|Guided tour: Yuko Kanetaka (first right) shows participants around the Old Quarter. — Photo courtesy of Yuko Kanetaka.
by Le Huong
After moving to Ha Noi in 2012, Yuko Kanetaka could not cross the street by herself.
Then a friend volunteering at non-profit Friends of Vietnam Heritage (FVH) told her about the organisation's tours. Her first tour made her see the city in a new light and she resolved to become a guide herself.
"I thought that if I became an FVH guide, I could learn how to cross the street," she said. "At the same time, I could learn how to communicate with local people so my life in Ha Noi would be more comfortable."
Kanetaka is one of dozens of foreigners who introduce Viet Nam's heritage sites to tourists as FVH volunteers. She runs the Japanese-language tours, which employ ten Japanese-speaking guides. Some of them are experienced, while others are still new to Ha Noi.
"We introduce a lot of information that you won't find in guidebooks, talking about the rich history of the Old Quarter and famous heritage sites and sharing little-known anecdotes," she said. "Participants always tell us that they would never have had a chance to know so much about Ha Noi if they had not joined our tour and they ended up liking Ha Noi more than before."
Kanetaka said the tours sometimes took unexpected turns. When a group member said she often suffered from dizziness, they decided to visit Lan Ong Street in the heart of Ha Noi's Old Quarter, where many traditional medicine shops are located. However, the doctor could only speak Vietnamese and the visitors could speak only Japanese.
After a while, the doctor called his son who could speak English and Kanetaka translated his English to Japanese. The conversation was really complicated and funny and after several minutes, they finally gave up and left.
Kanetaka hopes her experience as a guide will help her in 2020 when Japan hosts the Olympic Games, as she wants to get involved as a volunteer to help tourists from abroad.
British volunteer Jura Cullen has another reason to work as a guide for FVH.
"I really love Ha Noi and its history and the more I have learned over the years, the more I wanted to share my knowledge with others," she said.
Cullen enjoys taking people on walks around the city to show them hidden alleyways, lesser-known den and dinh (temples) and other buildings that help them understand Ha Noi's historical, cultural and spiritual features.
American Roman Szlam, a teacher at LESH English Centre who is in charge of English-language tours, said that volunteering helped him understand Vietnamese history and culture and he enjoyed passing on this knowledge.
"I often have Vietnamese people join my walks," he said. "The best part is when they tell me how much they learned about their own history and culture and how much they appreciated having their history and culture presented to them in a new and innovative way. Many say they were bored by the lessons of their parents and in school, but the tour inspired them to learn more about their history and culture."
FVH activities include three or four city walks in English, Japanese, French and Korean, which starts this autumn.
Excursions to the outskirts of Ha Noi are organised once a month.
Various film screenings; lectures by experts on history, art, religion, traditional music and medicine are held regularly while publications of guide books issued once a year. — VNS