DO DUC MANH Although Manh is just 25 years, his is a fascinating story, a story of great foresight, of exceptional entrepreneurial skill...... BACKGROUND I met Manh in Mai Chau; the owner/operator of the small tourist bus on which I would travel to & from Hanoi to this enchanting village. With my ankle broken I was positioned near Manh at the front of the bus. In an endeavour to make some conversation I asked him relatively straight forward questions about his life. I was intrigued by what he started to tell me. I asked if he would mind if I took some notes explaining I wrote posts on gt-rider........ He took some encouraging telling me: "It's difficult to talk about oneself, difficult to relive certain memories, but I know my mother, my family and the people who helped me will be happy to see this......." We would talk at length on that return leg to Hanoi; I recall how all those on the bus that day sat forward in their seats & listened in amazement. THE STORY In Manh's own words: "My parents divorced when I was 9 years old. At the time my oldest brother was in the military and my sister was planning to study at the Vietnam Police University. My brother sister & I were so sad - my brother, a good man, moved to Saigon & turned to drinking; my sister became depressed to the extent of needing hospitalisation. The three of us lived with mum at the time; we were left with no land on which to live, no farm to work. My brother moved shortly afterwards to Sai Gon; my mum, sister & I moved to my mother parent's house but there was no room for us and we were not made welcome. By chance a farm worker let us stay for free in an unoccupied house he owned. My mum worked hard to take care of us. At times when she would cycle some 30km to the hospital in the city to see my sister and stay there for the night, I would stay at home alone. I remember we had nothing in the house except 1 bed & a few chairs, no television or radio because we had no electricity. After a year my sister had recovered and she went to Sai Gon to work. She would meet the man to whom she is still married there. My mum & I moved to another village. She worked so hard at so many jobs but it was still not enough for us. I didn’t have any new clothes or books, in fact, everything I had was from my aunt. At 12 years of age I had to go to another aunt's house as, given it had electricity, it enabled me to do my homework and I could stay there. My mum was left at home alone; she would go to the pagoda to pray - pray for a better life for us all. I had no any information concerning my dad, I couldn’t even remember his face. We did not see him after the divorce. Suddenly one day when I was 14 years old my dad unexpectedly arrived & would ask my mum if I could go with him. I wanted to stay with mum but given our lack of money I had to agree to go with dad. My dad took me to Lai Chau, a place I had not heard of before. I lived with him, he was not as bad as I thought but he was a gambler so sometimes we were full, sometimes not......" (sometimes we had money, the means to buy our needs, but sometimes not). "After a year I started hearing rumours that my mum had entered Perfume Pagoda, cut her hair & would become a monk. Many times I wanted to run away, to go to work, but I couldn’t because I was thinking of my mum, how she loved me very much, how she wanted me to study." Manh was a good student graduating from high school aged 17 years. With a love & aptitude for languages, he started studying for a degree in English at Lai Chau Teacher Training College. Although his initial thoughts were of a career in teaching, the possibility of an alternative career in tourism was never far from his mind. Manh continued: "I decided to run away from Teacher Training College because I needed to make some money feeling that I could not continue my studies for 3 years knowing that my family had no money. I had found english to be a good subject so I decided to seek work in tourism. I had come to this decision recalling that as a child the father of one of my first friends could speak English & that he spoke to me in English & it enthralled me despite my being able to understand it all". After only 3 months at university, & not wanting to shame his father through discontinuing his university studies, Manh felt the only honourable course of action was to run-away. He headed to Sapa knowing that he could gain experience there with the many tourists who travelled that way. He found a job as a housekeeper in a hotel, being paid 500,000vnd/month with his board & nourishment included, but he was on call 24/7 & worked long hours with no days off. The hotel, however, had a Vietnamese rather than foreigner clientele & so each night when he had an hour free, Manh would head out & undertake a 1hour course in english at Sapa Secondary School. With his first pay Manh bought a warm jacket for his father & posted it to him. His father checked the postage stamps, determined it had come from Sapa & headed there to retrieve his son. Manh was taken back home, advised he was to return to his English studies when college restarted in 6 months & banned from going out. As the 6 month wait neared Manh decided once again that he had to 'escape'. This time he wrote a note to his father urging his father not to look for him. His intention was to head to Da Lat where he had heard there were many tourists. Still only a boy at heart, Manh became frightened by the distance involved in travelling to the unknowns of Da Lat &, in reality, he did not have the funds to do so. He would once more decide to base himself in Sapa. He found a job in a restaurant as a bar attendant which pleased him as it offered him the chance to practice his English. In Manh's own words: "I returned to Sapa and worked & worked & worked..… With some money saved & fearing my dad may again find me I decided to go to Dalat. I was also finding Sapa a little small, not offering the chance to study English for which I yearned". Some 8 months after returning to Sapa, Manh would encounter several monks who came from Da Lat & so decided to return with them to Da Lat. He would get only as far as Hanoi, a city had had not previously visited, before the fear set in. The monks would leave him at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi's Old Quarter & he recalls that he only had 200,000vnd in his pocket. He began to search for accommodation only to find that rooms, for any length of time, started at a price beyond his total savings. So nearby the Metropolitan Hotel he approached a cyclo driver, explained his predicament to a sympathising ear & was offered accommodation at the cyclo's home for 4,000vnd/night. Manh recalls that the house was crowded with other motorcyclists staying there & noisy under the constant aura of gambling. He asked if he could therefore sleep on the roof where there was a 60 year old lady who sold vegetables at the markets living. He recalls that she would leave at 2am each morning for the markets. He lived frugally on local-style meals costing around 5000vnd/meal. After 2 days & having regained some sort of composure he returned to Hoan Kiem Lake where he bought a map for 10,000vnd on which all the hotels were marked with an 'H'. So off he set; he'd move from hotel to hotel until he got a job. He recalls his disappointment after the first half a dozen hotels knocked him back - they all wanted a stamped residency certificate (which he did not have as he'd run away) to prove he was not, for example a prison escapee or whatever. Distraught that employment was seemingly out of his reach he decided he would go & write a CV, a CV covering 'his story' - the fact that he simply wanted to work so that he could afford to study so that he could pursue his dream to work in tourism. Armed with this CV he again pounded the pavement leaving a copy of the CV at every hotel he could find. It worked - after 4 days of foot slogging a hotel manager offered him a job in security. He was told to get a haircut & report for work the next morning. So excited was he that he rushed off for a haircut; so excited that he did not even ask the price....the haircut would cost 25,000vnd - never before had he paid more than 3,000vnd - which took every remaining dong he had! He recalls returning to the cyclo's home where he was staying but before he could even explain his 'no money' predicament, but would pay after he received his first pay, the motorcyclist who'd offered him the accommodation said he'd decided that he would not charge him rent for the time that he'd stayed! Manh told me that his new boss was a good man. Knowing that Manh had no money he advanced him 400,000vnd so that Manh could enrol in his English class & have something to live on before he received his first pay. Manh was given accommodation in the hotel - his room was a store room on the roof of approximately 3m2 in which a bunk bed was squeased. Manh told me: "I stayed there for 3 years & it became my paradise where I didn't have to pay rent & where no-one would disturb me whilst I studied." In addition Manh was given one free meal per day; for his second daily meal he would pay the hotel 200,000vnd/month. His salary was 800,000vnd/month Whilst working in security Manh would meet Colin, a retired Scotsman, who would pass each day & give Manh an extra half an hour english lesson each day. Manh adds: "One day Colin and his friend took my sister, her son & I to Perfume Pagoda to see my mum. I was so happy to see her but it was also so very sad - I couldn’t call her mum, because it is the Pagoda rule. She took me to the wharf and stood there to say goodbye until we could not see each other. My sister & I cried all the way back. It was the first time I have seen my mother since she entered the pagoda". Colin: Manh learnt rapidly & within 6 months became the hotel receptionist. In his spare time he would accompany, unpaid, the tourists on various tours - to Halong Bay, Tam Coc & so on - so as to improve his english & also become familiar with the various sites that appealed to tourists. "I learnt so much from the guests", Manh tells me -he became so knowledgeable that he was quickly promoted to become the hotel's tour seller! The promotions came quickly & he was still studying english & had even undertaken a basic course in french for 1 month. At this time he would meet his Japanese girlfriend also studying. He would stay with her for 3 years & at the same time study Japanese & become fluent in the language. She ultimately had to return to Japan but Manh would keep studying, hoping one day to have the funds to travel to Japan. She, as an only child, had a family wanting her to stay in Japan & marry; he without the necessary funds could not support her.....love could not withstand the pressure. Manh's mum & his (ex) Japanese girlfriend: The incident prompted Manh to look for ways to ease his mind & he decided to open his own tourist office using everything he'd been able to save from 4 years of work with no going out, no drinking, not smoking...... Now 22 years of age he still required some funding & his Scottish friend, believing Manh could succeed but was severely undercapitalised, came to his aid lending him 50,000,000vnd. The office performed satisfactorily but his former boss who had been so good to him called & asked that he return as manager of the hotel where Manh had started work. It would be for 6 months before the property was to be reclaimed by its owners but Manh took on the job notwithstanding. With the closure of the hotel Manh found himself approached by 2 investors who wanted him to manage a hotel that they were opening. A youth hostel concept operating from a building on a short-term (1 year) lease only, it performed so well that the investors decided to open a 2nd after only 9 months of operation. In a disagreement with the owners who sought higher rates of return which Manh felt could undermine the concept, Manh decided it was time again to move forwards. He made the decision to look for a need in the tourist industry that no-one was servicing - he noticed that there was no regular, daily transport system between Hanoi & Mai Chau. He put all his resources into buying a small bus, obtained his bus drivers licence & opened for business. It was October 2010. The first month he had only 1 client, but it moved to 30/month in the second month - still not enough to deliver a profit. Manh persisted & was soon moving a full busload of tourists up to Mai Chau & another full load back down to Hanoi each day. It occurred to Manh that if he was moving all the tourists he could perhaps funnel them staying into a hotel, his hotel, if he could open one. So he rented a stilt-house in Lac village & opened Mai Chau Nature Lodge putting his elder sister into cook & his brother to clean. Its proved a winning combination & Manh has now opened a second, more upmarket, 'resort' in the area. He now has drivers & a number of skilled guides around him. With a massive wrap in the latest edition of Lonely Planet business is set to boom (something he was truly surprised to hear me say). Now married to a local girl he intriguingly met in his Japanese class he is expecting their first child in May. Manh summarises matters as follows: "In working in tourism I am making more money but that is not what I really want. I am so sad to see the people trying to get money from the travellers - the selling ladies around Hoan Kiem lake, motorbikes, the photo takers in Tam Coc or little kids selling souvenirs in Sapa. Vietnam has a great culture, but after we opened the country to tourism many vietnamese disregarded their cultural heritage of niceness. People became selfish, always in a hurry …......I am concerned that this is destroying the good image of Vietnam. Nowadays I feel that I have achieved half of my dream - I can provide for myself & have rebuilt the family and the connection between its members. The balance of my dream is to open a Non-Profit travel center where I can help people get more information about Vietnam and also provide people with the opportunity to connect to the Vietnamese people themselves. I did have to think a lot before saying all this. I cant keep the tears when I talk about the family especially my mum. But thank you very much too! Thanks to you I have chance to say myself and say thank you to my family and people who helped me a lot".