My childhood was pleasant in a small town in Hanoi suburb. I was born on the same year as “Đổi Mới” or economic reform in Vietnam and had a chance to witness the development of the country as well as the normalization process with the rest of the world – after 30 years as a closed country.
I also had a chance to see how Vietnam tourism changed after 1992, the year that Vietnam re-connected with United Nations, and with the U.S in 1995, and to welcome the first foreign tourists back to Vietnam. A brother in the same quarter worked as an international tour guide at that time, and he often traveled for long periods of time with foreign tourists with a huge amount of cash. To me, it was the first impression of a tour guide career: “Oh, he is rich. He has talent. He can speak English.”
I also witnessed the urbanization of Hanoi from a chain of small towns into one big construction center. Many lakes, playgrounds turned out to be skyscrapers today. New roads with new restaurants and supermarkets. Growing up in Vietnam was very interesting because you could experience the new things month-by-month. Vietnam development opened new chances and new jobs for everyone in the last 25 years, especially for those who work in the hospitality industry.
No, tour guide is my first job, and the only job up until now. Travel is my hobby and tourism is my career. When I was in the 3rd university year, I thought to myself that I needed more life experience, so I applied as a part-time tour guide for Hanoi city tours, and group day trips to Halong bay, Hoa Lu – Tam Coc. I usually spent my weekends and the gap time between semesters guiding groups. After graduating, I still pursued this job, but with more time, I could focus on long-day tours and private tours. Since then, I have traveled to most corners of the Indochina region and want to share my knowledge with all tourists.
What is it about the French Old Quarter that makes it so appealing to you?
The architecture, of course. One of my friends in Poland was a very famous tour leader who visited Vietnam some 1,000 times. He said that he loves Hanoi more than Ho Chi Minh city because Hanoi looks like a European city with ancient French buildings, street-side cafes, shops and tree-lined boulevards. My high school is Chu Van An and was built in 1908 by a French architect. It’s is the most stylish high school of Hanoi. I also like guiding tourists to Cua Bac church, which is just opposite to Thang Long Royal Citadel – a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the biggest church of Hanoi and at the center of a French-affected zone.
If you could only take a new visitor to one place in Vietnam, where would you go?
Halong bay is the name almost travelers want to visit first on their first visit to Vietnam, and I do recommend you go. Since the first days of guiding groups, I have led tourists to Halong bay. If you visit 1,000 times to Halong bay will bring you 1,000 different feelings. Come there to discover why UNESCO recognizes it 2 times as a world heritage site.
I’m friendly and always smile even in tough cases. Tour guide can be a high-pressure job. A tour guide must keep a clear mind throughout the tour, so the best way to relieve the pressure is to smile at everything. That’s my attitude.
I’m an adventurer and always look for new things to offer clients. Even for such a popular place as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city, you can see my tour products are something different from others in the same market. I call the style “urban adventure” though you don’t need to be an adventurer to experience it.
What is the best part of your job?
Traveling is working. It opens my eyes and diversifies my knowledge and views of life.
What’s the most bizarre experience or odd request from a client you’ve had on a guided tour?
Occasionally I receive requests from tourists (even from Westerners) for where to eat rat meat! Rat meat is a popular dish in some provinces of Vietnam. In rural districts, rats live in the rice fields and eat rice, so the meat is quite delicious. However, I can’t imagine I could chew on rat meat. It sounds terrible to me.
If you are a tour guide, you have to leave your family for long periods. Traveling with clients in remote areas, I can only talk to my little daughter via phone or email. Like all East-Asian people, I respect the values of family and want to take good care of all of my relatives as best I can. Dinner is the most important time for a Vietnamese family when parents will enjoy time with their children after a working day. However, I’m usually dining alone because I’m on tour and travelers have their own dinner plans.
When you’re not busy guiding tours – what’s your favorite thing to do?
I enjoy a cup of tea or cold beer beside the West Lake of Hanoi. I love all kinds of tea, and am proud that Vietnam is second in the world’s tea production.
As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?
A tour guide is a local expert. If you visit an attraction by yourself, you can learn most of the things from Wikipedia, but a tour guide will tell you something NOT from the internet. He has lived in the attraction, witnessed the life of the attraction. He belongs to the attraction. So he knows more clearly than the internet. Here we usually call a tour guide as “a living Wiki”.
“Pho bo” beef noodle is the most spiritual cuisine of Vietnam. It’s used by both rich and poor people. It’s simple but elegant. It can be used for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are many versions of “Pho”, but we consider “Hanoi Pho” is the king of Pho in Vietnam.
Tell us something about your area of Vietnam that only an experienced guide would know.
Do you know Hanoi is the largest capital of Asia? Indeed, we had a big city expansion in 2008, and the capital became 10 times bigger since then. Do you know Northwest Vietnam has a different weather from Northeast due to Hoang Lien Son mountain? The mountain prevents the cold monsoon from the Northeast, so the provinces of Moc Chau, Son La, Dien Bien can be sunny with clear sky while Hanoi and Halong bay are under storm! That’s why if you need a mountain discovery, I like to recommend the Northwest loop of Vietnam with good weather all-year-round. The tour lasts at least 5 days with lots of chances to immerse yourself in the local hill tribes’ life.
In your view, what makes a good tour guide?
Leading skills. You don’t need to act as Barack Obama, but you need to perform so that all clients are happy to pay attention to you. Otherwise, you cannot lead a tour successfully, and your tour doesn’t have a happy ending – I’m sure.