Category Archives: Media

9000 Seconds of Saigon 05.20.11

Introducing your friendly Saigon blogger’s weekly biweekly-ish digest of roughly two and half hours worth of reading and viewing on Saigon, Vietnam, Asia-Pacific, and Asia’s intersection with New York City.

Right here on 9000 Hours in Saigon, Mike from Along the Mekong posted a query about getting your foot in the door at expat magazines to the About section. Check out my lengthy reply if you’re a budding wordsmith in Vietnam.

courtesy of

After a long absence from the blogosphere, contemporary artist and dia/projects founder Richard Streitmatter-Tran has dusted off and logged a breakdown of dia/projects’ activities one year since its opening.

courtesy of

Meanwhile, the folks inspired by the original diacritic have been reliably churning out dispatches from the diaspora. This week, the diacritics (plural) published articles on a surviving warren of Vietnamese refugees in France, contemporary art photography in Phnom Penh, spoken word artist Bao Phi, and Tran Anh Hung’s latest film, Norwegian Wood

courtesy of Asia Society

Being back in New York has its advantages–like getting to visit Ai Wei Wei’s new public sculpture in Grand Army Plaza. The Asia Society has a short post and two-minute video on Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads on its blog.

If that blurry chef in the background of the lead photo for this New York Times article looks vaguely familiar, you were probably a regular at Pham Ngu Lau’s Bread &  Butter during the past couple of years. Liza Queen is back in Brooklyn and serving up the Vietnamese fare she learned to make during her tw0-year stint in Saigon. Look for her bun thit nuong and banh xeo under the banner of Queen’s Dahn Ta at the Brooklyn Flea’s new all-food market, Smorgasburg.

And speaking of Western chefs in Vietnam, you can check out the Phan Thiet/Mui Ne segments of Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escapes on (for which blogger Adam Bray was a consultant). 

From Tom’s twitter stream this week:

Border Troubles
Cambodia refuses to remove troops from #PreahVihear, Thailand responds by blocking Indonesian observers along border.
Soundtrack of Street Life in Vietnam
Propaganda or poetry? Vietnam’s iconic loudspeakers punctuate public life with messages from the Party.
Trouble Among the Hmong
Report on #Hmong conflict in northern #Vietnam via @ChristianPost suggests some culpability among messianic leaders
@hrw pressures Vietnam to open investigation into recent unrest among #Hmong hill tribes in Muong Nhe.
Guns Blazing
ASEAN defence ministers seek to halve weapons spending by coordinating trade among regional industries.
A Message for Canada’s New Conservative Majority
Editorial: Canada needs to rethink its commitment to the #EastAsiaSummit.

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Filed under Cambodia, Media, New York City, Photography, Vietnam

Telling Stories in an Adopted Land: Or Why I’m Not a Foreign Correspondant Cowboy

The guy was an old hand–if you’ve practiced journalism in Vietnam, you know the OH type. Within a few minutes of talking, my elder colleague was boasting of being blacklisted, or having suffered some such form of censure by the Vietnamese government. Exactly what offense had invited the attention of the information authorities the OH did not disclose. Or perhaps I simply do not remember–because I was busy eyeing the room for an escape route.

Jesus. I was just here for the press lunch.

Unfortunately, I was unable to elude the OH, and during our lunch,  the conversation cycled around to a topic that I thought I’d discouraged earlier by changing the subject from subversive journalism to something so thoroughly inconsequential I cannot now remember it. The OH complimented my magazine, AsiaLIFE HCMC, but he wanted to know why we hadn’t used our long-form journalism platform to dig deeper, explore the good stuff, the really controversial stories that would get people talking.

Re: the type of stuff that would get me blacklisted, possibly denied my next visa.

