Riding for 4 hours per day in the ultimate toxic tropical heat for many times in a row, Cu Chi should be a name to scare me personally.
Yet bringing different people to this land, getting them endure the heat together just to crawl inside the same set up branches of dirt forth and back is still a notable experience. From being an explorer, you switch your role and become observer, story teller. Your sense of ego melts, invisible to let other people’s experiences shine. Cu Chi in me is
Beautiful rubber jungles
In a dry land with nothing aside but an overwhelming heat about to burn you anytime, dotting here and there are still beautiful vast rubber plantations. We ride slowly in small paths under lovely protection of rubber shadows, admiring milky latex drippings crystalized into see-through golden threads.
And once in a while, a character appeared, letting us intrude into his work and try cutting rubber for the first time.
To him, getting enough rubber milk for a work day when it’s not too hot is already a happiness. That simple. Happiness roots from not knowing, or knowing it’s enough to be content.
Intimacy in a flash
As a guide, I am allowed to cut through people’s interactions for a short time. Before a tour, we are not aware of each other. After a tour, we clear each other out of our minds. I don’t even try to remember their names because there is no point, and so do they.
Being intimate in a flash allows me to touch their precious adventure moments. Like seeing couples trying to sneak in a tunnel trunk I know too well, seeing them excited, nervous and their eyes spark the moment their partner got out with tunnel cover on hand, full of dirt.
Less than 100km away from Sai Gon, Mekong Delta is an interesting area with various things to discover. Whether informally taking friends around in their first time visit or being a professional tour leader for tour companies in the area, there are some common topics you can cover. The purpose is to blend general introduction with fascinating details along the road.
Know your audience’s expectations & knowledge
Putting experienced travelers who come to Mekong Delta many times before aside, most travelers just have a vague idea about Vietnam and Mekong in general. They tend to have a romantic visualization: abundant in vegetation, typical tropical land, heaps of fruit, interesting local guilds.
You can enrich your KYC (Know Your Customer) database by asking those questions:
Is this the first time you come to SEA/ Vietnam/ Mekong Delta?
How do you feel about the area (applied for return guests)?
Is there anything you find strange or irritating on your trip?
What other places have you been in Vietnam?
How long is your trip in total?
These questions can vary, aiming at knowing what customers already know, where they have been, their general impression as well as their concerns about the journey. It also helps you to set their expectations in an acceptable spectrum: not too low to still be excited & look forward, but not too high to be disappointed later.
I- GENERAL INTRODUCTION
A good briefing should put the destination in perspective. These information are general, covering: geography, history, population and some prominent facts. These facts and figures will help customers know why they should visit the area and not somewhere else.
Some facts gotten from credited sites: Lonely planet, Wikipedia, Vietnamese history sites, guidebooks. Your customers may be very well-read and informed. Especially, some documentaries about Mekong area is a great source of knowledge.
Again, a general rule should be repeated: If the customers want to show what them know, go ahead, let them shine. Don’t try to force yourself and pretend to be a know-it-all.
Below are some facts gathered from Vietnamese and English Wikipedia.
Terminology (origin of Mekong name)
Different countries name this river differently.
In China: – Lan Cang Jiang – wavy river
In Laos & Thai: Menam Kong (by Laos & Thais people) as “mother river” – origin of the current international name.
In Cambodia: Either Mekongk (by Laos ethnic group here) or Tonle Thom (big river, Khmer language). In rainy season, the water flows back to Tonle Sap.
When Mekong flows to Viet area, it splits into 2 rivers called Tien Giang (former river) & Hau Giang (later river) & gather in Mekong Delta, after that it splits again into 9 smaller rivers. Therefore in Viet language it is called “Cuu Long” or “9 dragons”.
Myths (interesting stories)
Myths can be a great source of information, excellent for story telling.
(in research period he he)
General facts/ figures/ numbers
Only use numbers/ figures to illustrate a point. If not, it’s boring and not useful.
12th worldly in length
Length: from 1200km to 1400km.
Half of the river flows in China territory. In Chinese territory it flows through very deep cliffs. When it flows out of China the water level is only 500m above sea level.
