A man I barely knew coaxed me to a mountaintop. Another led me to the antique Asian vase of my dreams. And another was my buddy when I swam with jellyfish. When I think about these experiences, I’m reminded of the lyrics “I get by with a little help from my friends.” In these cases, the “friends” were private guides my husband and I hired to show us their countries from an insider’s point of view. We opt for private guides in places where it isn’t practical or even possible for visitors to rent a car and start exploring. We love connecting with locals, hearing their stories, and having a flexible itinerary, so for us, this is a great alternative.
I think the first time we traveled with a guide was in Vietnam. American visitors weren’t permitted to drive, so renting a car wasn’t an option. Instead, we planned an itinerary with Ann Tours, a travel company in Ho Chi Minh City, and they provided driver-guides. After we arrived in town, I realized the wisdom of our decision. The traffic was so fast and furious that I was afraid to cross the street.
After exploring the city, we set out on a road trip with our guide, Thach. I’m not shy about asking questions and soon learned that he had worked as an interpreter for a U.S. Army general during the Vietnam War. It was a long trip to Dalat, and later, Nha Trang, but good conversation made the time fly. Along the way, he provided a running commentary on the sights, cheerfully made numerous photo stops, and took us to his friend’s restaurant.
Thach set a high bar, but our next guide, Hein, measured up. He met us at the Hanoi airport and over a few days took us to see the sights. At some point, I mentioned that I had hoped to buy an antique Vietnamese vase, but hadn’t been able to find anything but knock-offs. Before I knew it, he had a quick conversation with the driver and we were on our way to Bat Trang, an outlying village known for producing traditional pottery. There, he led me past rows of shops selling new goods and then down a side street and up some stairs to the one place dealing in antiques. I fell in love with a gorgeous piece, which the owner agreed to crate and ship. The large vase occupies a special place in our home, and every time I look at it I remember the story and the serendipity of finding it.
Ann Tours founder Tran Ngoc Ann worked for the American Embassy during the war. Her touching life story can be found on her company’s website at anntours.com.
We got lucky — very lucky — with our guide for Peru. Wilfredo Huillca Gamarra, who was with us for ten days, was key to the success of the trip. He patiently held my hand as we navigated the stone steps at Machu Picchu and numerous other Inca archeological sites. Everywhere we went, he provided cultural context and grad school-level history and engineering lessons. Wilfredo also helped me bargain in craft markets, made sure that we visited Machu Picchu when it wasn’t crowded, played beautiful music on his panpipe, and invited us to his home in Cusco for lunch with his family. We planned our trip with Nina at Ancient Summit, and she is the best contact for him.
Mountains, Monks, and More
Bhutan rose to the top of my bucket list when I read a Time article describing it as “the happiest place on earth.” The country, a serene Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, opened to tourism in 1974 and limits foreign visitors in order to preserve its pristine environment and very special way of life. It’s the ideal destination for hikers, photographers, and those with spiritual curiosity.
Our guide Leki Phuntsho of Bhutan 4 Joy took us to see fortresses and temples and beautiful monasteries, as well as a local archery match. When I suggested river rafting, he magically made it happen and he also, at my request, arranged a meeting with a monk. I’m especially grateful to Leki for not letting me give up on the long trek up to the landmark Tigers Nest Monastery, which sits 10,000 feet above the Paro Valley. I whined. He coaxed. I wanted to give up. He wouldn’t let me. And at the top, we all celebrated.
Snorkeling with Swing
Not all great driver-guide teams arrive on wheels. For our long-awaited trip to Palau, an archipelago of 340 islands in the Western Pacific Ocean, I searched online and found Swingly Aguon of Swings Palau Tours. While others offered pre-planned group snorkeling excursions, Swing assured me we would be his only passengers. Every morning, his boat pulled up at the dock at our hotel and he and his son welcomed us aboard. We snorkeled at new sites every day and always seemed to arrive when the tide was right and we had the area to ourselves. The highlight of the week was the magical experience of snorkeling with jellyfish. I loved everything about it and stayed in Jellyfish Lake much longer than we’d planned. And that was ok, because I was sure that Swing wouldn’t mind waiting. He knows we all get by with a little help from our friends.