Every now and then something pops onto my radar that restores my faith in humanity and the way the world is going.
Recently I saw a documentary on television about various tour offerings in Hanoi. Included were several creative options such as food, jaunts into colourful old neighborhoods, tours by motorbike, and even evening beer tours.
One of the groups stuck out from the bunch, an organization called https://HanoiKids.org/, a student-run “travel mate” service featuring tours of the sights of Hanoi. Most intriguing about Hanoikids is their tours are free.
That’s right – free of charge! In today’s commercial world that’s pretty remarkable.
Hanoikids is a team of volunteers who go to university full-time yet manage to eke out a few hours here and there to conduct tours for English-speaking visitors from overseas. Juggling full-time studies and part-time work is already plenty, then adding volunteer activities to that makes for a packed schedule.
Hanoikids piqued my curiosity because the obvious motivation for the students who run the tours is they get to practice English with foreign visitors, so it’s not difficult to find student volunteers eager to join the team. Since the tours are free there are plenty of visitors eager to sign up, so it’s a great business model for both customers and service providers.
The Hanoikids view is the acquisition of language skills is a strategic commodity worthy of sacrifice that will yield long-term benefits in today’s global business world.
They hit the nail right on the head with that thinking!
Hanoikids has been around for 13 years with total membership in excess of 600 part-time volunteer travel mates, of which 60-70 are currently active. The group was started by a small nucleus of students who wanted to transform their school English knowledge into practical day-to-day speaking experience and learn about foreigners and their countries and cultures.
I contacted the group prior to a recent trip to Hanoi to find out what’s behind it all, knowing in advance that it must be a forward-thinking gang.
Sure enough, they jumped all over it when I asked for a meeting and sent not one, but two sharp university students to tell me about it: Ms. Mai and Ms. Hien. And they are sharp, let me tell you. Both women are nearing the end of their studies in economics at the Foreign Trade University and gearing up toward professional careers.
Mai and Hien have each run 50 to 60 tours over the last couple of years, so it’s a schedule that can fit with studies, part-time jobs, and family life.
When I asked what motivated them to join Hanoikids, they replied almost in unison that they had sought real “on the ground” practice in English after many years of language studies focusing on grammar and spelling (yuck).
That practical experience is the key to the whole shooting match, especially in Asian countries where students can read and write like there’s tomorrow, yet get few opportunities to hone their vocal skills. Unfortunately, the only way to learn to swim is to jump in, and that means getting wet.
The other benefit Mai and Hien mentioned is they gain valuable knowledge and international contacts for the day when they have opportunities to travel abroad, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
And that they’ve done: Foreign tour participants come from roughly 20 countries around the world including the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries where English is widely spoken such as Malaysia and Singapore. The truth is I had trouble keeping up with them, never mind needing to “dumb down” my English to make it easier for them to understand.
The team offers half-day morning, afternoon, and evening tours of the main sights of Hanoi, thus leveraging their university schedules and lecture times. Flexibility is the flavour of the day, so the group tries to comply with requests from tourists who wish to visit sights off the beaten track.
Most foreign travel mates are first-time visitors to Hanoi with a list in hand such as Hoa Lo Prison, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Old Quarter, Temple of Literature, Hoan Kiem Lake, and so on. The food in Hanoi is tremendous, so Hanoikids takes people on food tours as well. Fact is one could go to Hanoi, eat everything and see nothing, and still go home with a wonderful memory of the city!
When incremental costs are involved, such as special transportation or food, the team provides estimates to their guests, who in turn foot the bill. The guides accept no tips, only token souvenirs that visitors sometimes bring with them. For those who insist on chipping in (but it’s by no means expected) they are welcome to donate to Hanoikids to cover their operating expenses.
During our discussion I began wondering if it would be feasible to create a business model for their tours which would include both free and paid options. Turned out we were all already on the same page as one of the challenges the team is working on: developing a sustainable long-term business model.
As much as it’s a worthy cause people can’t volunteer forever.
This Hanoikids real-life scenario plays right into the hands of those two economics students. What better way to convert theory into reality than to manage the transformation of a non-profit cause into a successful private enterprise?
The challenge for the organization is to retain its free tours while developing optional new premium tours that generate income. This way the unique identity and integrity of Hanoikids remains intact while new revenue-generating offerings are marketed.
We discussed increasing exposure by leveraging other similar existing tour options. Local volunteers in many countries offer similar free tours, so Hanoikids could join some of those groups. We’re also making a list of travel-related Facebook groups and will join some to gain more followers.
It may be feasible to create single day or overnight premium tours from Hanoi to some spectacular nearby sites, such as the Trang An complex in Ninh Binh Province, less than two hours away by car. The complex features spectacular caves, rivers, and the Bai Dinh Pagoda.
Ha Long Bay also popped up in the discussion, especially now that a new expressway has reduced travel time from Hanoi to less than three hours. Sapa, further to the north, has grown immensely in popularity and would fit nicely into a two- or three-day trip.
The greatest aspect of the discussion is the Hanoikids team is well-equipped to succeed and grow on any new ventures they undertake. Reminds me of the old adage: “Give someone a fish and they eat for a day; teach them how to fish and they eat for a lifetime.”
Look out for these kids going forward – they already know how to fish. Let’s see if they can catch a few with all the great experience they’ve gained!