimed Vanuatu as their own, then named New Hebrides. This leads us down to the modern day Republic of Vanuatu, which gained independence in 1980.

The influences of French and British governance are still easily seen. Children are educated in either a French or English school, the legal system is decidedly British in appearance, complete with white wigs and black gowns, and you can buy mouth-watering French pastries at any of the many boulangeries (bakeries) around town.

Since independence control of the government, education system, and law enforcement have returned to the hands of the local people, or Ni-Vanuatu. In conjunction with local chiefs and regional councils, the country is governed from Port Vila, on Efate. Efate is the most densely populated island in Vanuatu. But get even just a few kilometres from Port Vila and you will soon find an explorer's paradise with untouched beaches, beautiful rain forests and breathtaking views from lookouts and coastal villages.

Vanuatu is the home to many species of animals found no where else on earth. Many animals you will see, such as pigs, chickens, cows and horses are introduced species. The pig especially is now a firm fixture in Vanuatu, taking pride of place on any banquet table. Reptiles in Vanuatu are not dangerous, even the Pacific Boa looks scarier than he is. You will hear geckos and lizards at night, and myriads of tropical birds all day. Welcome to paradise! The only land creature to steer clear of is the large millipede, or 'milpad'. They can grow up to 20cm long and excrete a venom which gives a nasty sting. If affected, douse with vinegar and seek medical attention, especially with young or small children. 

Other than Efate, most islands are very sparsely populated, including Santo in the north. Some are completely uninhabited. With volcanoes playing a role in the archipelago’s formation millennia ago, the ground is fertile and rich. Many people sustain their families through farming, selling additional produce on the side of the road or at a market. The produce is fresh, organic and beautiful. If you don’t know what something is, just ask! The farmer will be happy to explain it to you. Most people live a very simple life, and are happy to talk, usually for a longer period of time than we would be used to at home. Life here is very unrushed, sometimes a little toooooo unrushed, but just relax. If you appear hurried or rushed, you may actually make a local person feel uncomfortable. You will enjoy your holiday in Vanuatu much more by slowing down!

Ni-Vanuatu are friendly but shy, and are a little reserved at first. Try visiting a cultural village to see the real Ni-Vanuatu - happy to dance, sing, and explain their custom lifestyle. You can’t help but love the local people. After 500 years of foreign government, they have proudly retained their culture, food, history and custom way of life. They are resilient, hard-working, happy and friendly. Get to know a local, and you will feel like a local. They will welcome you like family!

Customs and Etiquette

Vanuatu is a beautiful place to visit, and the main draw card is the people. Ni-Vanuatu are modest and shy, but also friendly and welcoming. While driving around you will be waved to on the road and greeted with a friendly Hello! from the side of the road. There are a few local customs to keep in mind to make your Vanuatu holiday just that bit special too.

People shake hands when they meet. It is quite normal for someone to hold your hand for a while after too, this is a sign of friendship, nothing else! You may also see men holding hands with men and women with women. This is a sign of friendship. They may also ask you where you are going or where you have been. This is the equivalent of us asking how someone is. It is a custom response to meeting someone while walking around town. Public displays of affection between couples is very rare though, as is any talk about sex or anything private. Most Ni-Vanuatu are Christian. You will see beautifully dressed families walking to church on a Saturday or Sunday morning throughout the country. Ni-Vanuatu generally don't wear clothing that Westerners consider completely normal, such as bikinis or short skirts. Around the major tourist areas, you are welcome to dress as you please. If you do venture further afield, you will be more comfortable in loose flowing, modest clothing that doesn't draw too much attention.

Tipping is not a custom in Vanuatu. People just expect the price they have quoted you. If you feel like assisting a local person financially, they will of course be very grateful. School fees in Vanuatu are more expensive than Australia, so many people struggle to educate their children properly. Just visiting Vanuatu and taking tours and shopping from local shops all contributes to the economy. Every little bit counts!

