The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Challenges of Being a Writer in Vietnam

The average tourist visiting Vietnam will probably encounter no significant hurtles in regard to writing, whether for a blog, magazine article or even a guidebook. Despite being a developing country, let alone one with a communist government, travelers will encounter few limitations due to censorship or technology. However, writers who choose to stay in Vietnam for the long-term as expats may experience a unique set of challenges.

I’d already lived in Vietnam for more than a year when the local police suddenly began asking a lot of questions. Unlike other tourists, I didn’t move on to the next stop on the tour bus, and I didn’t work at a resort, bar or teach English like all the backpackers. “Why does he always have a laptop computer with him?” and “What does he write about?” they would ask. All my friends were questioned by the police. They were casual interrogations—nothing too threatening, but they police wanted to know my daily activities, who I met, where I ate, and whether I went to church or a pagoda regularly. My neighbors told me they came by my house while I was out and asked them what I did during the war with America (I hadn’t been born yet), as well as the activities of my family during that time (none of whom fought in the war either). They collected my phone number, email address and monitored me from a distance, but apparently they lost interest after a few weeks. I was a law-abiding guest of the people of Vietnam with no political interests, so I proved to be of no concern.

As long as a writer stays away from political issues, other subject matter doesn’t usually raise eyebrows. Stories about tourism, culture, and entertainment will even be seen as beneficial (presuming that the majority are positive). I’ve interviewed most of the top celebrities in the music industry, and they are always eager for the opportunity to promote their careers in the foreign media. Likewise, resort and bar owners are happy to talk with writers if it means getting their business name in print. If you start interviewing numerous individuals who don’t have obvious business interests however, the situation changes. When I began collecting local folk tales and legends for a future book, my Vietnamese friends warned me to use great discretion. If an American (all white-skinned foreigners are considered “Americans”) begins questioning lots of people in small villages, it raises suspicions and the local police may soon arrive to investigate.

A few years ago many websites were unavailable from within Vietnam. Whether this was due to censorship or a deficiency in technology was not always clear. Emails frequently took more than 2 days to reach recipients outside of the country. Rumors circulated that Vietnam had begun filtering emails and the system was too slow, creating a backlog where emails were delayed or even lost. At present only a rare few websites are now blocked within Vietnam, and those to my knowledge, are all of a highly political nature, whose purpose is to undermine the government. This makes keeping up blogs and travel sites relatively easy.

Internet connections are prevalent in Vietnam, even in small villages. Free wifi was common in hotels and cafes in Vietnam long before it ever was in America. Unlike neighboring China, internet cafes are not temporarily closed during politically sensitive times. The real problem lies with electricity. In rural areas power outages and fluctuations are common. In Mui Ne Beach for example, the power is usually out on Monday and Tuesday during daylight hours. At my house just outside Phan Thiet, I had no electricity at all during daylight hours, and only enough for lights and fans at night. I did nearly all of my computer work in cafes, where I could plug into their outlets, but I always had to be prepared to hop on a motorbike to find a cafĂ© in the next town, should the lights go out. Conditions vary however, and if you stay in a busy city or large hotel, you may never have a problem. One word of warning—never rely on generator power. The current is too unstable. I’ve damaged a laptop and several cameras that way.

It can be difficult to acquire necessary English-language books and printed research material within Vietnam. Illegal photocopies of current bestsellers and lonely planet guidebooks are sold by street venders everywhere, but only a handful of legitimate used bookstores are located in backpacker areas of Saigon and Hanoi. All books mailed to Vietnam may be inspected and held for translation. While only religious and political materials are usually confiscated or returned to sender, other media may still be held for inspection for weeks or even months. Whether sent by conventional mail or Fedex, my mail always ends up at the provincial post office headquarters, where the same “special taxes” are required to claim the items. I’ve noted that when my Vietnamese friends collect the same sorts of parcels, they are never charged the extra fees.

Certainly learning the language will make your life in Vietnam significantly easier and provide you with a much richer experience to write about. While living in Vietnam and speaking the language may make your pitch for a story more attractive to magazine, newspaper and website editors, this is not necessarily true for guidebook publishers. The popular guidebook publishers have a history of hiring writers who have written guides for other countries or are widely published in periodicals, but few of these writers have ever actually lived in Vietnam or speak the language. All the well-known publishers are owned by larger companies that produce media on a broad range of topics (even Lonely Planet was recently purchased by the BBC) and sometimes they overlook the unique approach necessary to cover each country. They tend to play it safe by choosing writers that they are already familiar with, assuming that they can learn enough about the country as they travel.

