Interview with Dave Hardy - Vietnam Highlights

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Floating market and (inset) Dave Hardy
Floating market and (inset) Dave Hardy (Photo by Andrea Schaffer)

Leader interview: Dave Hardy - Highlights of Vietnam

Dave is a Kiwi, but been living in Saigon for the last six years. Like so many tour leaders with this company, he went traveling and saw the light. He packed up life as a bank manager, after 16 years, and put all his assets into the SE Asian bank of life. The interest is much higher and the bonuses are so much more beautiful.

The two best bits of this trip are Hoi An and Halong Bay without a doubt. They are both UNESCO Heritage sites and just both absolutely stunning.
When you are there walking the streets in Hoi An, it is almost as if you have stepped back in time to the old days. They both live up to their reputations without a doubt. On Halong Bay you want to be there overnight, so that you get the full range of afternoon, morning and evening. Hoi An can be blistering hot in summer, but you have the bonus of the beach very close, and the South China Sea, or as we call it in Vietnam, the Eastern Sea, because you can't say that anything is owned by China here. No Vietnamese guide will ever call it the South China Sea. The Philippines call it the Western Sea, and I think in Brunei they call it the Northern Sea.

Sunrise over halong bay
Sunrise over Halong Bay (Photo by Idreamlikecrazy)
We have a responsible tourism stop at a place called the Spiral Foundation in Hue, which is linked into the 'Healing the Wounded Heart' Foundation.
They have a shop staffed by deaf and mute Vietnamese young adults, so that they can get out and support and provide towards their families. And every group that we take there gets to make, with the help of the staff, a 100 % recyclable gift. Usually in the form of a ring, made with electrical wire. And pretty much everyone keeps them on for the whole trip, and takes them home with them.

Another favourite place to visit is a shop in Hoi An, called Reaching Out, which is also staffed by disabled or handicapped people as we say in the west. But here they say 'people with different abilities'. The crafts people there, and the workshop out the back (which you can also visit), are making handicrafts, carvings, textiles, jewellery and the like, and not just in Hoi An, but also take in products from people with different abilities around the country and sell them on their behalf. So, I always point people to that spot in Hoi An, which is otherwise a bit of a shopping mecca. I always suggest that if you are going to spend a dollar or more in Hoi An, then go and spend it here.

We do have young families on our tours from time to time, and they are always incredible.
Usually around 12-13 year olds, and they have just had an awesome time. They are so well balanced. I don't think I was that well balanced when I was that age! And I didn't get the chance to travel when I was young. In fact it wasn't until I was in my thirties and quit the banking career and decided to go see the world in 2005. I bought a backpack and a pair of boots and went to South America! It has been a fantastic odyssey ever since.

A lot of my fellow tour leaders have had similar journeys, giving up corporate life and becoming professional guides.
It used to be a young person's job, but now it has morphed into a more professional, longer term position. It used to be that a person would do it for a couple of years and then move onto something else, and just use it as an aid for world travel. Whereas now it is a life choice and most of us are older and stay in the job for, on average, six years. I've been doing it for seven years, and one of my colleagues has been here for ten or more. You can carry on doing this job and still be the youngest in the group, just by always looking after older people! So, I don't think you have to stop unless you just don't want to do it anymore, and I can't see that happening. Because we really, really love what we do. I know I do.

Dave Hardy

One of my favourite viewpoints on this trip is from the top of Ti Top Island in Halong Bay. You have to climb about 450 steep steps but it is well worth it.
It looks down on Halong Bay, so you see your boats, your junks on the bay, in one panoramic shot. It is pretty stunning. The best time of day to be there is the morning because it isn't busy. And also, in the evening, you have light issue with the steps, as they can be a bit dangerous if you are trying to get a lot of people up all those steps in the dark.

Halong Bay
Halong Bay (Photo by Greg Willis)
I have been using the same small, family-run restaurant in Hanoi for years, which is in the front of their house. It is brilliant because they cook up really great, inexpensive food, but the great characters there are the Grandpa and Grandma.
I know them really well, even though my Vietnamese is very bad, but every time I turn up, I get massively warm smiles from them both. But what I love is how the older female looks after the money of the house, because Grandma is always sitting there with a wad of cash when it comes to paying at the end. So the young guys who are serving us come round and collect the money at the end of the meal, but then go and give it to Grandma, who gives them the change back for the guests.

In Hue, there is a little café called Mandarin that I often visit with groups, where the owner is a photographer called Mr Cu, and he has his photos of Vietnamese life bedecking his walls, and he always gives free postcards to people, or else sells his photos to groups too. He's got some absolutely magic photos, photos that I will never get because he is Vietnamese.
Mandarin Cafe
Mandarin Cafe (Photo by Kris Dhiradityakul)
Once I had a guest who stayed in at the hotel one night to have a meal, and he made a throwaway comment to the young lady who was serving him that the food was fantastic and that he would love to marry her. You know, a throwaway comment, like "Oh, I'd marry you and take you home" type of thing. Anyway, she took it seriously and the next morning invited him to the family home.
He went AWOL for the day, and I wasn't sure where he was, but in fact he was off meeting the whole family, grandma, grandpa, mum and dad, all the sisters and brothers. He got fed for a whole day on the basis that they thought he was going to marry the daughter. He didn't really realise why he had been invited back until late in the day, when it slowly dawned on him what was going on, and so he had to sort of extricate himself. In a manner that wasn't offensive and he did it pretty well from what he told me. But it is one of the funniest stories I have come across.

