Meet Thien, a tour guide based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. If you are looking for someone to take you around Ho Chi Minh, Cu Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta and more, then you should really contact Thien to help you tailor your experience. Read all about Thien and how to organise her for your next trip to my favourite Vietnamese city.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born and grew up in Saigon. Compare to other people, I have a special family background because my parents come from 2 sides of the Vietnam war. My father was a very well-known war photographer of the Vietnam News Agency. And my Mom family were working for the Republic of South Vietnam.
Thien (right) with her Father, when he was honored at an Award Ceremony for his contribution to Vietnam Photography. Pictured with a former Vice-President (middle) of Vietnam
I majored in English to be a teacher of English, but finally decided not to be a teacher because I didn't like the boring and bribery system.
I started my first job as a Fundraising and Public Relation officer for a street children project at the biggest local NGO in HCMC. But then quit my job after 1 year because there were too much corruption in the organization.
Thien taking kids from her Street Vision project to a kids activity on Children's Day 2005
Thien with kids at their Graduation Ceremony after completing their photography course
I then worked for the biggest language school in Saigon. I was transferred to different positions and departments. When the company was sold to the Chinese, corruption happened again, so I quit
Thien in a training at the Language School she worked for
At that time I had already worked part time for Withlocals, so I decided to do more with them and became a tour guide.
What is your favourite childhood memory?
I was lucky to have a very happy childhood. My favorite memory was when I was 9 or 10 yrs. For many years before, everyone in my neighborhood believed that I was a boy, because my Mom dressed me like a boy with even boy hairstyle. They only knew that my Mom had a girl when I grew up and started wearing bra, everyone was shocked, especially all the boys who were defeated in my fightings haha
What was it like growing up in Vietnam?
It was definitely not the same to other non-communist countries. The good thing was at that time, we didn't have much information, didn't know much about what was happening out there in the world, so life for me was simple, we didn't ask for what we didn't know :)
To be honest, I think I was luckier than many other people. Life was not easy for everyone in the 80's and even early 90's (before the US lifted up the embargo). But I had a very talented Mom who was able to do any job to afford all our basic needs.
My parents divorced in 1991 and we lived with our Mom, so we didn't really benefit anything from our high communist father. And because my Mom (as a very authentic Saigonese) didn't want us to rely on our father's reputation, I was lucky to grow up as who I am, not who my father was.
I first met you when I booked a jewellery making class with you on a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Tell us how you became involved in making jewellery and teaching.
I started making jewelry when I was studying in Thailand and loved all the handmade jewelry stuff there. I'm actually allergic to all types of metal, or even silver. So I often bought handmade jewelry, especially stone and wooden ones. But they cost quite a lot both in Thailand and Vietnam. Therefore, I asked my Mom to find me somewhere I could get all the stuff to start doing them by myself. It was in 2004.
At my Jewelry Workshop with Thien at her home in Ho Chi Minh City
At that time, YouTube and social network was not popular in Vietnam. And nobody was willing to offer the teaching. So I learnt how to make them by unbeading and unlocking the existing old jewelry to see how they were made. I also collected all the thrown-away jewelry from my friends, just to learn different techniques of making jewelry. Later when YouTube became more popular, I learnt more from experts from all over the world.
At my Jewelry Making Workshop with Thien at her home in Ho Chi Minh City
I started to offer the handmade jewelry workshop when the manager from Withlocals came to Vietnam to train me on how to be their ambassador. I invited him to my home dinner where he found the jewelry stuff I had. Then he suggested me to offer my workshop on the website as well.
Article featured in Ho Chi Minh newspaper on the launch of Withlocals in Vietnam, where Thien is mentioned as a host for her jewelry making workshop
I was not very confident with my skills, so I looked around everywhere to see if there was any experience instructor in the city who was willing to share their skills. Surprisingly there was no one.
Then my Mom connected me to a girl she knew. This girl made a lot of money from selling her handmade jewelry. But she told me a very sad news that nobody will share with me how to do it because that were their tools to make their living. If they show me, I would be their competitors :))
So after a lot of searching, I decided to offer my workshop as the only one in Saigon.
How do you source your supplies for your jewelry making and classes?
I got my materials and equipment from different sources. From eBay or other online shops. And at the biggest wholesale market for handmade stuff in Saigon as well. Normally if I found something new, I will check for the price both at the market and online, to choose the cheaper :)
When I travel, I also buy some if I saw good stuff. Sometimes I bought a whole bracelet just because of 1 special bead :)
What is your favourite type of jewelry to make?
I love the natural stone. And I love beading them for necklace or bracelet. I'm not a fan of earirng, except when I have to go to a party.
And I love blue, strongly in love with blue.
You don't only teach jewelry making, tell us about being a tour guide. How did this come about?
As I have mentioned above, when I decided to leave the language school, I was already working part time as an ambassador for Withlocals. So I decided to do a 6 months training course to get a guiding license to be a full time tour guide for them.
Thien leading a tour in the Mekong Delta
Actually many of my friends and ex-colleagues still keep asking why I chose to do this tired and hard job, especially with my qualifications and working experience in sales and marketing at management level.
However, I had stopped caring about people's comments on me. I live my own life and do what I love to do. And what I love to do is to meet new people everyday, share my stories about Vietnam and Saigon, and also learn new things from people all over the world. And more important, with this new job, and new life, I release myself from the stress of fighting with corruption or unfairness.
