Do You Need a Driver with / without a Local Guide when Travelling in SE Asia?

We have our guides in our recent travels to Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. They are all English speaking; with different levels of proficiency, accents and education.

Some of them are knowledgeable and helped us to understand the background or details of the sites we visited.

Some of them have heavy accents and not very good in explaining clearly what they want to say. One guide told us that their culture dates back to a million years; he corrected it when we questioned it. He was also wrong on some of the details which we found out before hand or afterwards using internet search.

What sometimes annoys me is that we have to pretend we are listening ( out of courtesy) and accompanied him to where he wanted to see/ speak instead of where we wanted to spend more time. One guide didn’t enter the site of interest and stayed outside under the shade because of the heat.

It is not unusual that they may spend a little time away from us for different purposes : one said he has to pray several times a day, one said he has to buy something on the way.

For our most recent trip to Central Vietnam, we decided that we will only hire cars with drivers; not bothered to take on any guides. In fact, some drivers speak good English and taught me a lot about Vietnam when he was driving/ resting.

On one day, we hired a car which comes with a driver who is supposed to speak “broken English”. We accepted this arrangement as the offer was reasonable.

The driver picked us up at the hotel. He was supposed to give us a city tour of Hoi An, by stopping at different places of interest and picking us from the same spot where he left us after the visit. We thought that was fine but on the first spot, we find it didn’t work out that way.

The driver dropped us off at the city spot which supposedly was not far away from an old house. He just dropped us at a convenient location with no traffic restrictions and unable to tell us what we are visiting and where.

One of our better guides speaking reasonable English waiting for us at an Inle Lake Pier

To our horror, we found out that his English was not broken, but non-existent. Whenever we have a question, he gave us his phone so that we can write it down and got it Google translated. When he wanted to talk to us, he would talk to his phone and got it translated using Google. This proved to be not working.

Then he rang his boss so that his direction can be translated by his boss. His boss said he will communicate to us as to where we will be picked up by Whatsapp. My wife has subscribed to data, but the signal was so weak that both his boss and my wife cannot communicate on Whatsapp. I cannot help either as I didn’t subscribe to data in Vietnam. So, we were left in limbo at the waiting spot where the car cannot be found.

Tell you what, in the end, we cancelled this weird tour and did it happily our-self. So, a lesson is learned.

12 thoughts on “Do You Need a Driver with / without a Local Guide when Travelling in SE Asia?

  1. Weird is definitely the word, Michael. Glad you were able to tour yourself, but what a shame that you were told the wrong information about your driver in the first place.

  2. Maybe this will be of some help. My wife has recently returned from Hanoi. She found using the Grab app was good for sourcing reliable drivers and always negotiated the price before departure. As far as guides go, she says those recommended by travel agents were good, but choosing your own adventure is often the best way to go!

    • Thanks for the valuable advice 🙂
      What happened is that the data we have sometimes is unable to use the app.
      The city tour consist of quite a few alighting / boarding locations and the distance between them are not great by car but too far by walking.
      I will try the Grab app if I buy the sim card.

  3. Oh what a waste of time! In countries like Vietnam you need a driver and a trustworthy one and a local who speaks decent English. I was lucky to visit Hanoi when my sis was expat there. Shopped and ate happily!

  4. I have to disagree with Garfield – my family (husband, 2 kids) and I have just spent 4.5 months travelling Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia) and we have only had a private driver / guide when it was necessary i.e. there was no option to travel on your own or it made financial sense. We have hired our own cars, used public transport…in fact used most forms of transport known! As for Hoi An…it’s such a small city with most of the streets in the historic area not open to standard vehicles that it seems a bit mad to get a driver! My advice would be to research the area you’re going really well just before you get there and ask plenty of questions at the hotel you are staying in – if they are small family run hotels, they tend to have a vast amount of knowledge about the area they are in, that you can make the most of. Enjoy your next travels!

    • We don’t like overplanning – planning the trip to the hour as my sister in law always do; neither do we like under planning.
      We found crossing roads in Vietnam a big challenge with the hundreds of motorcycles zooming pass, thinking they have priority even if the pedestrian signal is green. It is especially bad during rain when footpaths are occupied and the road flooded or with pot holes.
      We think a driver alone is sufficient if it is a single destination involving long distance travelling.
      Hoi An is small especially the old UNESCO town and we can easily get by. What we wanted to do is to get to destinations outside the old town which are not reachable by foot and spatially spread in different directions from our hotel.
      There are not many detailed maps of it in the internet, especially, one of good resolution.
      3 months after mom passed away, within 15 months, we visited 7 places outside HK which requires at least travelling by plane.The short time available means we don’t always plan in detail.
      Some of these we planned in detail, some we just left it to a package with tour guides, some we underplan- we don’t want everything to conform to a rigid schedule or itinerary cast in stone.
      For Hoi An, we rented a car / driver to go to My Son Sanctuary. But for an extra $10, they said they can give us a city tour of the places outside the old town – this part turned out to be a disaster, as the driver was almost like a cyber car driving robot.
      The maps from the hotel was poor, showing little wanted information. The hotel has city tour packages but cost at least 2- 3 times than with private cars and driver and require us to be in a group ( which usually starts quite early at 8:00 or 8:30).
      While the people in the hotel was helpful, they are not of much help telling us all the destinations which are within say 30 minutes car travel from the old town.
      So, this was an interesting experience!

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