One of the best recipes, apart from all the fantastic food, is Café Su'a Da (which sounds like Soda) or Vietnamese iced coffee.
Using ground coffee, strong enough to stand a teaspoon up in the cup, over ice, with condensed milk over the top to sweeten it up. That is a good way to wake up in the morning, and a great way to refresh yourself any time of the day.

Iced coffee
Iced coffee (Photo by Tauno Tõhk)
There are different types of people who take a guided tour. They might be unsure about the country and so an organised trip with a tour leader is what they are after, and so they can touch base with the country.
But often they will then think about coming back to the country and do some more travel independently. But also, guided tours have a big place for people who have limited time. So if this is your 2-3 week vacation of the year, you don't want to go through the process of booking everything or arranging it on the ground. Because when you arrange it on the ground, you lose 3-4 days of travel just by trying to make sure that you have got everything right, going to the right place and so on. These tours are not at all about having your hand held, or being led by someone holding an umbrella. Anyway, I am 6'2" and stand out pretty easily in SE Asia, but I would never treat my guests like that anyway, holding up an umbrella or a flag. That isn't what we are about.

The most important things to have in your backpack on this trip are a camera, toilet paper and bug spray. I always advise to bring the toilet paper in particular, and carry it with them the whole time.
I love the heat here in summer. I like the beach, the swimming pools, the storms that come in the evening, the lightning and so on, it all just adds to it.
Hoi An beach
Hoi An beach (Photo by Michael Rehfeldt)
"Oi, troi, oi - Mac qua!" which means, "Oh My God, Too expensive!" is something I teach my groups who are about to go shopping to any local market, so that they can have some fun with the shopkeepers and vendors. It certainly gets a smile on their faces, and sometimes a bit of a discount too.
The Happy Buddha is the big fat jolly Buddha, and local ladies will always come up to men and pat their beer bellies, and say "Oh, Happy Buddha". They are not trying to tell them they are fat, but it is because to touch the Happy Buddha's belly is to get rid of some of your bad luck in life.
Sometimes it can be a little disconcerting for the travelers. I don't always warn them, but let it happen and then tell them what it is all about. Because a larger person is seen as someone who doesn't have to do physical labour, so you eat better food and are better off monetary wise as well. So they represent good luck.

One misconception on the ground by tourists is that they think they can use US Dollars throughout the country and it's not the case.
The Vietnamese have their own currency, the Vietnamese Dong, and everything is priced in Dong, so people need to get used to the local money. I think it is a bit of confusion because we list everything in US$ on our site, because it makes everything easier, but you really do need to use local currency when you are here. Otherwise, the person has to go somewhere else to get value for their money. Although visitors do have issues with the amount of zeros on the notes. The largest one is 500,000 Dong. I always tell people that the easiest way to do it is to take the last four zeros off and divide the leftover figure by two, and that gives you the nearest US$ value, approximately.

Market stall (Photo by Emilio Labrador)
I was lucky enough to do a culinary tour in the first year with the company, and so now I always take my groups to real Vietnamese restaurants. And try to make sure every meal is different.
They aren't always banquets, but I do try and organise that because then they don't have to worry about ordering food, and just try and taste bits of everything. And of course then sample specialties in different areas. I have a lot of autonomy out on the road in terms of choosing extra spots, special restaurants and other things that aren't on the itinerary - it's up to us really. I am also a firm believer in spreading the wealth around, so don't always use the same restaurants in the same places, and hit three or four in every city. And I won't take the next group to the same restaurant either. I'll mix it around, and make sure the money goes to different areas, usually to small family-run places.

When I am not working, I do still like to travel when I can. It depends on my schedule.
In a busy period you can work for two months with just a day or so between tours. But in the quieter period, I might have a week to ten days off in between trips, and then I might get a chance to pop out to one of Vietnam's islands. There are a few nice ones to explore, such as Phu Quoc in the south, which is now getting a bit more developed. But it's the sort of place I could ride a motorbike round in a day.

Island near Phu Quoc
Island near Phu Quoc (Photo by Zoe Shuttleworth)
The one thing that drives me mad about tourists, not so much ours, but anywhere in the world, is the proverbial inappropriate clothing or going shirtless in these conservative countries. Our guests really don't do it, but the backpacking fraternity walk down the street without a top on, or just a bikini top, and it just catches my attention straight away these days.
I know that our tourists have just 'got Vietnam' and are settled, when they can cross the road like an expert, without me having to help them out.
That is definitely a big one, as crossing the road here with the bikes and everything is not easy. And so when they come back and say 'Oh we were walking through the Old Quarter, and went into the Chinese medical herb shops, and then we found this street and that street', I know that they have got it. They have become comfortable with the country, the place and the people, through their little wanders. Because even though we can show them as much as we can, it's when they break through and start doing some of their own exploration in their free time, then I just love that.

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