Tour guides require ingenuity to keep tourists amused amid coronavirus lockdown

By Thao Nguyen    March 22, 2020 | 08:36 pm PT
Vietnamese tour guides are struggling to keep their foreign clients entertained amid the restrictions entailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nguyen Thanh Son had eight German tourists visiting Mai Chau District in northern Hoa Binh Province in mid-March, but with most coffee shops closed, he had to search long and hard to find one open.

But the owner was clearly wary of any close contact, and to reassure her, he offered to get beers and serve the tourists himself. Son told the owner that he would leave the money on the table for her to collect after they leave.

The day they returned to Hanoi, all tourist attractions were closed. The tourists strolled around the Old Quarter the entire day as they had nothing else to do. Feeling bad, Son called his wife asking if he could bring them home.

Son's wife prepared a fruit spread and coffee for the guests.

"We were glad to do this as long as it added something to the tourists’ trip and made them feel warm and welcome," Son said.

Tran Quang Anh, a German-speaking tour guide, was accompanying a group of foreigners in the south earlier this month, when he noticed one of them was having a dry cough for two days.

He alerted his travel agency, which told the group to head to the Hospital of Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City. No one was to leave the vehicle on the way to the hospital.

During the two hours of waiting for a response from Quang’s office, the group stayed inside the bus. Upon getting the instructions, they traveled back to HCMC from Cai Be District in neighboring Tien Giang Province.

En route, one of the tourists desperately needed to use the restroom after three hours of sitting in the bus. Quang stopped and asked a few locals before one finally agreed. But when that person saw a foreigner he backed away and refused entry.

Quang had to explain and cajole the person until he took sympathy and allowed the tourist in.

"In my 30 years of being a tour guide I have never faced such difficulty in finding a toilet for my guest," Quang joked.

A group of foreign tourists in Vietnam in March 2020 as the country is battling against the novel coronavirus epidemic. Photo acquired by VnExpress.

A group of foreign tourists in Vietnam in March 2020 as the country is battling against the novel coronavirus epidemic. Photo acquired by VnExpress.

In HCMC, Quang was delighted to hear that his guest had tested negative for the coronavirus. The group then resumed its trip and proceeded to central Vietnam.

On March 7 he learned that two passengers on flight VN54, which had brought Nguyen Hong Nhung, known as "Patient 17", to Vietnam, were traveling in Hoi An. Along with the tour manager, he rushed to find more information.

Ironically enough, the hotel at which the group had intended to stay was hosting two travelers who had been in close contact with "Patient 17". The tourists instantly decided to stay at a different place.

Quang remained uneasy, and every morning he would run down to the receptionist and check if anyone who had had close contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient had checked in or out. He knew if his group was quarantined or the hotel was closed off, the tour would come to a definite end.

In the north, another guide, who declined to be named, had other worries. After receiving a group of visitors who arrived in Hanoi on March 14 just before issuance of visas was suspended, he had to change their travel itinerary since most landmarks and monuments in Hanoi were closed while Quang Ninh closed down Ha Long Bay.

However, the visitors longed to see Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO natural heritage, even if it was from afar and the guide tried to fulfill their desire.

While traveling back from Ha Long to Noi Bai airport, they stopped to visit a cemetery, where he planned to explain Vietnamese burial customs.

The guide said that he had made it a priority to minimize the visitors’ interaction with locals as much as possible, but to his dismay, some people working in rice fields nearby asked him to take them away.

"My guests looked more dejected than scared. I felt powerless and hopeless as a guide," he said.

Despite the struggles they face, tour guides such as Son and Quang are not upset or angry since they understand why locals are apprehensive. They are just grateful their clients sympathize with them in these difficult times. 

"That is more than enough for us," a tour guide said.

Vietnam has had 116 people diagnosed with Covid-19 so far, including 100 since March 6 after going 22 days without a new case. Of the 100, 26 are foreigners. 

Covid-19 has spread to 192 countries and territories, killing more than 14,700 people. The World Health Organization recently called Europe the epicentre of the pandemic.

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