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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 chinadialogue.net 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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Expat Alert: Girl Talk Hits Hanoi

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The year is shaping up to be a small step forward for live music in Vietnam. Already we’ve seen acts like Brooklyn-based Ratat, dancehall singer Lexie Lee and Beijing indie band Rebuilding the Rights of Statues swing through Saigon. Now, DJ Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk will be bringing his signature blend of hundreds-of-samples-strong mixes and frenetic audience interaction to Hanoi on August 15 (venue to be determined) thanks to the folks at CAMA.

Sadly, Girl Talk won’t be hitting HCMC. The inside word is that he’d rather spend some time on the beach after his Hanoi date. So get booking your Jetstar flight.

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Nordic Food in Vietnam

 

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Fred Wissink

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with a couple of visiting chefs from Sweden during the Equatorial Hotel‘s Nordic Week. At the start of the event, I had swung by for a press dinner and left utterly smitten. Executive chef Niclas Wahlstrom of Stockholm’s Den Gyldene Freden and Magnus Johansson, past winner of the Culinary Olympics and Nobel Prize dinner pastry chef, were good enough to give me some of their time between lunch and dinner services to teach me about the New Nordic Cuisine movement. Tuoi Tre‘s vietnewsonline.vn picked up my story on the culinary movement after it ran in AsiaLIFE HCMC. If you haven’t gotten the skinny on New Nordic Food yet, read about it here.

 

Photo by Fred Wissink

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Ed Lessons: Beware Bloggers

It’s been about a year since I joined the editorial staff of AsiaLIFE HCMC, my first post at a real-life, in-your-hands magazine. With the job crunch caused by the recession back home, I think it’s fair to say that if I hadn’t moved to Saigon, my year spent educating myself and trying to break into publishing would have turned into three and a half. It’s afforded me a lot of opportunities. Back in May, it even fulfilled a lifelong wish: to be positioned at the nexus of controversy and torrid rumor.

The experience turned out to be less than what I’d expected.

Shortly after our Green issue came out, a local blogger and “brand provocateur” named David Everitt-Carlson posted an entry to his blog — The Wild, Wild East Dailies — alleging that AsiaLIFE ripped off New York magazine’s December 2008 cover. To support his claim, he made mention of AsiaLIFE‘s “new, New York staff.” Surely there was a connection. One had to lead to the other. What’s more, he had pictures.

Here’s the first problem: we had pictures too. No bones about it. The 2008 New York magazine cover was indeed our reference shot.

3228_195737930234_774620234_6832345_6966758_nThe concept, roughly, went like this: Expats are notorious for their love-hate relationship with Saigon, and one of the things we most often whinge about is the state of the environment. New York magazine is well known for its annual “Reasons to Love New York” issues (the theme has also been used by other city pubs). The cover to the 2008 installment became immediately iconic: a translucent red heart reminiscent of the “I Love New York” campaign held in front of a city street. The idea then developed. Everything we were learning about individuals and organizations fighting for Vietnam’s beleaguered environment represented a new reason to love Vietnam. Our photo editor went to pains to set up the shot so that people would immediately recognize it as a reference to the  New York magazine cover, albeit with one difference: a green heart.

So what went wrong? For one, we changed the cover headline. The working title was We Love Vietnam, but I felt it didn’t sit right on the tongue. We Love Vietnam, Too? A New Reason to Love Vietnam? It all linked back to New York magazine’s concept and strengthened the reference, but it didn’t sound too slick. I suggested a placeholder, The Times They Are a-Changin’. Blame my Bob Dylan obsession. My creative director wasn’t sold (and quite frankly neither was I). As we struggled to finish things up with two of our six-person staff out of town, the issue went to print with the placeholder, an admittedly weak headline that contributes to opening us up to Carlson’s criticism: that we stole New York magazine’s cover.

Here’s the second problem with Carlson’s post: he never contacted us to for comment. Instead, he just assumed that, despite the fact that AsiaLIFE‘s designers have been praised for its covers since relaunch in April 2008, we simply got lazy and decided to poach from New York magazine. Apparently he was pretty confident in his hypothesis. He had the “new New York staff” thing, right?

Enter the third problem: we hardly qualify as some recruited bunch of publishing veterans. Since its relaunch, AsiaLIFE has been positioned as a place for ambitious young creatives to cut their teeth. While our staff writer has extensive experience as a freelancer and television writer in New York, this is his first post as a staff writer of a glossy city magazine. Our deputy editor comes from an HR and marketing background; this is her first full-time editorial post. I lived in New York City for 2 1/2 years after college and mostly worked as a contributor/editor for an online travel guide and as a freelance proofreader. Our origin is all coincidence; we were the right people available at the right time in a city not exactly brimming with journalists and editors. Not exactly a bunch of hired guns (but I am proud of what we’ve accomplished with AsiaLIFE).

