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Vu Pham Van / © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van / © Culture Trip
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How Vietnamese Guides Row With Their Feet

Picture of Matthew Pike
Writer
Updated: 30 January 2018
The limestone karsts and grottoes at Trang An, in Ninh Bình Province of northern Vietnam, have long captured the imaginations of tourists. They’re otherworldly in a way — something out of an epic fantasy film, with dragons and monks and scenes of mythical beauty. The people who live among these jagged outcroppings are also an attraction. They’ve developed a unique rowing method over the years, and here’s how they do it.

A generation of change

Mrs. Gấm has been rowing sampans at the Trang An grottoes for more than 20 years. During that time, the tourism industry in Vietnam has gone from infancy to global recognition — from approximately 1.5 million in 1998 to nearly 13 million in 2017. And Trang An, one of the busiest day trip destinations out of Hanoi, has certainly felt the effects.

While those extra tourists do bring in an influx of money, people like Mrs. Gấm are putting in long hours of backbreaking labor. The guides at Trang An have found an ingenious workaround, though. They row with their feet. As Mrs. Gấm puts it: “Rowing boat by feet is much quicker and less exhausting than by hands.”

Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip

Superior technique

And she’s not the only one. Everyone who rows along these winding rivers has picked up on the art of rowing with their feet. Rather than distributing the stress through the discs of their spine, these rowers are using their strong leg muscles to handle the work. For people who spend thousands of hours rowing in a year, this method of rowing with their feet goes a long way to preventing chronic back pain.

Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip

Keep your eyes on the river

Rather than looking at where they’ve been, Vietnamese guides face where they’re heading. Societal metaphors aside, this really does make a lot more sense. It also means the guides can lay back and relax while they keep an eye on what’s ahead of them. They’re still working, no doubt, but they also look somewhat relaxed.

Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip
Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip

A career move

And when they need to stop, all they have to do is lean forward and grab the oars with their hands. They may never develop the freakish bodies of Olympic rowers, but their clever technique will allow them to work for many years without crippling pain. Here’s a smile for workplace ergonomics.

Vu Pham Van /
Vu Pham Van / | © Culture Trip