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Ha Noi students discover the joy of helping

Update: September, 20/2015 - 04:26
Ready to help: Members of "Ask me anything" are always happy to help tourists. They speak a variety of languages - and their services are free. However, police once confiscated their notice board while they checked them out. The board was later returned with a smile. — Photo

Volunteer students at Hoan Kiem Lake in Ha Noi have learned, like the adventurous students in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, that by helping tourists find their way, they are also expanding their own knowledge. Thuy Dung reports.

It is late afternoon in Ngoc Son Temple, but Hoang Minh Chau has no time to break for tea. To every single tourist passing by, she says loudly, "Hello, we are here to help tourists. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask. It's free."

She is a core member of a group known as "Ask me anything", one of the latest offering free guidance to tourists. During weekends, the group members gather at the entrance of Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake and hold a white board with a message, "We are here to help you with directions, places, history and culture. We speak English, Dutch, French and Japanese."

The concept of a city tour where there is no set charge is becoming increasingly popular in Ha Noi. Similar services were casually set up in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta many years ago and is credited with helping many students there speak good English.

An increase in budget travel, the growth of exotic voyages and the ease of word-of-mouth Internet marketing is helping drive this trend.

But rather than showing the tourists around the city as most volunteer groups do - such as Hanoi Kids, Hanoi Free Walking Tours and Hanoi Free Tour Guides - members of "Ask me anything" stay at one spot.

Set up in April, 2015, the group quickly drew a large amount of young students who were keen on cultural exchanges, improving their English or even on becoming a tour guide. There are no pre-required tests, and no standards or pressures to become a member. "To register for membership, people just need to fill a form that has five basic questions," Chau said.

The group's founder, Tran Tien, wants to find a new way to link tourists and local people, based on mutual needs.

"A lot of young students, whom we call ‘foreign hun-ters', wander around Hoan Kiem Lake looking for tourists to talk to and practise their English. However, not many foreigners feel comfortable with that. Instead, we chose to stay in one spot. People come to us if they have any questions," she said.

Although guides are free of charge, it isn't free of challenges.

Chau said it was difficult to maintain a steady amount of members when most volunteers had different schedules.

"After five months, the number of members who show up regularly is not as many as it was earlier. Some of them are busy with study or work," she said.

Even though Ngoc Son Temple is one of the places most frequently-visited by first-time visitors to Ha Noi, there are times when few people approach asking for help.

"A handful of visitors think they have to pay and some even doubt the answers they receive," Chau said.

She said one tourist was astonished when members said the information provided was free of charge.

Heart of Ha Noi: Members of the volunteer guide group help a visitor understand the meaning of one of the historical buildings scattered about Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Ha Noi.

Even in the heat of the day, Chau never forgets to smile and speak in a charming voice to all the tourists passing by, even if some just ignore her, smile or shake their heads.

"Lots of Vietnamese people stare at the team as if there's something wrong with us," Chau said. "They probably think we have too much free time to do this sort of thing."

Chau said even when someone approached the group, the questions were not just about history, tourist attractions or eating places.

"We are sometimes surprised by weird questions, such as: 'How far is the earth from the moon', 'Can you help me with my astrology,' 'What is happiness?'"

Chau said members of the group were challenged when foreign students asked about the meanings of patterns on ancient buildings. Normally the members support each other over tough questions.

"There are times some ask tourists about themselves while other members search Google for the correct information," she said.

There were challenges posed even by security forces. One member said the police took away their notice board twice. Talking to Viet Nam News, the leader of the guards said, "We don't control what the volunteering groups have been doing as this is a tourist attraction. But there's a ban on using boards or advertisement for any purpose around Hoan Kiem Lake."

However, Tien said: "This happened to us unfortunately during the group's first test run. Now, for a long time, as they became aware of what we're doing, they haven't said anything."

Talking about their long-term plans, Tien said he wanted to recruit more students to the team so that it could stay strong and committed for a long time.

Tien said such groups were vital to promote a dynamic and friendly image of tourism in Viet Nam. He said he hoped to hold more training sessions to assist new members in the future.

"Many tourists became friends with our members after asking a few questions. I'm looking forward to seeing this new approach to tourism expand to other cities," he said. — VNS

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