In the past, I had been pretty non-confrontational in answering this question. It came up frequently enough. The OH designation isn’t exclusive to august journos. It’s a cowboy mentality inspired by the perception (or projection) of Southeast Asia as the Wild Wild East, a place where one can live out one’s own modern-day Dispatches. The OH credo might be, “If a story doesn’t stir enough shit, it’s not worth telling.” I’ve found that OHs typically assume that you, as a fellow journalist in rollicking Southeast Asia, abide by the same maxim. When you burst their bubble, it can get uncomfortable.

But this time, I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t feeling so polite. Maybe I just wanted this guy to stop talking so I could enjoy my coffee. I told the OH that I felt it was presumptuous for Western journalists to enter the country and immediately begin writing about what was wrong with it. Although heavily censored, domestic media exists in Vietnam, and institutional criticism is best handled by Vietnamese, the people for whom the end results of that criticism matter the most.

That did the job. I finished my lunch in peace.

This incident came to mind last night while I listened to a panel of journalists and media professionals speak on working in East Asia at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia. Among the speakers were Isabel Hilton, founder and editor of the bilingual news site and Abi E. Wright, director of Columbia’s DuPont and Chancellor Awards and formerly of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The conversation, perhaps inevitably, led to self censorship and respecting the situation of partner journalists in countries with limited press freedom.

It was particularly refreshing to hear Hilton say that chinadialogue is strategic about what subjects they cover. They do good work, penning stories that many would be surprised they’re allowed to publish. On top of that, they’ve never been censured. I always felt our role at AsiaLIFE was to provide the context and insight necessary for a majority expatriate audience to process Vietnam more thoughtfully and compassionately. Doing so month after month, I believe, was more valuable to our readers than a one-off expose that resulted in our publishing house being shuttered. 

Wright also brought up a great point in response to my question about partnering with foreign journalists. Sensation sells, especially a sensational story from a place widely perceived as repressive, and for someone who will be leaving the country behind, it can be tempting to snag that big byline. But when you leave the country, your contacts and partners are still there. To breeze over this reality is a pretty clear breach of journalistic ethics.

On a similar note, moderator Robert Barnett, director of Columbia’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, spoke to the importance of writing on the issues rather than the event. One runs the risk of getting an editor (and oneself) hooked on sensational event pieces, when in fact an investigation into issues is more valuable to the reader. 

For me, the speakers’ insights reinforced that foreign journalists and media professionals working in countries with established, albeit controlled media need to listen to and learn from local journalists. If I decided not to write or assign a story at AsiaLIFE, it wasn’t always because I knew the censor would contort it into a misleading jumble of non-information; it was just as often because I felt that I or the writer did not have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the culture or underlying issues to achieve what the story sought to achieve. In forming partnerships with local journalists, I’m convinced that the foreigner should more often than not play a supporting role.

It was serendipitous that just before the event, I was reading a chapter entitled The Newspaperman from former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief Philip P. Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the New Soul of China. This chapter of Pan’s excellent book follows the role of Guangdong Province’s Southern Metropolis Daily and its editor in chief, Cheng Yizhong, in exposing government dishonesty during the SARS epidemic and closing down the brutal shourong detention system. Cheng and his staff took on these fights at tremendous personal risk, and were only able to accomplish what they accomplished thanks to a cunning rooted in their deep understanding of the context in which they were working.

Out of Mao’s Shadow is full of stories such as this, stories in which ordinary people rise above fear and champion the truth. I wondered as I finished the chapter on the train home whether telling their stories might have been just as rewarding as any byline Pan ever earned in his eight years in China.

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Filed under Ideas, Media, Uncategorized, Vietnam

New Vietnamese Films Out This Month

Yesterday I sat down to compile the listing of movies due out in Vietnam next month for the upcoming issue of AsiaLIFE, and I was pretty surprised at the number of local flicks hitting the theaters.

