4 years of directly accompanying French tourists on long term trips has equipped Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Toan with many soft skills and specialized knowledge to turn from a student of French pedagogy to a professional guide then become the owner of three companies.
Destination Review joined Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Toan to look back at the beginnings of his career 20 years ago. Thereby, he shared the important values that have helped him achieve his current success.
In my fourth year at Ho Chi Minh City Pedagogical University in 2001, I realized that it was hard to find a French teaching job because the language had been slowly losing its popularity. I only started learning French in grade 10 in Quang Nam province so my language capability could not compare to others studying in Saigon since grade 1. Around April or May, a senior at university who was working for a travel company shared a vacancy as a national guide* for trans-Vietnamese circuits in his company. This position did not require specialized qualifications, but only good health and knowledge, other things would be trained.
(*) National guides are professional tour guides who are responsible for guiding guests from the time of welcoming and during the tour until the time of seeing them off.
At that time, I and some friends went to the interview together mainly for curiosity and were not yet determined to be tour guides.r. A few months later, I was called to take my first tour. I was a little hesitant because there was a graduation ceremony in that period, but in the end I decided to seize the opportunity. My first tour lasted 20 days with a group of more than 20 tourists and provided many interesting activities such as hiking in the mountains, sleeping in homestays, cooking, portaging, diving, etc. Thanks to those experiences, I learned a lot more and deeply explored many sides of the country.
I once thought about quitting this job because the long trips were too hard. However, this job showed me the affection from French guests, many of whom cried when we had to say goodbye, plus a good income and the suitable nature of the job, so I decided to keep going.
Following the quite successful first tour, I continued to take the second 20-day tour. I joined another tour guide and started to realize my weaknesses, which were my lack of practical experience and my limited ability to communicate in French.Therefore, I had to read a lot of documents and also borrow more documents from college friends for reference. Sometimes, I just read documents last night and had to present them the next morning. In addition, I also dedicated myself to taking care of and supporting guests throughout the journey to make up for my shortcomings.
There was an unforgettable trip in Ha Giang – Tuyen Quang around 2002 – 2003. The whole group had to face the near-death’s door in a terrible flash flood. We had just crossed the temporary bridge and stepped into the resident’s house right before the flood swept away that bridge. When crossing the mountainside in the waterfall-like streams, a guide in the group slipped and fell into the cliff, but fortunately, he was able to cling to a tree and climb up. Therefore, it can be seen that danger is an ever-present challenge that tour guides need to always be well prepared and ready to keep the safety for both themselves and visitors.
Though, I was fortunate to have some strengths accumulated from university life. During that time, I really enjoyed doing social work as well as organizing group activities such as football and volleyball tournaments, art competitions or city activities. I am a technically extrovert who likes to communicate, create social relationships. That means I know how to contemplate carefully before making decisions, handle situations or solve many problems at the same time. Another strength I found in myself is that I have a relatively good geographical knowledge. All these things helped me a lot in my job as a national guide.
Due to my interests and suitable nature of job, I didn’t find it too difficult to pursue this career. The hardest thing probably was I could rarely be at home as I had to travel for a long time.
In 4 years working as a national guide for trans-Vietnamese circuits, I accumulated a large amount of natural and social knowledge. During each trip, everytime tourists saw something they wondered and asked, I had to give them answers, so this knowledge needed to be well prepared by the guide.
Besides, going on tour with European visitors helped me to see the beauty of Vietnam from a different perspective. They enjoyed exploring nature because they really love it, unlike many Vietnamese who just traveled to take some photos. Thanks to that, I gained more love for our country.
Later, I changed to work for classic tours and joined the Thanh nien xung phong travel agency in the department specializing in working with French tourists which used to be among the top in Vietnam. They operated simply and effectively even though there were only 2 managers. I was lucky to meet these two extremely enthusiastic managers and learned many things about management as well as operation techniques.
Thanks to the years of traveling along the mountain route, I could draw some exciting features to integrate into classic tours. I thought that was my biggest success. After that, I was quite proud when some small local companies also followed my ideas. My goal was to contribute for the common good, as long as guests were satisfied. For example, in the old days, when visiting southwest of Vietnam (also known as Mekong River Delta), tourists usually had to sit in a boat then stopped by a local house to eat some fruit or to listen to “don ca tai tu” music. I wanted visitors to have more authentic and real experiences, so I bought a lot of genuine fruit in the local market and brought it on the boat. Therefore, they could eat whatever they liked during the trip. I also took them to visit residents’ houses, meet and talk to local people, then showed them the daily life there.
