FROM VIETNAM TO CHINA: ETHNIC PEOPLE OF THE BORDER
Le Van Cuong and Vietnam
As we arrived in Hanoi we were met by Le Van Cuong and we were greeted warmly and a big smile. I asked for him to point me to an ATM and he quickly guided me to one where I was able to get some Vietnamese money. We were taken through Immigration and Customs where he took care of everything.
We then went to a van and driven to the Serenade Hotel. On the one-hour drive he gave us a brief rundown of what we would be doing for the rest of the day and provided us with water - plenty of water, something he did every day.
Right from the first Cuong spoke to us about the Vietnam War and his background, the Economy of Vietnam, Life in Vietnam today, what we would experience in Village Life of the Hill Tribes, the Role of Education in the Emerging Vietnam, Health Care, and many other issues.
His presentation technique was such that we could hear him in the 9-passenger van - facing us and speaking loudly. Our days were full, we did not waste time driving exceptionally long distances, nor did we fail to meet the people of the Hill Tribes of Vietnam as promised in the itinerary.
His cell phone rang several times but he kept his attention on the four of us. Every meal we had with Cuong was either a 4 or 5 (on a scale of 1-5). By the time he walked us home a little after 8PM we were ready for some sleep.
This attentive and full day schedule would be a hallmark of Mr. Cuong's days. Always starting by 8:30 or earlier and giving us at least 8 hours, usually 10+ hours of his time. We were usually saturated with information and experiences.
Another very important facet of our experience in Vietnam was meeting the people. We went to Cuong's old and new neighborhood and introduced to everyone; old, young, well to do, and the poor. What a collection of involvements. Everyone was glad to meet us - they were so friendly to the American tourists.
Vietnam was very hot and humid. Cuong spent what I call discretionary funds on things like rides, sodas, market goods, and events that were not on the schedule. After every activity he had us relax, cool down, and he took the time to discuss what we had experienced.
On our last evening in Hanoi Cuong took us to his home and provided us with a chance to take a shower and then to have dinner with his extended family. He then gave all of us some surprise gifts; two packages of coffee, a package of tea, black pepper, and a Vietnamese cookbook.
He also printed about 20 copies of photos he had taken of our experiences and us together in Vietnam. In over 50 tour guides that I have had experience with, this was a first. WOW!
While up north he took us to many Hill Tribe villages. One after another, we visited, walked through markets, tried different "delicacies", drank tea, met and spoke to these people, were shown their customs and traditions, all knew him. And to us, the most important aspect: he kept the solicitors away from us.
One of the most memorable events while we were in Sa Pa was the LONG walk through the countryside of Sa Pa. We met Hill Tribe people, spoke to villagers, visited homes, had tea in the homes, visited schools, and entered the classrooms, saw their lunch programs, and saw women with children on their backs hoeing the countryside.
We saw men working on vehicles, bicycles, and machinery. We had the opportunity to have lunch cooked by Cuong and a village family. We also had the experience of sharing with native people glasses, clothing, and other incidentals we had brought from the USA. How it was appreciated!
Another aspect that is missed by many Tour Guides in the explanations about life, the country, and its people is the WHY. Cuong never passed up the opportunity to explain how and why certain aspects were important to the evolving Vietnam. Sometimes these were self-evident but most times it provided the four of us an insight on Vietnam.
There were some negatives to the association with Mr. Cuong. His bravado was at times quite strong. His energy level was at times excessive - until we had time to think about it. He did not fully answer the questions I posed to him at the beginning. The vehicle we had up north was very warm as we could not run the A/C while climbing the steep mountain grades.
As far as our tour expectations in Vietnam, we believe our guide Mr. Cuong carried out the itinerary planned for us. The Vietnam portion of our trip was excellent and met not only M & M's arrangements, but met our own hopes for the journey.