22-year-old Lien drives forward Hue’s humdrum tour scene with women-lead motorbike trips. Joshua Zukas investigates I Love Hue Tour as an example of the low barriers to market entry currently present in areas of Vietnam’s tourism industry.

The Citadel, tombs and pagodas of Hue have made the city a necessary stop for most countrywide tours of Vietnam. Backpackers, free independent travelers (FITs) and those on countrywide package or customized tours will probably stop in the old imperial capital, and yet there is still so much unrealised potential in this historical hotspot.

There is still so much unrealised potential in this historical hotspot (Photo credit: Bien Nguyen)

Most visitors spend just one or two days exploring Hue, though there are enough sites and activities to warrant a longer stay. A general lack of innovative travel products is one part of the problem, as tourists have been taking the same humdrum minibus day tour for two decades: The Imperial Citadel and Thien Mu Pagoda, followed by lunch and then a tomb or two.

But Hue is changing. In Destination: Hue, Ai Vuong remarks that as the younger generation have turned their attention to improving the lacklustre tourism situation in the city, creative products have begun to hit the market. I Love Hue Tour, offering motorbike tours with only women drivers, is one example.

Established in August 2014, I Love Hue Tour was started by Nguyen Thi Huong Lien, a 22-year-old native of Quang Tri and graduate of the Hue College of Foreign Languages. Like many ambitious high school graduates from the provinces encircling Hue, Lien moved to the city to further her education before turning her attention to tourism.

“When I was 20-years-old, I worked part-time in some foreign restaurants to improve my English; I fell in love with tourism because I love meeting people,” says Lien. “I didn’t think about starting a business before. I Love Hue Tour just came to me one day and I decided to do it. I had just $100 when I started up this idea. I designed the website and did marketing by myself after learning from Google and Youtube!”

“I had just $100 when I started up this idea. I designed the website and did marketing by myself after learning from Google and Youtube!”

I Love Hue Tour demonstrates the current ease of entry into some areas of Vietnam tourism, and that the initial investment doesn’t necessarily have to be financially crippling. Sometimes, a good idea and a small sum of money are enough to get things started.

A large number of I Love Hue Tour happy customers enjoyed the first tour enough to immediately book onto a second one.
(Photo credit: I Love Hue Tour)

FITs are most likely to find out about I Love Hue Tour through social media and review platforms: the company currently enjoys the top spot on TripAdvisor while the Facebook page brandishes an enviable list of genuine five star reviews. Customer satisfaction and positive reviews are invaluable and, remarkably, Lien estimates that around 80% of her customers book more than one tour. A large number of happy customers enjoyed the first tour enough to immediately book onto a second one.

The key to Lien’s success is not that she takes advantage of Hue’s underexplored hidden gems, but rather that she takes visitors to see the tourist favorites in an innovative way.

The tours range from traditional city tours, such as those that take in the major sites or explore the city’s excellent cuisine, to more unusual trips with a specific theme, such as art and handicraft tours or karaoke nights. In spite of all the options, the two most popular products are the traditional tours: Lien estimates that around 70% of her customers opt for hotspot or street food tours. The key to Lien’s success is not that she takes advantage of Hue’s underexplored hidden gems, but rather that she takes visitors to see the tourist favorites in an innovative way. She doesn’t put her customers in a cramped minibus and shuffle them around the sites.

“My guests agree that exploring on motorbike is the best way to see Hue. We offer fun and knowledgeable tours with young local guides.”

All these “young local guides” are women, which many visitors to Vietnam will find appealing, such as women travelers, family groups, and those that might wish to support those that are perceived to be marginalized in the work place. Visitors to Vietnam are likely to come across mainly male tour guides and taxi drivers during their trip but with I Love Hue Tour, taxiing and guiding are done by women only.

“I have joined many international conferences abroad and some talks were about women empowerment. This is the reason why I wanted to start up a company staffed by women. In Vietnam, discrimination between men and women is still present so I want to support these women.”

With I Love Hue Tour, taxiing and guiding are done by women only (Photo credit: I Love Hue Tour)

The community support element to Lien’s tours will also be a selling point as tourists are increasingly demanding ethical travel options. 10% of Lien’s customers are interested in local social activities and she has designed a tour that includes visits to local non-profit organizations and social centres. She also facilitates donation collection from her customers to help support these projects. “I want to combine tourism and community,” says Lien.

In spite of Lien’s success, there are limitations to her approach, which lacks the formality necessary to see the company expands. The website is rudimentary and she’s still working to get all the correct paperwork in order, which will impede her ability to negotiate potentially lucrative contracts with the larger tour agents. She also risks run-ins with the local authorities. For now, I Love Hue Tour is almost entirely business to consumer (B2C) operating online, but it has the potential to be much more than that if Lien is prepared to invest in the formalization process.

“My business is an online business and I need to save up money to make a real one,” she says. “My plans are to keep the company small; just for Hue, which is where I call my home.”