And the fourth problem: some of the people he painted as guilty of dishonesty never even saw the cover before it went to print. Our deputy editor Ginny was on vacation throughout production. Tom didn’t see it either — he’s frequently mobile and out of office, and rarely sees design mock ups. Our art director was also on 3 weeks leave in New Zealand, as well.

In fact, I emailed David, not to debate the merit of the cover (he has a right to his opinion), but to let him know there were some holes in his logic and that some of his information was very much inaccurate. His response was a rather lengthy exposition on his history in the industry and some advise about not passing the buck. I wrote back thanking David for his thoughtful response, but noted that he hadn’t actually addressed the fact that he was knowingly leaving inaccurate information on his blog. So I elaborated on the mistakes he’d made. His next response was a bit pithier, and I think it’s fair to say, showed a bit of chagrin (perhaps what did it was telling him that if he was going to criticize a magazine for being lazy on design, he should hold himself accountable for what he publishes without so much as a fact check).

Is it unethical to disclose a summary of our personal conversation? I’m not sure, but David did put an addendum to the now-notorious post in which he quoted me out of context from that email exchange, stating that I had “been all over [his] email” (the sum total of my emails to him was 3 … 1 original and 2 responses). Which was curious, because he wrote this in his first response:

You’re welcome to leave your objection in the comments section of the blog and I will print it, in tact – what I won’t do is post it myself because it is a private note to me and I do keep confidentiality on these things.”

Still, there was a lesson in there. Design and editorial now work much more closely, and we have better checks to make sure none of our work, if it does refer to another source, can be interpreted as plagiarism. While it was never our intention to rip off New York magazine, I recognize that we made production mistakes that led to a situation in which it was easy to assume that we had done just that. But “assume” is the key word there. In my opinion, David should have afforded my staff the same professional courtesy they afford others: to back up what they publish with real facts, having done proper journalism. Blogger, journalist, brand provocateur — we’re all responsible for the allegations we send out into the world.

In the end, I think the lesson is paying off. David did email me the other day and tell me the last two issues have looked great.

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Saigon in Miniature

A guy named Joe Nafis reached out to me to see if AsiaLIFE HCMC was interested in running something on his recent film project. We get lots of requests for air time, but this one really stood out. 

Employing tilt shift photography (and a lot of patience), Mr. Nafis managed to cobble together a Mr. Rogers-like rendition of Saigon in all its chaos: Miniature City HCMC. The result is pretty amazing.

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Update Saigon: 11,500 Hours … and Counting

9000 Hours in Saigon. You may not think it’s much, but as someone who’s chronically unable to title his work, I was pretty proud when I hit on the blog title. Now, sixteen months–approximately 11,500 hours–after moving to Saigon, I’m still here, and looking back, I can only surmise that I somehow tapped into some bad juju when I came up with that title. Because this year really has shaped up to be 9000 hours in Saigon. 9000 hours as a prisoner in thanh pho ho chi minh.

The reason I’ve been relatively immobile is the same reason I haven’t blogged in 7 months: work. After a brief tenure as an English teacher, I joined the editorial department of AsiaLIFE HCMC magazine in August 2008. In October, I became the managing editor. November saw the departure of one of our editors. From there, it’s a barrel of monkeys.

Enter December, January and February. The Christmas and Tet holidays. A time when your chances of stumbling upon a snowball fight in Saigon are better than nailing down anything breathing for an interview. An editor’s nightmare. Enter redesign in March. Enter my first cover story in April. Enter a new, considerably smaller budget in June. Enter the Economy issue of July, the production period that nearly broke me.

Thankfully, my will proved sturdier than Vietnam’s export markets.

So now that I’m committed to at least another 6 months in Vietnam and have gotten back on the blog, what’s next? Change the name? Nope. It’s the planned 9000 Hours in Saigon that got me here in the first place (and bad juju aside, I still dig the name). More likely: dispatches from Saigon, un-chronicled travels, future travels (which now seem more manageable).

I should probably get myself a digital camera.

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Hue: The Bizarro Saigon

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You know those Vietnam War movies, the ones where it rains straight for months? They’re invariably set in Central Vietnam. Hue. Outside Danang. Pinkville. May Lai. The DMZ. Chu Lai.

I was beginning to think that straight rain stuff was a bunch of guff. Forest Gump, my ass. Living in Saigon, I’d grown accustomed to the Southern rainy season, during which the rain falls for an hour or two a day. Nothing to write home about. But a few hours in Hue (and a bit of history on the region’s Vietnam War-era history) and it suddenly made sense. In Saigon, you can predict rainfall for maybe a couple hours between 2 and 5pm. In Hue, you can only hope that the rain will cease for at least two hours of the day.