As a classical tour guide, I gained more knowledge about history, culture, and common customs. Additionally, when taking a classic tour, I had to know how to handle psychological problems so that the group can get along with each other because the larger the number of guests, the more problems would happen. So I learned more about human resource management.
Some of my colleagues have also inspired me a lot. A friend and former teacher of mine once said a very good point: “There are always enough customers for those who do well”. I always keep this quote in mind. For me, firstly I have to do well and finish my work. If I felt I could not do well, I would let someone else do it better. But if I did something, it must be better than others. Another favorite saying of mine is “Diligence will bring you luck” not “Diligence in place of intelligence”. It doesn’t sound correct at first, but if you think more about it, it is pretty accurate. For example, if you want to pick up a drop of money, you have to bow your head to the ground and go a long way, day after day to get it. Similarly, if we work hard to do everything we can, opportunities will naturally come.
I worked as a national guide for 4 years with complex long trips. After that, I got married and wanted to stay at home regularly, so I resigned. I tried to work in other industries such as marketing and printing but none of them were suitable for me like tourism. In 2004, I and one friend planned to establish a travel company but we realized that we could only operate the tour but selling tours was still a limitation. The most important condition to maintain a company is a stable customer resources. Nourishing the dream until 2008, I began to plan more carefully. One year later, the problem of customer resources was solved.
I am not a dreamer but a very realistic person, when coming up with new ideas I always consider the feasibility. My principle is to know for sure that I can do well or to imagine how well I will do before beginning. After considering everything and realizing that I had enough capacity and source of customers, then I decided to open a company. The resource of customers is the primary condition for me.
My Images Travel company is a destination management company (DMC) which concentrates in making programs and organizing attractive and highly qualified tours. I can be proud that this is a Vietnamese company with many top travel ideas for French tourists. In my opinion, to successfully develop the European tourist market, understanding customers is the most important thing, only being dedicated is not enough. We have to sell what people want within our abilities.
Some of my French friends wanted me to establish a company in Cambodia. Right at that time, an opportunity arose, it was not a money-making opportunity but it matched with my desire to help local people. Therefore, I collaborated with a friend to open Images Cambodia.
Soon after that, Mekong Villages was also established with two purposes. One was to satisfy my retail preferences, making more unique tours than normal group tours. For group tours, I just could insert a few ideas, but I couldn’t offer services which are too strange. The name Mekong Villages was influenced by my experience when I was on trans-Vietnamese circuits. Village is the place to preserve and maintain the soul of the Vietnamese nation. This idea was from my actual real experience, not from the basis of Vietnamese culture discipline. Mekong Villages means the villages located along the Mekong river. I also want to develop in other countries such as Thailand, Cambodia or Myanmar. This name makes French tourists dream of something primitive and wild. The second purpose of Mekong Villages was for me to bring these products to some travel expo in France and learn more about the French mentality and their points of view while traveling. I had started Mekong Villages just because of my interest, but thanks to it, I suddenly found a big relationship. This relationship alone was enough to bring a relatively large profit, accounting for about 30% of the whole company at that time.
During the pandemic, an important mission for me is to try to keep the team spirit. I did everything in my ability, and also transferred the business to serve the Vietnamese market. As our company is a “rookie” in the domestic market and due to restrictions in the epidemic, we have not attracted many customers but it’s still got some deals and been lucky enough to maintain income for my team. Recently, I completed an online conference in French language for university students in 6 weeks. The seminar was quite fun and also attracted many young people to attend. Currently, I am adjusting old products and designing some new products, as well as doing some training programs and keeping enthusiasm for everyone in my company.
In addition, I also intend to do more in sustainable tourism. This direction is partly in line with the market trend, and partly from the influence of the French tourists that I worked with before. When I was resting in Nam Can forest on the first tour, I brought peanut candy to eat and accidentally dropped a small piece of foam stick from the candy. Then a tourist called me back and told me to pick it up and said this could affect the future of the country. Another thing is some visitors went to the village to buy local scarves to help the local economy, instead of buying similar ones at the commercial market, which are dozens of times cheaper because they are mass-produced.
I am now gathering my fellows’ hotels and other travel companies together to develop this sustainable project. It was scheduled to launch last month but we had to delay for a while due to the pandemic. In this project, I built up more criteria based on the common criteria of the world to match the context in Vietnam. There are some criterias that should be prioritized like purchasing products of local people. Among the fields of economics, environment and culture, I also add an element of propaganda. This is an extremely important mission in order to explain to everyone properly. Besides, I also want to emphasize another segment which is humanitarian, because there are too many miserable people in Vietnam. Those are the differences compared to the world criteria that I will use for our sustainable tourism project in the future.
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