What I learned about the tourism business from Trugyn, a seasoned tour guide.
It wasn't hard to find another small businessman to interview in Vietnam. Trugyn is one of the top tour guides in the country. He was born at such an important time in Vietnam's history -- it was 1960, in a small village near what would become Ho Chi Minh City at the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Trugyn and his wife in their home.
Trugyn's father was involved in the Viet Cong -- otherwise known as the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam -- as a communist spy. He, like many of this peers, saw the French and Americans as the unlawful leaders of his country; and sought to instead empower Vietnamese people to lead the country. Trugyn told me of his own memories of the balance of power: he remembers running down the street to see the communist army and what they looked like; and how surprised he was to see regular men. At that time, they had just overthrown the south Vietnamese and had taken over the city -- it was April 30th, 1975.
Unfortunately, those lighthearted memories were superseded by the harsh realities endured by Vietnamese over the next several years. Strict controls were put on the economy including prohibitions against selling at being in business, forcing hundreds of thousands of companies out of business.
During that time, Trugyn was living in Eastern Europe, where he had been sent to study engineering. One day, while visiting Vietnam, Trugyn's father explained that a steel shortage was preventing new gutters from being made. Because of his own expertise was steel production, he started importing steel from Czechoslovakia to Vietnam. This operation earned Trugyn a great deal of money that he later invested in real estate and gold.
In fact, he made enough money to be able to pursue his hobby full time -- as a tour guide around all of Vietnam.
Trugyn works with over 100 clients every year, and still learns about his beloved country everyday. His average tours range from one day to three weeks. Since he spends ten months per year touring, he cherishes his time at home with his family. I had the chance to meet both his wife and his eldest son, and I really enjoyed learning what a Vietnamese home is like. He explained how easy it is to do business in the country, and how the government encourages business as a way to end poverty. You pay just a $50 licensing fee and then 10 percent on your profits. A tax code so simple that the US government could learn a great deal!
His tips for young people going into business are:
1. Find something you love to do; research it; and learn the economics of your unit.
2. Find a niche market. Trugyn was lucky to connect with former GIs who are returning to Vietnam to learn more about the country where they were once stationed. They are the market for his business, but also one of the reasons he loves what he does. For instance, Trugyn once gave a two-week tour to a group including one former GI in search of an old friend. This man had not see his friend in 32 years but remembered fondly their time together. Trugyn combed through ten different villages but eventually he found her. It was a special joy seeing them cry together as they recalled their friendship: they had once loved one another, and said "may be in the next world, we will have a chance to be together."
It was one of the highlights of my trip to visit with he and his wife and son at their home.