Because many guidebook writers are new to Vietnam, this often has the unfortunate result of skewing recommendations in inappropriate directions and grandfathering obvious mistakes over successive editions. Naturally, a writer living in Vietnam has the advantage of being able to visit areas more than once and base reviews on accumulated experience. A writer visiting the country on a singular, short-term research trip will expectedly produce a much more superficial survey of the region, and must rely on others to supplement any deficiencies in their research after they’ve gone back to their home country. A writer who cannot speak the language will rarely take the reader off the well-beaten tourist track.

Every writer struggles to make a living, at least initially. Fortunately the low cost of living in Vietnam makes the struggle easier, as it is possible to live humbly yet comfortably on less than $10US per day. It is unlike that you’ll find opportunities to write for international news organizations like Reuters, Associated Press or CNN, as they tend to contract with local news services or Vietnamese citizens to cut costs and red tape. However, it is possible to write for domestic news services and magazines within Vietnam, but you’ll be paid the meager local rates. When it comes to writing for well-known magazines back in the USA, UK or Australia, the payoff relative to the amount of work involved can actually be much more lucrative than writing guidebooks. Due to the large pool of available writers, the fees paid by most guidebooks publishers have gradually declined, and may only cover the cost of a round-trip ticket and the expenses during research. Here again, as an expat you have an advantage, in theory, because you are already in Vietnam.

Whether you write a guidebook, write for magazines, newspapers, your own book, or a blog, you probably won’t get rich, but it’s unlikely you’ll regret the experience. Vietnam is a country with a rich culture which will offer you a wealth of experiences to draw from for the rest of your life.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bear's Faith

This great quote by Bear was just brought to my attention from Channel 4 in Brittain:

Interviewer: You have a strong faith - is that important to you when you're out in extreme environments?

Bear: Yes, but my Christian faith is also a big part of my everyday life. I always say that it takes a proud man to say that he needs nothing, and I freely admit that I've needed that faith in my life, and it's been a real backbone for me. But it's not just a support when I'm out there; it's a wonderful thing in really positive moments as well. I remember when I was in the Amazon, in the middle of a really dense bit of rainforest, where no human would have ever been or probably will ever go again, and looking up and seeing at the top of a tree a beautiful bright purple flower, and thinking 'Nobody's ever going to see that flower. That's God's extravagance.' Even though no-one's ever going to see it, he just can't help but create something beautiful.

Bear's Blog

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bear Grylls in Vietnam?

Bear Grylls is one of the newer outdoorsy-travel-adventure tv personalities that I really admire. His survival adventure show Man VS Wild airs on the discovery networks and highlights his struggle to survive after being dropped off in a variety of isolated ecosystems around the globe. The idea is that these are places where a tourist or hiker could potentially get lost, and so he demonstrates skills they (or we) would need to use in order to survive in such a situation.

His new season begins airing this month, and Bear has announced that the new shows will now be 2 hours long instead of just one (which I think is a great idea). Upcoming locations include Patagonia, Siberia, Panama and the Sahara. Bear's Blog: Preparation for Man Vs Wild....

I for one would like to invite Bear to do an episode with us out in Vietnam's Binh Thuan Desert. The are is the driest region in SouthEast Asia. Hazards include of course drought, dehydration and sun stroke, cobras and vipers, scorpions, dry quicksand, sand storms--and if you chose to wander near the old military bases, possible unexploded ordnances (but these have been removed from most other areas). Unique sights (and survival resources) include ancient cham towers and temple ruins from the 8th century, groves of palm trees, boulder-strewn mountains, tropical fruit trees, hidden canyons, giant tasty lizards and hidden oasis. The desert is contained by the sea to the south and east, and mountains to the north and west. I'd love to help with location scouting for the show...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tramping in New Zealand's Abel Tasman

New Zealand is a country renowned for its natural beauty. Fortunately New Zealanders (or kiwis, as they call themselves), have learned to capitalize on this and develop a thriving ecotourism industry that both protects the environment and benefits local communities. Nearly 30% of the land in New Zealand is managed by the department of conservation, which also maintains a highly developed nation-wide system of hiking trails, otherwise known as “tracks.” While these tracks are a big draw for international tourism, they are largely enjoyed by New Zealanders themselves, who have a healthy appetite for outdoor activities in their beautiful country.

