Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips

I had guides in Vietnam for three weeks out of my seven months. When I first arrived I hired two Communist Youth Group members on an "official" tour of the Mekong. They turned out to be lazy, deceitful, slovenly, thieving, drunkards. Back in Saigon I met Tam, an ex-south-Vietnamese army interpreter who became like a brother to me and is still a good friend. For the remaining six and a half of my seven months I traveled without a guide.

Make sure your guide speaks your language...

Get the itinerary in black and white before you start your journey...

If you are using official guides then they are probably being asked to inform on you. Do something to make their report worth reading...

Shop around. Your guide can make or break your trip.

Do not allow hotels to charge you the foreign price for your guide's room.

Women guides can be a lot less pushy than their male counterparts but are unlikely to go on a longer trip.

Get the expenses in black and white before you start your journey...

Many guides depend on the tip as the difference between barely scraping by and having a few luxuries.

Good guides can save you more money than they are costing you by bargaining on your behalf.

Check out your guide's driving skills before risking a week of sheer terror.

If the car has a cassette deck, temporarily disengage it. Otherwise you will be listening to scratchy American disco music at 800 dB for 12 hours a day.

Check that the airconditioner. is working in an advertised air con. car.

If you have any understanding of car mechanics, have a look under the hood. Some cars are held together with duct tape and chewing gum. You don't want to spend your trip on the side of the road.

Trust, but verify.

Your guides can help you not to step on any cultural toes. They may not always have your best interests in mind...

Watch the finances. Once the money is spent you will be expected to reimburse it, regardless of your original contract. If thing get really bad then you may have to take a stand...

Never, ever hire anyone from the Saigon Communist youth league. If for some reason every other guide in Saigon is busy and you absolutely must travel with a guide and the Vietnamese government has threatened to throw you in jail and let you rot there for ten years if you don't take a Communist Youth League guide, do not take anyone by the name of Fung or Chau. Fung is the one sporting a purple inch of gum in a pumpkin smile and flashing a gold-capped tooth that sticks out at such an angle that it hangs over his lower lip even when his mouth is closed. He has long painted nails. Chau has the dinner-plate face and button nose, and a curious laugh that sounded like a skin-diver who has inadvertently taken water through his snorkel.
Yes, this is a personal grudge.

Private vs. Official
Official guides have been licensed by the government to take foreigners. That means they are usually the sons and daughters of wealthy officials and had no family ties to the south during the war. It will certainly mean that they are expensive. It may mean that they are spoiled and imperious. They can be found at travel agencies like Saigon Tourist.

Private guides are often ex-south Vietnamese soldiers who worked as interpreters during the war. Because of their association with the south they are unable to get guide licenses and so have to skulk around trying to pick up clients on the sly. I have found them to be much more friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and genuinely interested in showing foreigners their country than any of their government counterparts. They are much cheaper (and you don't have to give the government a cut) and work through word of mouth and so understand the value of good service. Anh Tam, the guide I had in Saigon, took me in as part of his family. He was, and still is, my friend.