VietNamNet Bridge – Some 200 people, mostly retirees, have been working as volunteer tour guides in Seoul under the management of the Seoul Tourism Organisation. They have influenced tourists with their enthusiasm for the city. Le Huong is impressed.
Happy outdoors: Retiree Baekyang Rhee working as volunteer tour guide. VNS Photos Le Huong
It’s a bright and windy day. Retiree Baekyang Rhee puts on his neat trousers, jacket and trainers. He’s ready for a long walk around old Mapo District, along the Han River in Seoul.
He doesn’t walk for fun or to keep fit. Today he guides a group of tourists on a new walking tour route launched by the Seoul Tourism Organisation.
The group of tourists gathers promptly at the meeting point, before he takes them on a 4-km stroll through the hustle and bustle of Mapo Food Street and along the quiet river bank. The route comes to an end at the Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine and Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery on top of a hill.
From time to time, he stops to explain the history of the locations as the group passes.
Opened earlier this year, the Hangang Pilgrimage Route consists of a dirt path, giving way to a stone path, a forest path and eventually a flower path. The symbolic flow, from dirt to flowers, invites the pilgrims to reflect on their life-journey and discern the blossoming of life, which emerges out of the struggle with hardship.
The route symbolises the sacrifice of early Catholic believers in Korea, who were prosecuted by the Joseon Dynasty during the 19th century.
A Catholic himself, Rhee said: “When reaching the Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine and the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery on top of the hill, you can rest your soul and your heart as well as reminisce about where you have been.
“You can discard extra feelings and meditate while walking and thinking about the sacrifice of ancestors.”
The work has become a weekly routine for 73-year-old Rhee, who used to work at the office of an automobile company.
He leads three tours each week including forest tours and pilgrimage tours.
“I learned about nature and history as a hobby and I like sharing my knowledge,” he told Việt Nam News. “I feel rewarded if the tourists I guide are interested in learning about Seoul.
“I’m happy if I meet friends with the same hobbies.”
Local expert: Baekyang Rhee (first left) says he feels stronger and more inspired guiding tourists, who are interested in Korean history.
Rhee is one of about 200 other mostly retirees, who volunteer to work as tour guides. The volunteers are all around 60 years old.
“They are from all walks of life,” said Yubin Shin, from the Strategic Business Team of the Seoul Tourism Organisation.
“They apply for the job. We check how much history they know, their knowledge… We choose the best ones for the job,” she said.
The organisation provides them with some money for transportation, but not a payment or salary. They don’t even receive tips from tourists.
They speak four main languages of English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.
A few even speak Vietnamese and Malaysian.
The chosen guides have three months to prepare for their first journeys.
Shin said the first member of the volunteer team had been working for ten years.
“My main duty is supporting the volunteers,” Shin said.
“I’m always moved by their enthusiasm and eagerness to satisfy their tourists. They really do their best.”
Hyona Kim, another guide, still works as an English interpreter.
“I choose the routes I like and that suit my timetable,” she said.
“I love Seoul and I want to make some contributions,” the 40-something guide explained when asked why she chose to work as a volunteer.
“I want to spread my love to tourists, to help the city gain more fans. And that’s the most precious reward for me.”
Highly appreciating the volunteers, May Boonnisa, a tourist from Thailand could not hide her admiration.
“They help me understand the destinations,” she said.
“Seoul is more attractive to me with these whole-hearted volunteer guides.”