Vuot Qua Ben Thuong Hai (Journey from Shanghai)

This period thriller follows the journey of Nguyen Ai Quoc–better known to the world as Ho Chi Minh–from Hong Kong to the Soviet Union by way of Shanghai. For those who don’t know the story, Ho Chi Minh escaped from prison in Hong Kong by conspiring to fake his own death. Journey from Shanghai follows the events immediately after his escape, and from the trailer, it looks like the filmmakers have gone for a noir-meets-martial arts tone. Central to the film is Ho’s friendship with Soong Ching-ling, the once wife of Sun Yet-sen who supported the Communists during the Civil War.

Saigon Electric and Bui Duong (Street Dust)

The trailer above isn’t actually for the 2009 Vietnamese hip-hop drama Street Dust–it’s for director Nguyen Duc Viet’s December 2010 release, Saigon Electric. Perhaps to build the anticipation for Saigon Electric, local theaters are re-releasing Street Dust next month. The film follows siblings Hanh and Nam’s journey towards hip-hop fame. After their mother dies, Nam gives gives up his dream to find employment, but Hanh is determined to secure them both a shot at a competition in Bangkok.

Saigon Electric was written by Owl and Sparrow screenwriter Stephane Gauger and similarly follows the dreams of a Saigon hip-hoppers to beat out a rival crew and advance to a competition in South Korea. Read more about the film here.

Canh Dong Bat Tan (Floating Lives)

Viet Kieu actor Dustin Nguyen (21 Jump Street, Heaven and Earth, Little Fish) continues to bolster the local film industry with his latest release, Floating Lives. The film follows some pretty heavy subject matter: love, infidelity and betrayal in a small town in the Mekong Delta. I haven’t found much about the plot just yet, but it’s based on Nguyen Ngoc Tu’s “The Boundless Rice Field” (available in English translation). It looks like director Nguyen Phan Quang Binh is continuing to push the envelope with some steamy-for-Vietnam scenes.


Filed under Film, Media, Video, Vietnam

Tweeting from Saigon

So I’ve finally heeded to the advice of my older and much wiser sister, Kate the HR wunderkind, and begun tweeting. I’ve long thought it a bad idea to start micro-blogging without a purpose, so with no aim in mind, I simply left my account as a placeholder. My purpose now: selling myself. Look for shameless self-promotion and randomness from thanh pho ho chi minh (like my sad, sad Carl’s Jr. confession)

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Filed under Media, Social Networking

PBS Picks Up Documentary on Vietnam AIDS Activist

Update: Watch the entire documentary at the PBS Global Voices website.

I recently spoke to Leslie Weiner, one of the three women behind Smile Group, and her documentary on Vietnamese AIDs activist Nguyen Van Hung will premier on PBS in the United States on May 10. I profiled the work of Smile Group and the legacy of Hung in a February 2009 AsiaLIFE article, “The Teacher’s Lessons.” Now, his story and the stories of those living with HIV/AIDS in Vietnam will be broadcast to millions. Check out the trailer for Thay Hung: Teacher below:

For those unfamiliar with PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), it’s the States’ most widely broadcasted nonprofit public broadcasting television service, with affiliates in more than 350 locations. Thay Hung: Teacher will appear under the banner of the PBS series Global Voices. If you live in the United States, check for air dates at

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Filed under Causes, Ho Chi Minh City, Media, Vietnam

Meanwhile, at the AsiaLIFE blog…

I’ve been blogging less than usual over at the AsiaLIFE blog, largely because I wrote the last two cover stories for the March and April issues (issues 24 and 25) on top of my regular managerial and editing duties, leaving me little time to devote to the digital domain. However, I’m back in the swing of things. Here’s what you can find over on the AsiaLIFE blog:

Leslie from Smile Group, a fantastic local nonprofit that builds community among and provides support to HIV-affected families, sent us an update on what the group’s been up to. Read the post here.

Also check out AsiaLIFE contributing editor Thomas Maresca’s excellent story from Issue 20 in which he profiles three of the families and sheds light on HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.

