Volunteer tour guides a hit with foreigners
by Vu Lan Dung
Food for thought: Dorothy Colton and her husband from England enjoy Vietnamese food with their tour guide, Truong Thi Duyen (left).
Font of knowledge: Nguyen Thi Mat (second fromright) describes the Temple of Literature to Australian tourists Sharleen Airs and her family. — VNS Photos Lan Dung
HA NOI — After booking tickets, hotels and other services for their trip to the capital of Viet Nam, Dorothy Colton and her husband from England visited the website www.tripadvisor.com
to read recommendations from tourists all over the world. They accidentally found Ha Noi Free Tour Guides, a non-profit organisation founded and run by youth. They tried booking a free tour via email and received a reply just few minutes later.
The couple is among hundreds of foreign tourists discovering Ha Noi under the guidance of trained amateur tour guides. Established in January 2010, the group attracts more than 100 young people, most of whom are students.
"Many international tourists have difficulties on their visit to the capital, while Vietnamese students lack the environment to practise foreign languages. Therefore, the group was founded to support foreigners as well as create an opportunity for students to acquire new knowledge and improve their skills," said group leader Dao Thanh Cong, who is studying at Ha Noi University of Science and Technology.
When they were first getting established, the group had to spend a great deal of time presenting themselves to the public. Information for aspiring tour guides was posted on websites of Ha Noi universities and Facebook or spread by word of mouth.
To become a member of the group, students had to send their application package to reviewers. After passing the first round, they were interviewed for language skill assessment and their understanding of Vietnamese culture and history. Every volunteer recruited then underwent training courses on Ha Noi's culture, history, geography and must-see places. Also problem solving and communication skills were taught.
Truong Thi Duyen, a senior of Ha Noi Foreign Trade University, recalled: "I dreamed of becoming a tour guide for a long time. When I read about the group on the internet, I thought this was the opportunity for me to make my dream come true, as well as to develop my English. Lucky for me, I was chosen."
Tour guides carry out other duties as well: introducing the group to foreign tourists. At first, they delivered leaflets at hotels and tourism spots but it did not bring any success. Not being discouraged, they reached to potential sightseers through travel websites such as www.lonelyplanet.com, www.virtualtourist.com and www.tripadvisor.com and it worked.
The group's inbox received dozens of requests from tourists around the world, most of them coming from Southeast Asia, Europe and North America. At present, the groups offers tours in English, Russian, French and Chinese. On their website at www.hanoifree tourguides.com, they provide full-day and half-day packages to foreigners. The free tour guides are also willing to take tourists to places following their own itinerary.
Nguyen Thi Mat from Ha Noi National University has a lot of memories of her four tours. "I took an English family to Bat Trang pottery village on my second time.
While they were trying to make their products, the owner of a store turned on music. The tourists left their work behind and started dancing in front of local people," she smiled.
"When they go back to their countries, I often exchange emails with the visitors. A retired Canadian teacher helped me learn English more effectively."
The volunteers all learn something after every tour. Duyen said that now she knows more about religions of the world, while Mat has improved her English speaking skills.
The first thing to cross [Dorothy] Colton's mind while reading about the group was "It ‘s too good to be true". She did not understand why they were doing this. Wandering around the city under the guidance of Duyen, she said: "It's so much better to have someone to take me to an iPhone shop and local market and coffee shop. Every city should have the same service."
"I don't think many students in England are willing to spend their time taking tourists around. I am very impressed because students here use their time to travel with us instead of doing part-time jobs to earn money," she added.
The same thing happened to Sharleen Airs, who went on holiday with her husband and daughter. "I was a bit curious and surprised because everything costs something. It's very unusual to have free tours with people who absolutely understand the culture that we have no idea about," she said
"I read some reviews from foreigners who had used the service before. In my opinion, it's very good idea because travel agencies try to charge you almost US$40 to do the same thing."
It was the first time she had ever heard of a free tour guide group, so she tried to take advantage of it. "Next time when I come back, I will definitely have a free tour, maybe a tour outside of the city. I will be on trip advisor, telling everybody because looking at a map is too confusing for us," she smiled.
Now, the tour guides are expanding their operation to the centre and the south, beside carrying out charitable activities in the community.
"We are contacting students in the central city of Da Nang and HCM City to open more free tour guide organisations. In the near future, the groups will be in the centre and the south of Viet Nam," Cong said. — VNS