How a great tour guide made my day in Vietnam's DMZ - Rusty Compass travel blog

How a great tour guide made my day in Vietnam's DMZ

| 17 Jul 2013
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17 Jul 2013

A little piece in recognition of the talent and importance of good tour guides after my recent day in Vietnam's DMZ.

The idea of being led around by a tour guide has taken a beating as the concept of "independent" travel has taken off. A good many travellers will complete a journey through a country without encountering a single tour guide. And that's a shame since a good tour guide can add tremendous insights to the travel experience.

The travel industry has played its part in the collapse in guided touring. The fact that many tour guides derive their income from sleight of hand shopping commissions has soured the view of many experienced travellers on guided touring. Flag carrying guides leading noisy unwieldy groups haven't helped either.

Good tour guides are hard to come by. But I've experienced my fair share of good guides in Vietnam. And if you're travelling to places where shopping isn't an option - like the DMZ - your tour guide is more likely to focus on the job at hand. And guides for individual or small group travel are still an affordable option for many travellers.

If they're good, they'll share insights that no amount of reading or independent exploration can match.

Recently, I travelled back to the Demilitarised Zone or DMZ - the Vietnam War era border area between North and South Vietnam.

I was in the old imperial capital of Hue and as is my usual approach, I arranged my tour a day or two before and left it in the lap of the gods. Well not entirely, my old friend Mr Cu from Mandarin Cafe in Hue helped out.

Things worked out remarkably well.

The car was comfortable, the driver was helpful and careful. But best of all, when we arrived in Dong Ha, an hour or so north of Hue, I was met by Mr Tam who was to be my guide for the rest of the day. It was a very memorable day of travel.

Mr Tam was no ordinary guide. He was born and raised in the DMZ and in his teens experienced the horror of the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the Easter Offensive of 1972.

But there was more. Mr Tam had made it his business to understand the interests of the Western travellers he had met and so he also had a fantastic knowledge of the history beyond his own life experience. He had led many groups of veterans through places like Khe Sanh, the Rockpile and Dong Ha over more than two decades and had listened closely to their stories. He could relay anecdotes from both North Vietnamese and US servicemen he had met. He carried with him original war era US military maps that veterans had donated to him so he could use them to assist other veterans travelling in the area.

And last of all, Mr Tam had that special quiet warmth that made him an exceptional companion for a day of travel. He was generous with his knowledge and time. But never imposing. He didn't deliver set pieces but tailored his account for my interests - while also ensuring I picked up the most important elements of the story.

All up, it was a fantastic and often moving day. If you enjoy history then the DMZ is still a fascinating place to visit - especially in the hands of a guide like Mr Tam. 

Check out the two videos I've included here. The first is Mr Tam talking about his experiences as a young man and then more recently guiding veterans. The second is a guide to travel in the DMZ from the day I spent with him.

I travelled to the DMZ at my own expense and have no commercial relationship with Mr Tam, the tour company for whom he works or Mandarin Cafe in Hue.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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