One chilly Sunday morning, Nguyen Thu Phuong gets an e-mail. She quickly goes to the Old Quarter’s Hang Dao Street, where two foreign tourists are waiting for her.
Phuong, 21, a student at Ha Noi Foreign Trade University, is the head of the French section of Ha Noi Free Tour Guides (HFTGs), a non-profit club founded and operated by university students, alumni and young people in 2010 to offer free tour guide services to foreign travellers when they visit Ha Noi.
In 2014, the club won the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union award for best tour guide club of the year.
“I have worked as a volunteer here for one year. It is such an amazing chance to practise my French and meet French speakers. Besides, I can share Vietnamese culture with foreigners from around the world,” she says.
The tour guides can communicate in English, French, Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian, Korean and Spanish.
Phuong recalls bringing French tourists visiting Ha Noi for the first time to Dong Xuan Market.
“Most of them enjoyed the food,” she says.
Another member, Nguyen Van Hao, takes Connie Bunge and her husband to the Temple of Literature. Despite the clamorous sound of screaming and chatting from the crowd around, the 20-year-old student retains his brightest smile, while giving introductions carefully at every corner of the temple.
“He has taken us to see the Water Puppet Theatre, then West Lake and the Old Quarter. I felt like time went by very fast. Wherever we wished to go, he did not hesitate to guide us there. He started to learn German two years ago, and I know that it is very hard, though nothing compared to Vietnamese, but he is still able to pronounce correctly,” says Bunge, from Germany.
The enthusiasm and hospitality of these young, energetic people attracts many clients.
“It’s nice to have someone speaking your own language. When we go home we can tell all our friends about this organisation and the wonderful tour guides they have,” Bunge adds.
For Pham Huong Quynh, 21, the Youth Union award was major encouragement.
“To me, every tour is an unforgettable memory. Once I took my customer to Long Bien Bridge, and it rained very hard, so we had to ask for a plastic bag from a passerby to cover one of my customers’ cameras. Eventually, we all walked home and got sick but I was very happy to receive their thank you email some days later. They said they admired me so much. That memory will never be forgotten,” says Quynh.
According to Dao Thanh Cong, head of the club, the reason why HFTGs has such a large number of customers is they have a huge amount of young, devoted volunteers who know many languages and are eager to work hard for free.