Volunteer students at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi 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.
Hanoi students discover the joy of helping
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 Hanoi. 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 hunters’, 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.
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.”