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December 2015

Vietnam; tour guides; money and choices


“Welcome home” he said. And it was good to be home even though I had only been out of the country for nine days and in North Vietnam for seven.

“How long were you in Vietnam?” the immigration officer asked.

Just a week, touristing with my son.”

“Where did you go?”

            “Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa.” I said, starting to get a little concerned by the questions. It reminded me of the time I came back from Europe and the officer grilled me about where I had gone and what I did because they mistakenly took me for a drug trafficker (but that is another story.)

“Do you have relatives there?”

            “No, just on a tour.” Then I looked at him and noticed he was Asian like me.

            “Are you from Vietnam?” I ventured.

“Yes” he said. “Why do you think I was asking you where you went?”

I didn’t answer that last question. I could have told him about my bad experience coming in from Europe. But to have a nice chat with the officer would have annoyed the next person in line.

“Welcome home.” I was back in the USA.


Being inspired by the initiative and resourcefulness of people

  • Because he was the 5th child in a poor village family, his parents couldn’t afford to get him much education. U (pronounced Ooo) set about learning English via the Internet, by watching YouTube videos and movies. He was our 21-year-old guide in Sapa (Sa Pa), a frontier mountainous town in the northwest of Vietnam along the border with China. Several ethnic minority groups live there and U led us on treks into H’mong and Giay villages. Knowing that speaking English could get him work as a tour guide, U also realized his language skills would improve as he interacted with tourists.

U is married with a 3-year-old daughter and has ambitions to earn enough money to go to English school and improve on what he has already learned on-the-job. With improved English language skills he plans to get a good paying job in the city (Hanoi) and provide even better for his family than he can in the village.

  • I was standing by a picturesque red bridge that spanned across the Hoan Kiem Lake to the Ngco Son Temple in Hanoi. Selling cards that folded out to reveal cute pop-up paper cuttings of temples, trees, sampan boats and other intricate creations was a group of women imploring tourists to buy. A less aggressive seller was a young woman who stood nearby and seemed more courteous than her peers. I struck up a conversation since she spoke good English.

Flower, I found out, was 28-years-old and 7 1/2 months pregnant. She was earning as much as she could to prepare for the 2 months she would takeoff to have her baby. After that, she said, she would bring her baby with her to the street so she could both care for the baby AND keep selling to tourists. The grandfather of her 5.5 year old son was the babysitter while she earned the money to support the family and her son’s education, which was going to cost her 50 US dollars a month when he was soon to start school. The father of her children apparently was not too reliable.

Flower was another inspiring person who, like U, had also taught herself English by watching TV and videos as well as learning most, she said, from talking to tourists. She worked also as an independent tour guide reading up on historical sites around Hanoi in order to explain Hanoi to tourists on walking tours around the city. Her hard self-development work paid off. We booked a walking tour with her, precisely because she spoke such good English. Other tour guides were well-intentioned, however it was a strain sometimes to catch what they were saying. Flower was so easy to converse with; that made touristing with her a relaxed, informative pleasure. And she would earn $20 US dollars for a 3-hour tour. That is half a week’s wages for people who earn $2,000 – $3,000 US a year, an average income!


Seeing the world through the eyes of a different culture.

Standing by the side of the road in Hanoi watching the dizzying speed, volume and constancy of motorbikes and cycles whizzing past with seemingly no breaks of traffic, trying to cross the street suddenly became a whole new skill to learn. Traffic lights are few and far between. While there are painted crossings at some intersections, nobody seems to obey either walk lights or crossings. You certainly would not cross the street while checking your email or text messages on your iPhone in Hanoi. Crossing the street is a lesson in cultural awareness and courageous assertiveness or you will never cross the street.

Here’s how you do it:

  • See if you are lucky enough to be near a “local” and stick by their side and cross with them.
  • If no local guide is around, watch for a slight break in the flow of cars and bikes, then step out into the flow of traffic. Do not wait for a clear path to develop. There will be no such path.
  • Turn your head to face the upcoming traffic. Try to make eye contact with the rider or driver closest to running you down, then proceed calmly ahead. Do NOT stop- or doubt yourself and make jerking stops and starts. That only confuses drivers who possess the skill to know how to time their approach, as long as you keep moving. If you start panicking and stop and start, you’ll cause an accident. That could activate your life insurance.

What I love about international travel is the way it turns your head around. You first grapple with, then understand, and eventually appreciate a whole new way of thinking and being. I can’t say a week in North Vietnam has now made me culturally competent to work with Vietnamese people. What it is is a quick lesson in how a country can forgive or at least forget about the conflicts and consequences of war.

A couple of terminology changes I quickly learned:

  • It was the “American War” that ended in 1975, not the “Vietnam War.”
  • America fought the “Vietnamese Communists” not the “Viet Cong” or “VC” which is a bit pejorative.

How do the Vietnamese people view Americans and the USA?” I asked our tour guides. “That is in the past and we do not have bad feelings.” Perhaps that’s because tourism has opened up in Vietnam since the 1990s when most of our tour guides weren’t yet even born. Maybe all has really has been forgiven and forgotten. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to bite the hand that feeds you since tourism brings opportunities for jobs and income that would simply not exist. For whatever reason, I sensed no ill will, only hospitality and graciousness.