Where do you take people on your tour guides? What options are available for tourists?
I offer different tours to tourists, but the common thing of all my tours is that I just do the local places and things. I believe with internet, travellers can easily check out all the highlight attractions by themselves. What they cannot do on their own is to get to the local areas and see the real local things.
Thien on tour
Normally I will personalize the tour per as the guest's request. Even the same tour, different people will have different expectation. So I just try to make sure my offer meet their expectation.
Where is your favourite place to show tourists?
I have many authentic local places that I love to show tourists in my beloved Saigon. For me, what really matters is not the places, but the stories of each place. People can get you to the same place, but the stories they have will be different from mine.
Thien on tour
I guess you’ve met many people while showing tourists around your beautiful area. Do you have any interesting stories about your experiences (good and bad) you'd like to share?
For good experiences, I must say that I have a lot, and cannot decide which one is the most interesting. My Mom taught me that everyone we meet in our life is destined, so we have to be nice to every single person we meet and do the best to give them the best memories about us. Therefore I appreciate everyone I met on my tours. Back to the 80's when the only foreigners I met in Vietnam were just Russians, its now like a miracle when I can meet people from different countries and cultures. It could be an old man who flew a fighter with John McCaine in the Vietnam war, or a couple who were both working for one of the best football clubs in the world, or an artist who booked a photo tour but drew whatever she saw instead of taking photos, or a scout manager from Hollywood who needed to scout for the new Mission Impossible etc.
Thien on tour
For bad experiences, I'm not sure I should call them bad or not, because tourists are also humans, and we cannot avoid troubles when it happened. But in general, I think it bad when the guests booked the tours without reading careful what were offered and then they went on the tour with having their expectation fulfilled.
Who will your tours most appeal to?
As I have mentioned, I mostly do tours to local places and do local things. So my tours are most appeal to people who are interested in getting to the heart of local lives.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
First, I'm not a solo traveler. I'm type of people who believe that it doesn't matter where you go, it matters who you go with. For a normal Vietnamese, travelling is not as easy as that of people in other countries. And for people at my Mom's or my Aunt's age, travelling to another country was something they could never imagine when they were younger. So when flight tickets became cheaper and travelling was much easier in the late 2000's, I started to bring my Mom and my Aunt to somewhere out of Vietnam at least once a year. But getting Visa to developed countries is not easy for a Vietnamese passport, so we just go to neighbor countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia etc.
Thien with her mum and brother holidaying in Hong Kong
So If I could travel anywhere in the world (with my family), I will go to Europe because its not easy to get the Visa there haha, and because my Mom loves to see Italy and France and also other cultures there.
Who has had the most impact on your life and why?
Of course its my Mom. She's a genius who was just born at the wrong time and place. Thanks to her that I am who I am now :)
If you could have dinner with three people, dead or alive, who would they be?
First its my Dad. I promised to buy him the 1st dinner by my first salary. However he passed away before I could do it.
Second, its my Grandpa (my Mom's father). I was just too young when he passed away in 1992 and still always wanted to tell him how much I loved him. And also wanna thanks him for giving me a great Mom :)
No idea who else I wanna have dinner with :)
When are you at your happiest?
When I'm with my family (my Mom and brother)
Thien holidaying with her mum and brother in Hanoi
How do you spend your free time?
Making new jewelry or reading new things about history of places. Or taking my Mom and bro out for lunch or dinner.
What is a new skill you'd like to learn and why?
I'm not sure what should be the skill, but I want to make some scrapbooks of the humans on my tours, and my family scrapbook. Maybe Photoshop or sketching as well.
If you could only keep five possessions, what would they be?
My wallet, my camera, my phone, my hard drive of family photos and box of jewelry
If you could tell your 18 year old self anything, what would it be?
To be honest I enjoyed every moment of my childhood and teenager. If I need to tell my 18 year old self one thing, I will just tell her to love Mom and bro even more.
Why did you choose being a tour guide as your profession?
As mentioned above, I love to meet new people, share with them and learn from them
Do you have any new or interesting tours planned? Anything we should be excited about
Actually I have just finished designing 3 new tours for Withlocals and training new hosts for those tours.
They are: 90 minute Saigon Kickstart tour, Saigon the Ultimate Layover Tour and Cu Chi Tunnels tour with cooking class.
What are you most proud of?
I'm proud of having a great Mom and a brother who always supports me. And we love each other.
Thien with her mum and brother on their latest family trip to the Phillippines
Is there any advice you'd like to pass on to anyone wanting to work for themselves as a tour guide?
Be always honest, tourists don't only listen to what you say, they also look at how you behave.
Must love and care about people, if not, you will never can provide the best service.
Respect local people who you meet on the tours no matter who they are. If you don't respect your own locals, you cannot ask tourists to do it.
Read more, learn more, get more knowledge. Don't let what you already know prevent you from knowing the new things.
Be healthy, otherwise you cannot take care of your tourists.
How can people visiting Ho Chi Minh City contact you to arrange for you to show them around your beautiful part of Vietnam? Please supply your contact details:
Social Media (FB and Insta) FB: Thien Lam
Whatsapp / Viber/ Lines / Telegram at +84 90 828 7749