by Thu Anh
Culinary melting pot
Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon) is a promised land not only for those who were born there but for people from all corners of the country. Whether they come from Ha Noi, Hue or other areas, they all bring their culinary touch to the nation's biggest city.
On placards and restaurant menus, the word "Ha Noi" is ubiquitous. Some of the most popular dishes in the city are Hanoian specialities, like cha caù (pan-fried fish served with rice vermicelli) and banh tom (fried sweet potato with shrimp).
But the more ordinary dishes, including bun oc (rice vermicelli soup with fresh-water snails), bun cha (vermicelli with grilled pork) and, of course, the national dish, pho, have an enduring appeal as well.
For northern (Bac) specialities, Pham Van Hai Street in Phu Nhuan District is the place to go.
Hoan, owner of a Ha Noi cha ca and bun cha restaurant, says that her customers' tastes vary, depending on the region.
"Northerners like to keep the sauce, raw vegetables, vermicelli and meat separate, but southerners like a mixed dish, and people from the central region like a lot of condiments," she says.
Dishes from Hue, a city well-known for its cuisine, are also abundant and popular. Bun boø (vermicelli with beef), banh beo and banh bot loc (small steamed rice cakes with fresh shrimp) are always in demand and are loved for their interesting flavours and low prices, around VND10,000 (50UScents) per portion at simple eateries.
Food stalls in Ben Thanh and Tan Dinh markets sell Hue dishes at slightly higher prices, around VND40,000 (US$2). Some of the dishes are tailored to southern tastes and are slightly different from what you would find in Hue.
Dishes that originated from other parts of the country can also be found in HCM City.
At the Binh Quoi-Thanh Da tourist quarter, dozens of cafes sell the famous banh trang (rice paper) served with pork and vegetable and banh canh cua (rice vermicelli with crab and pork) from Trang Bang District in the southeastern province of Tay Ninh. All the materials, including rice vermicelli, rice papers and vegetables, are brought from Tay Ninh.
Challenges of being a tour guide
Popular tour guide Tran Van My says his job is not just about smiling and saying thank you.
"To become a guide, you should never stop studying," the 39-year-old says, adding that guides should be able to answer tourists' questions.
"They should also learn about the history and culture of other countries, and practise a foreign language every day," he adds.
My's older colleague, Van Thien Dung of Saigontourist, is another well-known guide who has found success in his work. His job, he says, is "very hard", but he is "proud of it".
In 2000, Dung was chosen from hundreds of guides around the country to accompany former US President Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea around HCM City when they visited Viet Nam.
My and Dung, with their knowledge, experience and work ethic, are able to earn a good living, but there are hundreds of other tour guides who struggle under less than favourable conditions.
During the peak season, about 500 freelance guides work for tourist companies without contracts. Many of them dream of being professional, but do not have the opportunity to learn.
Most of these guides are not well-trained, so it is difficult for them to find work in the off-season.
"We often work in poor conditions, without bonuses, insurance or healthcare services from our employers," says a female tour guide who works at a private tourist agency in District 1.
My acknowledges that there is a serious shortage of tour guides who are professionally trained. He also says there is a need for guides who can speak another language, especially English, French, Chinese or Japanese.
Still, many tourist companies during the peak season have no choice but to hire unqualified workers.
With such shortcomings, maintaining the quality of the tourism industry's services is not an easy task.
My says he worries that untrained guides, in particular, will leave a bad impression on foreign visitors. — VNS