Earlier this year my friends and I visited the mountainous town of Sa Pa with a group of Thai friends. It was the first time our foreign friends had visited the town, so we hired a tour guide who could speak Thai to ensure they had the best experience.
Everything was fine during our bus trip from Hà Nội to Sa Pa, but when we visited an ethnic village in Sa Pa, our tour guide did not actually ‘guide’ us as we expected. She remained silent the entire time from when we started walking down a road that leads to the village to when we were in the middle of the village itself. No introduction of the place, no instructions to our Thai friends, which left us with an impression that this was her first time being there as well.
The outing was not all ruined, but it was disappointing enough to make one of my friends call the tour operator and complain about the guide. As for me, although having gotten used to independent travelling, I felt that our Thai friends should have been treated better, and that our guide should have performed better on the job.
That was a personal experience that made me realise the important role of an international tour guide. Guiding tours for foreign visitors is a much sought-after occupation in Việt Nam due to the high income and travelling opportunities. There were 9,920 international tour guides in the country in 2016, accounting for 57 per cent of the total 17,387 tour guides, according to statistics from the National Administration of Tourism.
International guides often get paid two or three times higher than domestic ones due to the requirement of foreign language proficiency, depending on the languages. This is also considered an interesting and somewhat ‘sophisticated’ job as the tour guides get to meet foreigners, find out about other cultures, and have the opportunity to improve their language and communication skills.
But the trickiest part of the job is how to respond to foreigners’ curious – sometimes unreasonable – inquiries about Việt Nam. Young and experienced tour guides have different attitudes towards this matter.
Hà Thu Hoạch, a retired government official working as a freelance tour guide for Spanish tourists, said to answer this type of question requires not only solid knowledge on the country’s history and culture but also years of experience, which the young guides are yet to accumulate. One example, he said, is when a European tourist asked why the former Sài Gòn was renamed as Hồ Chí Minh City.
“I explained to her, twice, all the historical and geographical reasons for this decision, including how the city’s Nhà Rồng Wharf was the place where the late President Hồ Chí Minh started his journey in 1911 to seek independence for the country,” Hoạch said. “But she kept on saying she did not understand, and repeatedly asked whether the name change was the result of any individualistic impulses.”
Nguyễn Thị Trình, a middle-aged freelance tour guide for French tourists, said that while the enthusiasm of youth is much appreciated, young people may sometimes lack knowledge on Việt Nam’s traditional culture which foreigners are so eager to get to know. One case in point is when a tourist asked her about the rice cultivation process in rural areas. “It would have been such a tricky question for a young tour guide that grows up in the city,” she said.
In contrast to the cautiousness of the older generation, the twenty-something tour guides seem confident about their information gathering and learning skills.
Nguyễn Duy Anh, 26, said that he learned almost everything about the tourism spots via the internet and by talking to local people.
Đặng Huy Lâm, 25, from the travel agent Rutas Vietnam, said when faced with questions he did not have the answers to, he took advantage of travelling time to look up information on the internet then later responded to the tourists.
Lâm said he did receive complaints when he first started out, but his passion for the job was what kept him going.
“Once when I was four months into the job, I got taken out of a tour because I was unable to respond to a tourist’s inquiries about the major wars in Việt Nam’s history,” Lâm said. “They asked for a more experienced guide, and I decided to keep following the group and learning from the older colleague.”
Looking back at our trip to Sa Pa, I feel that I can be more understanding towards our guide since she was young (under 30) and inexperienced. But I do think there are certain qualities one must possess if one wants to become a tour guide, such as an extroverted personality, the will to serve, and the ability to oversee things.
As for international tour guides, apart from these qualities, they need to have an excellent command of a foreign language, solid knowledge of Việt Nam’s culture and history, as well as political and cultural awareness and sensitivity – which many young people are yet to acquire.
Becoming ‘an ambassador’ of a country in the eye of foreign visitors is not an easy task. Let’s hope that our young tour guides consider this a career goal and persevere until they get there. VNS