Expat guides are the real McCoy

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Foreign tourists stroll down a street in Nha Trang. A debate has begun recently over whether foreign tour guides are good for Vietnam, and at least one expat is sure they are.

Vietweek's Guiding Principle article, about the problems caused by foreign tour guides in Vietnam, was an ill-informed and occasionally xenophobic piece which barely reflected the reality for tourists and tour companies in the country.

Earlier this year I took a visiting British travel journalist on a motorbike tour of Saigon. Our guide for the day was an Australian war veteran who has lived in Vietnam for over 30 years, speaks fluent Vietnamese, and knows the country better than anyone I have ever met. He spent the day taking us well off the usual tourist trail, to places that even I, having lived in Saigon for nearly 10 years, had never visited before, and kept us informed, entertained and amused throughout. He was basically the best tour guide I have met anywhere in Asia and as an expat tour guide in Vietnam, he is the shape of things to come.

The assumption that only locals can guide foreign visitors to their country is arrogant, naïve and extremely old-fashioned. In my experience, Vietnamese tour guides only have very basic knowledge of their own country, have no idea about the needs and interests of foreign visitors, and are generally more interested in earning commission from tourist shops & restaurants than providing their clients with a memorable experience.

Foreign tour guides on the other hand know exactly what foreign visitors want to get out of their visit, and as foreigners who have chosen to settle in Vietnam, often have a greater passion for and knowledge of their adopted homeland than local guides.

My career in the tourism industry began in 1992, when I worked as a tour guide. Not in my native England (a country I do not particularly like and for which I would thus not make a good tour guide) but in Paris, my favorite city in the world and a place I passionately enjoyed introducing to my English clients. A local guide may have known as much or more about the city than me, but it is doubtful they could have spoken about Paris with more enthusiasm or with greater awareness of what approach would work with my guests.

And so it is in Vietnam. Whilst local guides follow the same boring old tourist routes around Saigon, Hanoi or Hoi An, an increasing number of expat guides are offering innovative new experiences such as street food tours, architecture or photography walks, art tours and even pub crawls, and getting rave reviews from travelers looking for something fresh. Local guides meanwhile continue to take their clients to tourist restaurants & shops, claiming that local restaurants, street food joints and urban wet markets are "not for tourist." If Vietnamese guides and tour operators are losing out, they only have their lack of creativity and insight to blame.

So when the director of Lua Viet Travel complains that: "The government cannot know what foreign tour guides are telling international tourists in Vietnam," I smile with pride. Why should the government know, or indeed care, what tour guides are telling tourist visitors to Vietnam? Tourism is not just about gaining cultural knowledge of a destination it is about creating memorable, fun experiences and generating word-of-mouth marketing about a destination. The average local guide, with their carefully-trained culturally-focused spiel about the Reunification Palace or Ben Thanh Market, does not do a particularly good job of providing such an experience; but a good expat guide with a passion for the city, deep insider knowledge, a service-orientated character and an intrinsic feel for what tourist visitors really want, can provide an unforgettable experience that reflects well on Vietnam as a whole. And when he worries that foreign guides "could take tourists to shops that extort and Vietnamese tourism will suffer," I nearly choke on my coffee at the irony.

If Vietnam's tourism industry wants to move forward, it needs to start getting creative and looking at what the country's foreign community has to offer. As for me, when I am doing a tour or arranging one for my clients, given the choice I will use an expat tour guide every single time.

By Tim Russell
The writer is a British expat who used to run a tour company in Ho Chi Minh City


Vietnamese tour guides are not beyond poking fun and making snide comments about their native country when they show their compatriots around in foreign countries, disgruntled tourists say.

"When we were passing a long bridge in Paris, a Vietnamese tour guide said: "˜Please pay attention. This is a very long bridge with many spans but it is smooth driving all the way through; unlike in Vietnam, the vehicle just bounces up when passing each span to tire you out'," Vietnamese tourist Thao Phuong told the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

She said the tour guide continued disparaging Vietnam as they went on a cruise on the Seine River by saying that it would take countless generations for Ho Chi Minh City to turn the Nhieu Loc Canal into something like the river in Paris.

Another Vietnamese tour guide also had comments to make on Vietnam when leading tourists from his country to the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.

"Our group is large and you should maintain the group. But in case you get lost, it would easy for you to find one of us. Just look for a tourist who is just looking and not buying anything."

In another case, a Vietnamese tour guide in Singapore remarked that locals are willing to throw garbage into trash bins despite having to walk a long way because of strict fines. "Our compatriots are not so patient, they just look around to see if any one is watching before littering," he said.

While some of the comments might have been intended to be humorous, Phuong was not amused.

She said these tour guides have the habit of comparing Vietnam and other countries, always unfavorably.

"We are traveling in developed countries and such comparisons are not okay. They should look into Vietnam's improvements rather than spreading bad and inaccurate messages about their own country," she said.

Vu The Binh, chairman of Vietnam Travel Agents Association, admitted that his agency has received many complaints from tourists about Vietnamese tour guides slandering their own country.

"These tour guides usually do not have full knowledge about Vietnam. Some others give biased and general comments based on specific cases they came to know through the media," he said, adding that a majority of 8,000 tour guides in Vietnam only passed short training courses of between one and three months. (Thanh Nien News)


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