Local Food and Drink

Vanuatu is very multicultural, especially in Port Vila. But ask any local what his favourite food is, and he will tell you 'lokal kakae', or local food. Like many Melanesian and Polynesian cultures, the preparation of food is a community event. Taking days or sometimes several days to prepare, local vegetables and meats are cooked over a fire or in a fire pit under ground. Tender meat and delicious vegetables are the result! At a Melanesian Feast such as at Ekasup Village you will get to try the different varieties of local vegetables such as kumala (sweet potato), and other root vegetables similar to potato such as manioc and taro. As you can imagine, coconut milk plays a big role in cooking in Vanuatu, and vegetables are often 'milked' which means simmered in a coconut milk sauce. Corn, carrot, beans, eggplant, onions, tomato, lettuce, cucumber, snow peas, spinach, various cabbages, plantain and other seasonal vegetables are available at the local markets. You will also find a great range of fresh herbs. And of course, tropical fruit in seasonal abundance! Pineapple, bananas, soursop (jack fruit), bread fruit, star fruit, local apples, custard apple, avocado, grapefruit, pomello, lemon, lime, raspberries, pawpaw, mango, watermelon, rockmelon, coconut, the list goes on!

Locally farmed beef, chicken, pork, and eggs are also available throughout Port Vila and further afield. You may also see goat or lamb on a menu or too. And of course, seafood! Fresh fish and shellfish, crabs, lobster....many times prepared in a delicious sauce heavily influenced by French cooking, will leave you full and satisfied.

Tanna Coffee is grown on the southern island of Tanna and roasted and ground daily at the factory at Mele, near Port Vila. Strong and rich, Tanna Coffee is understandable world famous and a bag of beans makes a great gift. You can visit Tanna Coffee or purchase their products throughout Vanuatu in supermarkets and tourist markets.

At the Handicraft Market in Port Vila, you can purchase a selection of local gourmet products. Local organic honey, chocolate, biscuits and gluten free products from Lapita, vanilla beans and spices such as local tumeric and ginger. Many locally crafted gourmet foods are also available in Au Bon Marche, Port Vila's supermarket chain. Au Bon Marche is also the place to go to stock up on supplies when you arrive in Port Vila. You will find everything you need here, including a full range of beer, wine, and spirits. Stock up on drinks before Friday evening, as you can't purchase alcohol in Vanuatu over the weekend.

Tusker Brewery and The Numbawan Brewery both make exceptionally good beer! Not a traditional product, these local companies will leave you impressed and asking for another. Tusker is a great every day beer and is available throughout Vanuatu at supermarkets and shops. The Numbawan Brewery, crafted in Port Vila in a microbrewery above The Brewery Hotel, has a range of beers that are tasty, well rounded, and world class. Also widely available, and again making a great gift for family at home.

What about kava? A drink traditionally made as part of custom celebrations and rites, kava is now drunk daily throughout Vanuatu's larger towns. Custom villages may still restrict the use of kava for special events. In some areas it is only available to men. Melanesian Feast nights throughout Port Vila and Luganville include kava tasting, but it is not for everyone! It is made from the pulp of a local plant and then mixed with water to dilute it, and to make it go down easier. In times past the root was chewed and then spat out into a large communal bowl before being mixed with water. More like a drug than a drink, it may leave you a little numb. If you want to try a 'shell' served in a local 'nakamal', or kava bar, look for a coloured light hanging from a post or tree covered with a plastic bucket to keep the rain off. Just have someone standing by to drive you home.

Communication

Most people, especially around Port Vila and Luganville, speak good English and/or French. The further afield you venture, the less English or French you will find, especially in older people. With over 110 languages being spoken throughout Vanuatu the one language than links people is Bislama. Originally a Pidgin derived from English but with a distinctly French accent in places, it is now a Creole in many urban areas which are home to people from different islands. Bislama is quite easy to pick up. Here are some tips, just say it as you see it!

Hello Har lo
 
My name is 
Nem blong me
 
How are you? 
Olsem war nem?
 
How much is that?
Hem ya how mus?
 
Thank you very much
Tank you too mus
 
We want to go to
Mifarla ee wontem go long
 
Good Bye
Ar-lay, tar tar
 

How Hot is Hot?

Like most countries close to the equator, Vanuatu has only two main seasons. The hotter wet season which runs from around November to April, and the cooler dry season from May to October. These seasons aren’t set in stone, as you can get quite hot days in October, and cooler ones in April.  In Port Vila, the wet season temperatures range from 20 degrees overnight to low to mid 30’s during the day, with at least 90% humidity. The cooler months range from around 15 degrees overnight to between 23 to 28 degrees during the day, with around 70% humidity. The further north you go, the hotter and more humid it is, especially in Summer. The water temperature does vary too, but only slightly. It is a very pleasant warm temperature all year round, perfect for swimming even in August!