Flows changes in different seasons. (Disadvantage for waterway transportation but an advantage for rice planting)
A river of conflict. 6 countries share the river with different needs & priorities for its people.
Sewage discharge into water.
Pollution from agriculture and industrial sources.
The Mekong is a case study in hydro-politics and Asian water security.
DAM CONSTRUCTION ANALYSIS
Current situation: 15 dams in China and 15 dams in Laos, Thailand & Cambodia.
Affect the flow of fertile soil and the waterflow downstream, affecting the water level of Tonle Sap, agriculture and fishing industry.
Affect to Vietnamese community in Mekong Delta in particular: electric dams will turn 55% of water downstream into lakes, which changes the eco nature of the river, decrease of swamps, changing the immigration path and habitat of water animals.
What is Vietnam doing to cope with this situation: an estimated amount of 130 billion VND (nearly 6 million USD) is considered for research to present Mekong mutua organization. The plan was devised in December 2015.
Well known as the most balanced city in Vietnam with sandy beaches, fresh air and clean, organized urban landscape, Da Nang is also a favorite destination for riders coming to the central part of this country.
Here locating the legend pass: Hai Van. Literally means Ocean Cloudy in local language, this 21 km long pass is a breathtakingly scenic route for riders. Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear proved he was right upon exclaiming this is “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world” while the Guardian puts Hai Van the top great lesser known scenic drives on earth.
With sandy beaches on one side, rugged mountain on the other and a unique climate thanks to being the boundary between North and South Vietnam, Hai Van pass is a top choice for adventurers.
After many centuries of restricted commuting due to limited infrastructure, in 1966, Hai Van pass was widen and improved by American army. 39 years later, in 2005 Hai Van tunnel was officially built, helps reduce traffic flow coming here which makes it even more attractive for motorbikes and bicycle riders.
Even though limited by working time and scope, I still sense food or culinary plays an important part in promoting local culture. From simply taking a foreign friend out and explain to him/her what the food is like to professionally be a “food ambassador” in a paid food tour with specific standards, food tourism knowledge benefit in various roles you play.
Obvious observations within our working context show us the rise of “cooking class”, “street food tour”. Travel documentaries and blogs put a strong emphasis on local cuisine. Some cooking shows use food as a medium to promote culture (such as Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam). What’s driving force behind this?
As professionals in travel industry, it pays off to dig deeper. In the short term, you get more hands-on knowledge to apply for work. In the long-term, those may inspire you to do something cool with food tourism. Who know?
II. FOOD TOURISM SCENE IN HANOI
A simple search with keyword “Food tour Vietnam” brings out more than 17,000 results. Clearly every company tries to add “Food tour” into their tour programs. If you are a tour guide only, you may miss this piece of the picture.
Food tour is simple to organize with a low cost and a high chance of customer satisfaction. Come on. Just eat, drink and talk. How can you ruin such a thing? Smart tour operators soon realize this and go further to make it more “authentic” by offering cooking class. Hoi An and Mekong Delta seem to be the winners in the list.
III. TOUR GUIDES AND FOOD KNOWLEDGE SCOPE.
Tour guides are not expected to be food experts. We are “jack of all trades, master of none” after all ha ha. However, at least be a good Jack. In my opinion, knowledge of tour guide can be illustrated as the diagram below:
“Food in the tour” should be minimum requirement. General cuisine knowledge is just the back-up. The more you know, the more vivid your presentation is, but not necessarily so.
From that perspective I think a guide must equip at least the things below:
Names of dishes
Name of ingredients (seasonings/ sauces/ herbs/ side dishes)
Adjectives to describe about the food.
2. Basic food descriptions
How to eat it
How the food evolve over time
How it reflects the philosophy, climate, habits of local people.
How to give out knowledge just in time and not make it like a lecture. People are in their holiday for god’s sake.
4. Extra materials
Which articles, documentaries, cooking shows that you can use to get more important information for your tour? IV. CASE STUDIES
I already wrote about a street food tour I did, but I believe there is much more to discuss. We can create handouts in pdf version and make some portable chunks of information. Let’s think about section III above and prepare something (vocabulary & extra materials) for our cafe hangouts. Make it practical, interactive and to-the-point 🙂