I got lucky on my first day in Central Vietnam. It only rained 3/4 of the day. This was a problem, as the plan for the next four days was to motorbike to Danang via the Hai Van Pass and then head into the port town of Hoi An, where Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese architectural influences converged centuries ago to create a hodgepodge mercantile community. But today I was still figuring out the rain, figuring out when would be the best time to skip out of town.

I’d taken a Jetstar Pacific flight up to Hue early Friday morning, which was in itself a valuable Vietnamese travel experience. I learned two things. First, even if you’ve purchased the bottom-rate Jetsaver Lite ticket, the clerk at the check-in desk will likely not check to make sure your carry-on bag only weight 7kg (15 pounds) if said bag is of reasonable proportions. Second, while planes running on European low-cost carrier routes are notorious for being less than tidy on their last flight of the day, you  should not be surprised to find sticky, soda-stained tray tables on the first flight of the day on Jetstar vessels. 

Stepping down onto the tarmac in Hue’s airport, I also learned that it is remarkably cold in Central Vietnam in December, far colder than I’d anticipated. After heading into town on the airport shuttle (a great deal at 40,000 VND), finding myself a hotel and Chinese knock-off motorbike rental and downing a cup of bun bo hue, I headed to the shopping plaza on Hung Vuong Street on the North bank of the Perfume River and picked up a corduroy Nino Max jacket for 320,000 VND.

I headed over to the royal citadel, which is in good shape thanks to restoration initiatives. The whole thing was bombed to near oblivion by Vietnamese rocket fire and American air sorties during the war. Typical of the Vietnam War, little was gained or lost in military terms when the fighting in Hue tapered off. The world, however, lost an important monument to civilization. Today though, there’s plenty to see, and for those more interested in ruins than re-creations, there’s a good chunk of the Citadel left in it’s natural, time-worn state.

000033I headed up next to Thien Mu Pagoda, the first built in the city. It’s an airy, open complex of temples, living quarters and open space situated at the bend of the Perfume and overlooking the villages that dot the surrounding valley. There were few monks mulling about, except for a few young trainees taking lessons in open-front classrooms, which are affixed to the same building that houses the blue Austin that drove Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in 1966. It was there that the monk immolated himself to protest the American-backed Diem regime. His is the image on Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album and virtually every self-immolation photograph used in popular culture.

There are also bunnies at Thien Mu Pagoda. Adorable bunnies roaming free.

I followed the road further west to a little village past Thien Mu, past young children riding three abreast on bicycles and an old man herding water buffalo. I stopped to snap a few pictures off of men fishing on the river. A curious woman of about 35 stopped and simply watched me take pictures. I got a giggle out of her by telling her hen gap lai (see you again) before driving off. 

The rain started coming down again by the time I reached Lac Thanh restaurant for some banh khoi, pork with bean sprouts and shrimp in a fried pancake served with greens and peanut sauce. It’s amazing to me that with Hue’s culinary legacy, I actually had to search for this kind of thing. Later in the evening, I gave up my search for com hen (rice with baby oyster)–turns out its a breakfast food in Hue–and settled for a (surprisingly good) chicken rice near my hotel. 

Looking forward to a day of motorbiking to Danang, I headed back to my room, read a few chapters from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and hit the sack. My assessment of the weather: there would no better or worse time of the day to leave tomorrow, and I might as well just head out early, no matter how hard it was pissing down.

Your lesson: don’t go to Hue until February. You are only inviting cold, damp misery upon yourself.

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Eden: Gay-Friendly in Saigon’s Backpacker District

It was a common enough night at Eden Bar. Fishbowls had given way to a booze-fueled two step (Eden is one of the only bars off Pham Ngu Lao that seems to facilitate dancing). But through the haze of bodies there came a raucous group of forty-something gay men, a rare sight in a relatively straight bar.

What with the mix of sex-pats and the Vietnamese view of homosexuality (Isn’t that a Western thing?), it’s not so common to see gay men being, well, openly gay in public. I wrote it up as a rarity and helped clear space for our dancing compatriots.

Turns out this was no coincidence — the proprietor of Eden is gay. And he’s also a good-sized fella, so if some errant homophobe does find his or her way to Eden, any funny business will be dealt with swiftly. This puts Eden on the list of gay-friendly spots in Saigon.

Let the gay times roll!

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An Israeli Falafel in Saigon

Note: Falafellim is currently closed due to a dispute with the landlord … another great eatery is in limbo thanks to the Saigon’s finicky real estate.

Falafel enthusiasts and vegetarians rejoice! Falafellim is serving up meal-sized falafel pitas here in Saigon. Located on Pham Ngu Lao just off the traffic circle at Ben Thanh Market, this small, attractive falafel bar was opened a few months ago by an Israeli ex-pat. And while most of the foreign fare you sample in Saigon disappoints, these falafel sandwiches are the real deal — packed with delicious fresh ingredients and served with authentic tahini and chili sauce. Falafellim also serves hummus, egg and salad dishes, as well as the falafel baguette (truly, an idea whose time has come).