The cyclone season runs from December to about February. Vanuatu does get its fair share of tropical depressions and cyclones, however they are rarely to the scale seen in 2015 with TC Pam. Most of the time you can just use a rainy day or two to check out the art galleries and museum, or curl up with a cocktail and a good book!  Find out more about Vanuatu Weather for each province.  

What Should I Pack?

Your sense of adventure! Besides that, not too much is needed. Besides, you will need room for souvenirs and cheap duty free products. In addition to the mandatory swimmers and thongs/flip flops/jandals, you will need to bring the following:

  • At least one pair of long pants and a jacket, cardigan or jumper for evenings and early mornings.
  • Light fabrics such as cotton, linen and viscose are best for the tropics. Try to avoid synthetic materials, they will only make you sweat.
  • Flat, comfortable walking shoes, such as sandals or sturdy thongs. Closed-in shoes will be too hot, even in the cooler months. Shoes that strap onto your foot completely are better than thongs in wet weather, as you won’t get a wet or muddy splash up your back while walking through the rain.
  • Snorkelling gear and reef shoes (if your property doesn’t supply them) as well as a good hat and sunglasses
  • A backpack for day trips
  • A UV proof umbrella if you like strolling through town or along the beach
  • Any specific medication that you can’t live without, plus a copy of the script or the box the medicine came in just in case you need to find a replacement at short notice.
  • Cameras and chargers. An underwater camera or GoPro is also a great idea. Vanuatu has a lot of outdoor and water based sports. All power points in Vanuatu are the same as Australian outlets.
  • Make sure you switch on at least one phone to international roaming before you leave home, just in case you need to call home or overseas in an emergency.
  • If you have a serious chocolate addiction, you may want to bring some with you. You can purchase chocolate here, but it tends to be very expensive, over $AUD 8 for a normal Cadbury’s block. So if Dairy Milk is your thing, put some in your suitcase!
  • Always travel with a hard copy of your passport and itinerary as well as your insurance documents and any health information that you would want a local doctor to be aware of. You may never need to look at them, but if you do, you will be grateful you took the time to pack them. A useful hint is to also leave a copy with a family member or friends at home, or use Cloud storage, so you can access them from anywhere at any time.
  • You can buy everything you need in Port Vila and Luganville, but the range and brands will be different to home. So if your family has anything that they MUST have every day, please bring it with you.
  • You can buy sunscreen, sarongs, insect repellent, summer clothing and a range of hats and knock-off sunnies throughout Port Vila, so you may wish to travel light! Always bring a basic first aid kit with you so that things like headaches and cuts can be dealt with quickly.
  • If you are heading to an outer island, pack basic first aid supplies like antiseptic cream and wash, bandages, rehydration and gastro medication and headache tablets.
  • It may sound strange but if you are visiting friends, family, or a colleague who is currently living in Vanuatu, ask them what you can bring for them. Chances are they will have an item or two they can’t get here but really miss or need. They will be eternally grateful.

Phone and Internet Services

There are two main phone carriers in Vanuatu that have great packages for tourists. TVL is the national carrier, and Digicel is a multi-national private company. Throughout Port Vila and Luganville you can purchase SIM and MICROSIM cards to put into your phone. On arriving at the airport you can buy a SIM and/or phone and be covered for your time in Vanuatu. we can also have one waiting for you to save you the hassle. Contact us for more information.

A cheap local phone (not a smart phone) with either carrier will cost you around 3000 vatu. If you have more than one user, it can be a good idea to get SIM cards from the same company as they have a discount structure when you call a number on the same network. SMSing to Australia and New Zealand using a local SIM costs about 15c.

Phoning home is a lot more expensive, but both companies have a 24 hour call home package.For around AUD $20 you can call home free for a 24 hour period. Phone plans are prepaid. If your credit is running low, simply top up at any of the TVL or Digicel ladies you see by the side of the road, or purchase a top up card at a supermarket or shop.

There are three main internet providers in Vanuatu. A lot of properties have free WIFI included in their tariff. There are also cafes and hotels in Port Vila and Luganville that have free WIFI if you purchase something. Purchasing a plan with Telsat is a good idea if you do need to be linked to a fast internet connection at all times. Their network is faster and larger than the other providers.

Please keep in mind that in times of bad weather, the internet in Vanuatu will disappear for an hour or two. This is beyond anyone’s control, and is one of the perks of holidaying in Vanuatu. You can honestly tell your boss that you didn’t see the email!

For more information including office locations, coverage maps and tips for international visitors, please visit: