Skip to main content

From its staggering natural beauty and cultural diversity to dynamic megacities and hill-side villages, Vietnam is both exotic and compelling. That said, offering students a true window into authentic Vietnamese culture is no easy task, and that is why we are so grateful to have partners like our incredible Trip Leader, Thanh Ngotien, to show the wonder of Vietnam to students. With a fierce passion for learning and a deep connection to the country, Thanh creates unforgettable journeys in Vietnam. Today we speak about the value of educational travel, how to fruitfully overcome language barriers, and the centrality of sharing in Vietnamese culture. 

Please share a bit about your background and how your journey led you to become a CAS Trips Trip Leader in Vietnam.

Since I was little, from about age 12, I wanted to work in tourism and hospitality. Growing up, my school was next to a 4-star hotel, and I was always excited to see and interact with foreigners and get a chance to speak English.

I was intrigued by the prospect of meeting people from around the world and learning about places that seemed so far from Vietnam.

I have always loved traveling and remain fascinated by the chance to discover new places and have the opportunity to share what I find so special about my home country. My cousin, who is a bit older than me, was also working in tourism, and I was inspired by his passion and the stories he had to tell. So, it was natural that I would study tourism and hospitality. I completed my studies in 2010 and have been a full-time tour guide since. 

One of the goals of CAS Trips is to promote experiential learning. How do you incorporate this philosophy into the Vietnam trips you lead?

Service and experiential learning are what make this job so meaningful to me. I love being able to help others out, and I am always eager to do more.

My job gives me so many opportunities to give back to my community, and I am so grateful for that. We have students involved in many types of activities. 

For example, many school groups are helping local communities in southwest Hanoi to build local roads. Likewise, we match students studying to be doctors and nurses with opportunities to do checkups and provide medication in underserved communities. 

Charity is an essential aspect of every trip I lead. We find people who need help and determine the best way to offer it to them. The principle of sharing is a critical component of my work and my approach to everyday life.

Can you recount a heartwarming or eye-opening moment from a past trip that exemplifies the experiences you aim to provide for students in Vietnam?

Educational travel is so important because it exposes young people to something new.

We often get students from very good schools who have never seen the kind of circumstances that are typical in Vietnam. They are usually surprised at first but soon adjust and become a lot more open-minded about engaging with the community they are interacting with. This is such a vital aspect of learning and will contribute to them having a better and more globally-minded future.

Sometimes, they can’t believe things like all the mosquitoes or that there is nowhere to take a hot shower, but I am always impressed by how quickly they adapt.

I remember one group recently helped construct a new road — I could tell how quickly they became invested in learning about how their contribution resulted in long-term change for the community. Once the initial surprise wore off, there was such a strong respect and determination to figure out what was most needed and to appreciate the different way of life that the people in smaller communities in Vietnam are used to. 

Vietnam is known for its diverse culture and history. What personal experiences or unique insights do you bring to the table that make your trips more immersive for students?

This is one of my favorite parts because I love Vietnamese culture. I love to read books, and learning about our culture and customs is a pleasure for me. I always come to appreciate more about the beauty of my country and find creative and entertaining ways to help visitors navigate any culture shock they experience. When you hear a unique story about a country, it stays in your mind. 

Thanh Ngotien

What kind of stories do you share with student visitors?

The first part of our history that I find important to communicate to students is that Vietnam is a communist country. I highlight how Vietnamese society works very differently from what they are used to, including everything from weddings and funerals to our healthcare and education systems.

I also like pointing out seemingly more mundane things that, in fact, reveal the past. For example, we use chopsticks to eat because our ancestors used to be farmers, and they used to imitate how they saw birds catching food. Westerners, meanwhile, use knives and forks because they are copying the wolves they would see devouring their prey in the wild. 

Another example of something amusing that always needs to be explained is that in Vietnamese, you always ask someone’s age because the answer will dictate how you refer to someone. It is disrespectful to use the wrong address, so you always ask how old you are. 

And, of course, we have so many different religions here. I love exploring the various beliefs, from Buddhism to Taoism to Confucianism, which influence our culture. 

It sounds like you find lots of fascinating ways to dispel culture shock and explore differences in customs. How has your approach to helping students navigate and embrace these differences during their time in Vietnam evolved?

I love working with students because they are so open to new experiences. I have two kids; they are five and nine years old. I love playing, having fun, educating them, and learning from them. 

The number one thing I get from the students I work with is some insight into the mentality of the new generation. I love hearing stories from life in other places and seeing how the kids have different opinions and thoughts. Compared to my childhood, the young people I work with are used to a lot more freedom. They have the freedom to decide everything. All of their essential needs are met, and they have the stability to explore and become who they see fit. 

Of course, this level of choice and freedom can also make young people selfish, but that is why having experiences in different cultures is so valuable. 

Interacting with locals can be a big part of this transformative experience. How do you facilitate meaningful interactions between students and the local communities they encounter in Vietnam? What are some of your favorite activities in Vietnam?

Yes, absolutely. Interacting with locals is probably the most important aspect of our trips. I love the cooking classes we do, for example. The students are split into smaller groups and are sent to different homestays to learn about local cuisine and assist in meal preparation. 

Importantly, we don’t translate during this experience; they must find a way to interact on their own. This means using gestures and body language and finding creative ways to communicate.

Preparing and eating food together is such a universally beloved experience, so they always end up forming bonds despite the lack of a common language.  

That sounds like a very memorable experience, indeed! In what other ways do you believe a trip to Vietnam can inspire and impact students on a personal and academic level?

I think these trips teach students that life is so much better when you share and give open-heartedly. For me, this is more than just a job.

It is a way to do charity on a daily basis and to always be learning and evolving. I hope to share that with all students who travel with me.

In Vietnam, we genuinely believe you must share to have a better life and ensure a prosperous future for your children and the next generation. Allowing young people to witness this early can shape their worldview and help them get more out of other experiences they will have in the future, too.  

Many thanks to Thanh for taking the time to share his insight with us! His authentic, immersive, and educational approach truly makes him an invaluable part of the CAS Trips team. You can learn more about our Vietnam itinerary here

Stay tuned in the coming weeks and months as we share more stories from our Trip Leaders worldwide!