Sugar-coated Karma by Tuan Andrew Nguyen @ San Art's "Syntax + Diction"

Although the artist talk took place this past Thursday, check out this post for a brief introduction to leading Vietnamese artists Dinh Q. Le and Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Other suggestions:

1) Head over to the Galerie Quynh website for more info on Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

2) If you’re visiting Saigon, check out San Art and Galerie Quynh.

3) If you’re in New York City or visiting there this year, go see Dinh Q. Le’s installation The Farmers and the Helicopters, opening June 30 at the MoMa and on until January 11, 2011.

4) Read my cover story on contemporary art in Ho Chi Minh City in Issue 25 of AsiaLIFE.

Nordic Week at the Equatorial Hotel Returns to Saigon

One of my favorite food events in Saigon, Nordic Week, returns to the Equatorial Hotel from April 24 to 30. Get the skinny here, or head over to VietNews Online, where you can read my article on New Nordic Cuisine first published in the June 2009 issue of AsiaLIFE.

David Macmillan and Keith Rotheram in Phnom Penh, photo by Fred Wissink, photo editor for AsiaLIFE

I also wrote a third blog post on the controversial media coverage of the Sean Flynn discovery. It seems that Tim King, the executive editor of Salem News, took note of my posts on the questionable reportage and what I view as clear bias against Macmillan. He picked up on the story and put the news media under the lens in two stories.

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Filed under Art, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Media, Vietnam

Sean Flynn Discovery: Shoddy News Travels Fast

Keith Rotheram and Dave Macmillan in Phnom Penh. Photo by Fred Wissink, AsiaLIFE photography editor.

I first met David Macmillan in AsiaLIFE‘s old office on Hoang Sa. I don’t remember what he was doing there, but I remember we talked about Operation Ivy. I had selected some of the proto-ska band’s lyrics to run with a thematic fashion shoot, and he asked, “Who chose these lyrics?” My only other impression of Macmillan was of him singing at the first Hey Ho Let’s Go! festival at a local venue in Saigon. With his slicked back hair, thin mustache and long sideburns, he looked the part of a greaser punk.

It’s hard to believe that the guy we often referred to as Dogma Dave around the office (for his association with the HCMC-based Dogma clothing brand) is now taking a lashing from international media in newspapers around the world.

Last Sunday, Macmillan was thrust into the spotlight when he and his friend, bar-owner Keith Rotheram, turned over a pile of bones that could be the remains of Sean Flynn, the actor-tunred-photographer and son of American actor Errol Flynn who went missing in Cambodia in 1970 while chasing the new frontline of the Vietnam War. I knew about the development long before it broke, because Macmillan had contacted AsiaLIFE and our contributing editor Thomas Maresca about it approximately two weeks ago. He already had a relationship with Tom and AsiaLIFE and asked Tom to cover the find.

Since then, there’s been a lot of speculation about Macmillan and Rotheram’s motives, first insinuated in an article by Sopheng Cheang that was distributed around the world by the Associated Press. For all I know, it may be true. But as a young journalist and editor, I am frankly shocked at the lack of professionalism on display in news coverage of the development.

Cheang’s article is rife with loaded language and insinuation. After a brief rundown of the facts, he suddenly shifts directions in the ninth graf, writing, “Freelance ‘bone hunters’ have also taken up the search for both missing journalists and US service personnel. Some proved to be swindlers who demanded money from relatives of the missing.”

This graf is immediately followed by quotes from Tim Page, the journalist, war photographer and friend of Sean Flynn, which express Page’s disapproval of the way Macmillan and Rotheram carried out the excavation (which I’m not disputing here). If Cheang is not insinuating that Macmillan and Rotheram are “bone hunters,” I don’t know what the purpose of that graf is.

I’ve written more about Cheang’s article on the AsiaLIFE blog.

Mark Dodd, writing for The Australian, did Cheang one better, referring to Macmillan and Rotheram as “bounty hunters.” Amidst his clear bias and tenuous grasp of the facts, Dodd writes that it’s not certain whether Flynn’s mother, Lili Damita, who has funded past excavations, was behind this one, as well. What’s the problem with this line? Lili Damita died in 1994. (See my extended criticism here).

