Truong Hoang Phuong had a great deal - even as a boy. “I remember my high school years,” he says, when the concept of travelling was something very vague. But I felt the passion for discovery take hold in me early in life. Every afternoon after school, I would look toward Ba Den mountain (in Tay Ninh) and secretly wish: ‘When can I set foot on it?’”
Young Mr Phuong was not your average schoolboy. Born in 1962 in Binh Duong province, he was separated from his mother and father during the war. “My parents stayed in Saigon but, like the rest, they sent their children back home. So I studied in the countryside until the sixth grade. Only in 1974 did I come back to Saigon.”
Then, while studying at the University of Education in the renamed Ho Chi Minh city, he had the opportunity to explore the local neighbourhoods. As befits someone with the wanderlust gene, he graduated with a major in geography, but continued to study on a postgraduate program at Hanoi Education College.
“This was a memorable time,” he recalls, “and there were many memories I can’t forget. I didn’t have much money, but I managed to save enough to go to the north by bicycle. I went to both the northwest and northeast regions and each trip lasted a month.”
During these adventures, he was not content with mere memories, he wanted a permanent record of what he was seeing and developed a latent interest in photography. “I had been fascinated by photography since I was young,” he says. “In the 1980s I studied it and even learned darkroom techniques, so I was quite proficient with a camera. During the trips, I put the theory I had learned into practice and enjoyed taking photos of the places I visited.
“The second journey, in 1991 when I went to the northeast, had a great impact on my later career. I was working at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education at the time and the same year, I made a memorable bicycle trip along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The road was still unfinished at that time and I took several forest roads to Tan Ky district (Nghe An province) among other places before coming back. It took me a month and a half.”
“Travelling, savouring all the experiences that travel brings and taking pictures in all parts of the country, I could see there was great potential for tourism. We had just not exploited it. And we were not getting enough information to international tourists. So I decided to leave teaching and switch to become an English-speaking tourist guide at Saigontourist & Travel Service Company”.
“After a spell as a tour guide in early 1995, I was transferred to the company’s tourist office to design tours, routes and new products for international tourists. I was assigned to write travel brochures for foreigners in Viet Nam, and every year we produced a 200-page tour program book for other travel agencies”.
“In 1998, I began to make tourist maps. The idea of launching a map for tourism lovers had started from the time I was cycling around the country. Arriving in a strange land without a map can cause inconveniences if not major problems. So, learning from my own experience, I decided to compose a travel map of Viet Nam”.
“Travel maps differ from conventional maps in that they display the fastest, safest routes and visitors can become familiar with every road on them. In addition, they detail the places tourists should visit. They must be compact for convenient use, but large also, so the size must be carefully calculated to maximize their usage.
“In 2006, I quit my job at Saigontourist to set up my own Vietmark company specializing in teambuilding tourism since teambuilding is a passion of mine. I like its creativity and it can be very enjoyable. It’s also suitable for students and very different from the mould used by my former company. At the same time, I was producing additional tourist maps”.
“In 2013, I set up another new company, Exotic Viet Nam, which still offers teambuilding as a main product. In the course of doing business, I have built many new products that are unique and can say that I am a pioneer in teambuilding in Viet Nam. I love the country as a destination, travelling to new places to see the uniqueness of it, even the hidden corners”.
“From being a teacher who has turned to a whole new field of travel, I find myself changing a lot and feel younger than my real age. Many of my old friends are unable to walk for health reasons, but I still get around to survey, guide and organize activities”.
“Tourism has had a positive impact on the local community, such as in Ke Ga, which was previously not a destination for teambuilding. But from 2006 we held teambuilding there for the first time and now it has become an attractive destination for fun activities for many travel companies. The number of visitors has increased greatly as has the revenue for the locality”.
“One of the things I like most about tourism is discovering the geomorphology of the places I visit. I paid special attention to To Thi statue in Lang Son. When I was a student, I came here for a field trip and returned in 1991 when the statue was damaged. The collapse was blamed on the calcareous nature of the rock but it was a natural geological phenomenon. However, it was not thoroughly researched, causing local citizens to be blamed. So I wrote the article “Be fair with Ms. To Thi” to vindicate the people there.
“In addition to running a business, I have been invited to teach at some travel universities specializing in route design. I still take the time to go on field trips because the trips help me constantly improve my knowledge.” But when it comes to showing tourists around, there can’t be much he doesn’t know.