Le Hoang, 28, was blessed to have a job that he is passionate about.
Being a tour guide to foreign visitors, he got to travel around Hanoi’s famous sightseeing places and coffee shops, sharing his love and knowledge of the capital city to others.
It was not until early 2020, when the pandemic started hitting Vietnam, effectively blocking all international tourists from entering the country, that Hoang started to worry about his line of work.
Yet coincidentally enough, the pandemic also opened up a new opportunity to the Hanoian tour guide.
“In April 2020, a British tourist asked me to bring my signature coffee tour online,” Hoang recalled.
“That was the point I started thinking about online tours as a possibility.”
Starting out with an ultimately streamlined setup, a smartphone, a tripod, a noise-canceling mic, Vietnamese coffee and a filter, a tiny plastic chair, and a foldable table, Hoang hits the street, seeking to bring the bona fide Hanoi coffee experience to tourists sitting thousands of miles away from him.
For each session of roughly one hour, Hoang brings the virtual customers to idiosyncratic spots in the Vietnamese capital, trying out iconic street foods, while unfolding the lore that underlies the city’s nooks and crannies.
Hoang even offers live tutoring sessions on coffee-making, with step-by-step guidance for tourists to brew a proper cup of Vietnamese coffee at home.
“Vietnamese coffee is really strong, so you might be overwhelmed,” Hoang wrote in his tour description on AirBnB.
“Don’t worry, with my instruction, hopefully you can see all the layers in a sip of Vietnamese coffee, to find out why it’s highly addictive.”
The young tour guide revealed that a large number of his customers are home-bound people in Western countries who cannot get out due to existing COVID-19 restrictions in their countries.
Struggling with a dearth of human connection, these tourists seek out virtual tourism as a mode of escapism which offers them just as much knowledge and experience as the real thing.
During the downtime between coronavirus outbreaks in Vietnam, Hoang has managed to show international tourists not only his home city but also other world-famous destinations in the Southeast Asian country, including Mu Cang Chai Town in northern Yen Bai Province, the ancient town of Hoi An, and the coastal city of Da Nang.
However, seeing the Delta coronavirus variant has been wreaking havoc in Vietnam during the past weeks, Hoang started to restrict his journeys, only bringing his customers to nearby places in the capital city to do his part in stemming the spread of the epidemic.
Just a few days ago, Hanoi began to be placed under an elevated social distancing mandate that requires all residents to stay home, which brought his tour activity to an abrupt halt.
However, Hoang remains rather positive as he receives uplifting messages from customers in various countries in the world, who wish him and the citizens of Vietnam a quick recovery from the current hard time.
Meanwhile, many others have shown respect to Vietnam’s impressive achievements in containing the virus, and expressed their wishes to visit the country when the worldwide crisis falls away.
“I think the connection between tour guides and tourists did not vanish, it just got switched to a different platform,” Hoang said.
“I still get to make new friends from all over the world every day, while they get to experience Hanoi as they wish.
“We all hope that the pandemic will soon recede, so we can finally meet up in real life.”
According to Hoang, the demand for virtual tours has gone through the roof since the pandemic started.
Many tourism platforms have jumped into the market, helping tour guides sell tickets for virtual tours or experiences to tourists.
At the outset, Hoang simply transferred the content of his existing coffee tours to live-stream mode, but he later added more services as his customers wished, even letting them design their own tours.
Being confident in his knowledge of Hanoi, Hoang said he is capable of making new itineraries and designing new tours on the spot to appease customers’ tastes.
Although the new platform requires less effort, he still exhibits an unchanged level of commitment to the job, while striving to improve his delivery, professionalism, and tour content on a daily basis.
All this has gained him a new customer base and helped him stay afloat during the tourism hibernation.
As the impact of the coronavirus seems to be visible on tourism in the years to come, virtual school trips are another gold mine that the industry should keep an eye on, Hoang pointed out.
In the past year, many school trips and student cultural exchange programs were halted, but they are returning in the form of virtual tours, allowing students to immerse in new experiences with reduced expenses, which could come as an opportunity for Vietnamese tourism firms if they enter the game early, the tour guide argued.