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Nam, the Would-be Dune Guide

We were wondering how much weight the tire swing would hold when a skinny boy rappelled down the worn rope from the bridge overhead. He’d barely touched the water before he started slinging questions at us.

Where were we from? America. Where were we staying? Nhat Quang Bungalows. How long had we been in Vietnam? A few weeks. What were our names? Sarah and Tom.

And with those four responses, we had booked ourselves a juvenile tour guide through the striated sands of Fairy Stream. We’d been in Mui Ne only a few hours and had entered the mouth of the ankle-deep stream for a post-prandial walk simply because it was steps from our bungalow. We hadn’t planned on anything as official as a guided tour, but what the hell? Three’s a party.

His name was Nam, age 11.

Nam seemed to know only enough English to conduct these impromptu tours, though what he knew, he professed was self-taught. After he learned that Sarah spoke Vietnamese, he was content to chatter away in his native language and let her translate.

Our first stop was up a steep sand hill, where Nam told us we could take “a very beautiful picture.” At the top, I pointed the camera down from where we had walked and snapped a picture. Nam politely tapped me on the arm. I turned to see him pointing at the clearly superior scene in the opposite direction. I lifted the camera to take a shot.

Along the stream, Nam pointed out the more interesting geological structures: calcified white sand stalactites and natural alcoves where blasts of burnt reds, oranges, and yellows collided to form Technicolor sand walls. At one point, he stopped in front of a patch of brownish plants, bent over, and ran his hand over the beak-shaped leaves. They closed and bowed at the touch of his skin. He smiled when mimicked him.

Nearing the end of the trail, we saw another young boy with a white foreigner in tow. Nam had told us he was on his way home, but we had never really doubted that our encounter was more the result of entrepreneurial spirit than providence. We exchanged polite smiles with the foreigner and discussed how much we would slip Nam.

Nam concluded his tour with a cratered sand wall ornamented with some of the hard white spikes. Sarah pointed up in the distance and asked if we could go further. Nam told her it got deep further up. So no further? Sarah asked. Nam paused; as customers, we were no pushovers. A bit apologetically, like an artist showing an incomplete work, he told us there was a waterfall up ahead, but that it was small because it was the dry season.

We followed Nam up a hill, past a rice paddy and a tiny woodshed restaurant, where tomorrow’s avian lunch seemed to have the run of the show in the proprietor’s absence. The trail ended in a craggy nook where three small waterfalls poured into a pool. It was no Niagara Falls, but it was pretty nonetheless.

Again, Sarah pointed up ahead, this time asking Nam if Mui Ne’s sand dunes were ahead. She had told me about the kids who rent homemade sleds to tourists to slide down the dunes. Nam said they were a bit further away. Sarah asked if he could take us there the following morning, but he said he could not; he had school. Also, the kids who rented the sleds would beat him up if he showed up with foreigners.

Kiddingly, Sarah asked if Nam would beat up trespassers in Fairy Stream. No, Nam told her. That’s mean. The dune kids, he explained, were crazy. I cannot verify what follows, but according to Nam, it is true.

About a week ago, a couple of Japanese tourist went up to the dunes for a bit of sledding. When asked to pay up, the Japanese tourists refused, which prompted one of the kids to assault said tourists. In the end, their driver paid the kids and whisked the bleeding tourist off to the hospital, where the tourist, having learned his lesson, reimbursed the driver for his trouble.

Sarah asked Nam how he’d heard about the incident if he wasn’t allowed to go to the dunes. He said he knew the driver.

I asked Sarah what she thought about the story. She said she didn’t think he had any reason to lie. What’s more, the youth home where she established Armed with a Paintbrush would sometimes get reports that some of their street kids had beaten up another child for attempting to peddle cigarettes, or noodles, or lottery tickets – whatever – in the prosperous, backpacker-rich Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood

On the way back, Nam confessed that mornings he went to school and afternoons he did this, shuttle unassuming foreigners through the stream. He asked us how long it took to get to Vietnam from America. About fifteen hours by place, Sarah told him. What about by car? Nam asked.

We came back to the bridge, where Nam pointed out his best friend, who was waiting loyally. Not realizing Sarah spoke English, he shouted, “How much did you get?” Nam told him he hadn’t asked yet, and turned to Sarah to request a “rental fee.”

In the end, Sarah told me to give him 100,000 VND, about $7. Nam seemed pretty happy with his pay and ran up to meet his friend. We felt pretty good, but still, there was a weight on our shoulders.

Tomorrow, we were due to meet the allegedly psychopathic dune kids…

Continued in The Dune Warriors

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