To me, it appears that many journalists and news agencies are in such a hurry to get the story that they’re in fact creating it themselves. It is regularly being reported that Macmillan and Rotheram claim that these are the remains of  Sean Flynn and that they’re selling the story to the highest bidder without reference to the source of that information. I do know that Macmillan and Rotheram are not speaking to the press right now, and that they inquired about how much the AP pays for photos, but they asked for no compensation for the story that Thomas Maresca and Simon Parry of Red Door News Agency wrote for the Sunday Mail and the South China Morning Post.

The two are certainly interested in selling the exclusive feature, but my impression is that neither are particularly media savvy and may be confusing selling news for selling an exclusive magazine feature. I’m not sure this matters to the media. So long as they can stoke the flames of controversy and make the story seem as tawdry as possible, they seem to be content to follow that line.

There’s been little attempt to differentiate Macmillan from Rotheram; the two are regularly lumped together as “bone hunters.” When it comes to their motives, the two are treated as a single entity. However, context matters. Macmillan has been part of the search for Sean Flynn for at least a year, while Rotheram is simply a friend who helped him organize and fund the dig.

Further, journalists have widely ignored information from Maresca and Parry’s story, which reveals that Sean Flynn’s sister Rory, who is quoted, helped fund the excavation. Articles have also overlooked Tim Page’s relationship to Macmillan, which stretches back at least a year. It was Macmillan who arranged Tim Page’s interview with Maresca for The Last Search for Sean Flynn, a special feature that ran in March 2009’s AsiaLIFE. Nor has anyone mentioned what Page told AsiaLIFE in that interview: that he intended to write a book about his search for Flynn and expressed plans to have a documentary film on the subject made. I am not questioning Page’s motives for criticizing Macmillan and Rotheram, but given this information, he clearly had a commercial interest in finding Flynn himself. And that should have been reported.

I am not taking Macmillan’s side. Quite frankly I don’t know him well enough. But this whole experience has been very illuminating. I have seen some good coverage of the development that resists speculation and hype, but the fact that grossly misleading articles have ended up in papers like The New York Times and The Guardian is an unsettling lesson in the ability of bad news to reach millions.

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Filed under Media

NYT Travel: Overselling Vietnam Beer?



Yesterday my sister sent me a link to a New York Times Travel section article called “In Vietnam, Traveling an Unlikely Beer Trail” in which the author embarks on what he describes as “a beer odyssey” through the country. When I read these two words—“beer” and “odyssey”—I was immediately intrigued.

To most of the beer enthusiasts I know, Vietnam is not known for the quality of its brew. Had I missed something during my two years in Vietnam? I wondered.

Alas, I had not. The article, despite being well-written and engaging, left me with a familiar impression: travel writers are still figuring out how to sell Vietnam.

There’s nothing wrong with romanticizing the beer culture in Vietnam. When I moved here in March 2008, I too was taken with the local bia hoi joints, the plastic stools and tables, the convivial atmosphere and 33 cent beer. But to suggest that Vietnam boasts a beer trail is a stretch in my opinion.

Let me explain why.

At one point, the writer says: “For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, the variety of local and regional beers can be surprising. It seems each city has a beer named after it (Bia Can Tho, Bia Thai Binh, Bia Saigon, Bia Hanoi, Bia Hue, and so on), and the best of the bunch depends on whom you ask and where you’re asking. But in recent decades, Vietnamese beer culture has morphed, adopting traditional European styles as well as embracing a uniquely ephemeral home-grown brew called bia hoi.”

To me, the phrasing here is misleading. I don’t know if “variety” is the right word. Yes, many cities have their own beer, but the contents are pretty standard: pedestrian lagers brewed with too much rice and too few hops to have much (if any) defining character. These regional beers do well in their hometowns for a simple reason: local pride. (This is according to my interviews with local market research firm TNS Vietnam.)