Selling souvenirs to tourists is a pretty competitive business, especially with no fixed sales territories, storefronts or rules. I’m talking about the flock of street vendors in developing countries like Vietnam where both selling and buying is survival of the fittest. Observing this revealed lessons I think applies to our work in addiction and mental health.


Fundamental to any effective interaction is the quality of the relationship.

As soon as the tour bus pulled up to the Sunny Mountain Hotel in Sapa town, a swarm of village women mobbed us as we attempted to step down off the bus. “Swarm” and “mobbed” are not exaggerations or literary license. One particular village vendor looked me in the eye, implored me to take a good look at her so I would remember her face. I noticed her missing teeth, crossed-eye and big smile. At that point she wasn’t intent on showing me her array of woven bracelets, scarfs or trinkets. She knew I was just getting out of the bus. But she also knew we were about to start our trek into her village.

Upon reaching the village again we were mobbed by a flock of women now more intent on the hard sell. But wait! It wasn’t a new group – but actually the same women. And yes- there she was- my particular ‘agent’ staring me in the face reminding me that she had already marked me as her prime customer. Somehow they had all rushed ahead by motorcycle, ready to be right there when arrived at their village.

While we trekked through the village, taking in views of terraced rice paddies, water buffalo, pigs, ducks and chickens, right by my side was my ‘agent’…plus a couple of other vendors attempting to edge in on her territory.

“Where are you from? How many children do you have? How old are they? How old are you? What do you like to buy?” – some of the questions raised by my ‘agent’ as we walked along together, as if they were part of the tourist group. “America” I said. “Three children.” This evoked a response from this vendor and mother: “I have three children too” and she proceeded to tell me their ages.

It became clear the village vendor/’agent’ who, from that very first moment tried to connect with me, was building the relationship, hoping I would buy several crafts. Unfortunately for her, it didn’t work with me because she didn’t check out what I wanted. I was not in the market for any souvenirs. This makes the next SKILLS tip equally as important.


Be persistent but person-centered and customer-focused.

When I first met ­­Flower selling pop-up cards, I vowed to myself and her that I did not need any more souvenirs I knew would end up in a box of stuff I’d later just give or throw away. However, as we talked more, she clearly was more focused on building the relationship than on a hard sell. I understood her philosophy. “I treat people with respect. If they don’t want to buy, I don’t push them. I believe in karma,” she said.

I understood her to mean that how she treated people now would impact and influence her own future and well-being. So she wasn’t about to push me for some quick sale now, only to have it result in some negative impact later. She could tell I wasn’t interested in her pop-up cards. I had communicated sufficiently so she knew I didn’t need any more souvenirs and did not intend to buy. She didn’t mention her wares any further. We just chatted about her son, her pregnancy and life in Hanoi and what she had to do to provide for her family.

Over time in this no pressure, accepting interaction, I became so impressed by her hard work and respectful manner I ended up wanting to buy one of her cards. Her manner allowed me to lower my resistance. I actually looked at her cards more carefully. As I did, I realized they were actually very creatively done, worth the dollar or two she was asking for. Such a minor expense to me, but so helpful for her sales.

Flower’s respectful persistence and relationship-building had paid off – a pleasant and informative conversation about her life and her family’s in the culture and demands of Hanoi and North Vietnam; plus some much needed income as her due delivery date was fast approaching.


Eating dinner out in Hanoi, Taylor and I had a bowl of hot fresh noodles and soup, tofu and lettuce for $3 – that’s $3 for the total bill, not for each of us. If the locals had home cooked that meal, it would probably have been a dollar or two at most. It was amazing how inexpensive a meal could be, but then it would need to be affordable with a yearly salary of $3,000 USD or less.

What would it be like to have such a low income? How happy would you be with so little income? It seems your options for a whole variety of issues would be severely limited.

  • No decisions about what travel vacation to do this year – how far can you travel on an income of $2,000/year?
  • Don’t have to decide on French cuisine, Italian or any other gourmet meal – cheap street food is the best eating out experience you could afford.
  • What car to buy? That’s out of the question. If you really save, a used motorcycle could be possible.
  • Christmas shopping? Not even for the fake designer label handbags or ski-wear. Those cheap look-alike, name brands are the darlings of tourists from affluent countries looking for shoes or bags.

Come to think of it, having little money to spend cuts out a whole lot of stress from decisions, decisions, decisions. In fact that was written about in a 2004 Scientific American article entitled “Tyranny of Choice”. Researchers found that more choices and options in affluent countries cause depression for many people. If you want to get to the bottom line lessons, look at the box on page 74. However the whole article is worth reading.

Too many options and choices can mean depression and stress. No money and no choice can also engender the same experience. For me, I’m grateful I have enough money I can visit other countries and cultures- to remind me how blessed we are to have options. It also reminds me that money and choice are privileges to be managed and respected. More is not necessarily better……or happier.

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