I also think the bit about Vietnamese beer culture morphing needs qualification. For those who have the means, beer choice in rapidly developing Vietnam is very much a social statement. Various local bar owners, the heads of international brand operations and Vietnamese friends have all told me the same thing: the beer middle and upper class locals drink is influenced by their perception of its prestige, with beers like Heineken ranking higher than Bia Saigon or Bia Hanoi, which are viewed as a workingman’s brew.

Since the emphasis is on the label rather than the quality of the contents, there’s little demand for a more diverse range of beer (except among expats, who represent a drop in the bucket). Local tastes tend toward simple lagers, so few bars serve anything but Tiger, Foster’s, Budweiser, Heineken, Miller, San Miguel, Corona and the local brews. This carries over into the microbreweries that the writer covers, as well; a brewer at one of these establishments told me he’d like to brew up something with a bit more character, but his boss won’t let him for fear that it won’t sell.

The “aspirational drinker” trend is what really drives the change in beer culture in Vietnam. It utterly dwarfs the tiny niche of microbreweries in Saigon. As an editor, I would have urged the writer to focus on either the novelty of Saigon’s microbreweries or the bia hoi culture covered at the end of the article.

Overall, I think it’s a mistake is to paint a portrait of an evolving beer culture that begs to be explored. When you evoke phrases like “beer trail” and “beer odyssey” you then have to deliver on the reader’s expectations. The fact is Vietnam’s beer portfolio remains very limited, and the trends that are really driving production are actually nudging beer in Vietnam towards mediocrity.


Filed under Culture, Media, Nightlife, Vietnam

Where in the World is your Friendly Saigon Blogger?

I’ll admit that long bouts of inactivity are not unusual to 9000 Hours in Saigon. My work at AsiaLIFE HCMC keeps me on my feet seven days a week. But this time around, I have been blogging.

The editorial team at AsiaLIFE recently launched a blog at, where we’ve been posting supplements to our print stories, liner notes from the current and past issues’ production and cover designs, content from the cutting room floor and lots more.

We’ve also relaunched the official AsiaLIFE website at You can now download PDFs of entire issues going back to April 2008 in the Archives section. They’re large files so give it about five or ten minutes to load up. Grab a coffee, watch a few YouTube videos, or actually call someone on the telephone rather than dropping him or her a tweet/wall post/text. When you come back, you’ll have an entire issue of AsiaLIFE waiting for you.

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Filed under Media

Facebook Down in Vietnam

Each day the error message continues to come up, there seems to be more credence behind what was once a rumour: Facebook is being blocked in Vietnam. Explanations abound: dissident ideas were starting to seep into the social networking site; too many Vietnamese girls were posting provocative photos, thereby violating social evil strictures; etc, etc, etc.

One thing remains true though: I am unable to poke anyone.

There’s been some talk about a scanned version of a document from some ministry or another handing down the order to firewall Facebook in Vietnam, but I haven’t been able to find anything conclusive yet. Will try to hunt something down soon … right after I find a reliable proxy server.

Update: Just heard from my creative director another possible reason for the Facebook troubles. Apparently FTP, the country’s second largest Internet provider somehow screwed up access codes to sites that require security. So essentially, there’s some sort of security clash happening between the FTP and Facebook, and the net result is that Facebook is essentially blocking itself.

Neither of us know very much about servers, so we can’t verify any of this, but what is interesting is that the FTP issue has also affected our Internet access at the office, forcing us to switch to a secondary service: VDC. There seems to be no problem accessing Facebook on VDC, which is the largest Internet provider in Vietnam and owned by the government, to boot. If Facebook is being blocked, I’m not sure why we’d be able to access it on a government-owned service provider.

Sidenote: Our general director looked at the scanned copy floating around and said it proves nothing; it could be an intra-office suggestion to block Facebook that came from some corner of the Ministry of Culture and got shot down.


Filed under Media, Vietnam