Tracks often have both camping sites and huts (cabins). The quality of these facilities run the gamut, ranging from humble clearings to pitch a tent, to cozy bungalows with basic utilities. “Great Walks” (which include 8 trails and 1 navigable river) in the country’s top national parks often have huts with hot showers, flushing toilets, electricity, mattresses, and cooking areas.

I had limited time on my first trip to New Zealand, and with so many tracks to choose from, it was difficult to select where to go hiking (or “tramping” as the activity is called in New Zealand). One stood out from all the others, however. The Abel Tasman National Park is located on the northern coast of New Zealand’s south island. It’s classified as one of the country’s Great Walks, testifying to its renowned natural beauty, ease of hiking, well-manicured trails and convenient camping facilities. The coastal track is relatively easy and can be hiked by almost anyone, contributing to its popularity. The inner tracks are more challenging, though still accessible to most hikers.

The city of Nelson is the major jump-off point for Abel Tasman. On the surface, it may seem that this quiet town exists solely to put backpackers up for the night on their way to
all the surrounding tracks, which also include Leslie-Karamea, D’Urville Valley and the famous Heaphy Track. The town has numerous hostels and outdoor supply stores such as Tasman Bay Backpackers and Alp Sports. However, Nelson is also a major cultural center for the South island’s Northern coast, offering important events such as the Nelson Arts Festival, Winter Music Festival, Taste Nelson Festival, and the Suter International Film Festival.

The trail actually begins in the village of nearby Marahau and ends at a car park in Wainui Bay in the north. It takes 3-5 days to hike the entire track, but single-day hikes are easily arranged for any section of the track due to the availability of numerous water taxi services. The track can be hiked any time of the year, but summer months between December and February are most popular. I hiked the trail in October and found the weather was spectacular and I met relatively few people on the trail (about one couple per hour). As New Zealanders are generally very friends and generous people, I was happy for the times I did have company on the trail.

Most literature indicates that a “Great Walks Pass” is required for Abel Tasman, but this point is misleading to the uninitiated. The pass is only required if you are sleeping at a hut or campsite, and is meant to distinguish between other common passes that can be used on all tracks other than the Great Walks. If you are just doing a day hike, then you don’t need to purchase a pass. If however, you are sleeping at one of the 4 huts or 21 campsites, purchase of the pass and advanced booking is required. Booking season begins July 1, each year.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the park’s forests was not the sights, but rather the sounds. The lively songs of the native birds were entirely alien to me. Kakas (forest parrots), Parakeets, Wekas (flightless birds), Pukeko, Tui and Bellbirds can be seen along the estuaries and in the forest park. I followed squawking Oystercatchers for great lengths on the beaches, and though they complain, they never seem to fly away. Shags (cormorants) and gannets can be seen from the shore as they dive for fish. With few other animals, New Zealand is a bird-watcher’s paradise.

The forest is in the park is dominated by four species and two subspecies of Beech, and also contains Rimu (red pine), Supplejack vines with red berries, Miro (their seeds are a favorite food of the New Zealand Pigeon), Rata and Matai trees. New Zealand forests are famous for their ferns, and the Silver Tree Fern or “Ponga” (the national symbol) and the Crown Fern are also prominent here.

The inland track has numerous strange limestone formations. There are also, unsurprisingly, numerous cave systems with glow worms, cave weta, and bats (New Zealand’s only native mammals other than what lives in the sea). At least one cave in the park is decorated with ancient Mauri carvings. There are also vast sinkholes such as Harwoods Hole, which is the deepest in the southern hemisphere.

The park is an excellent place to catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s marine life. Tonga Island Marine Reserve (adjacent to the park), is accessible by any of the numerous water taxis services, and is home to a colony of Sea Lions. Fur Seals, dolphins and little Blue Penguins can be seen from shore (I saw several of each), although the best way to spot them is from a kayak.

The only nuisance I experienced in the park were the sandflies, which seemed much like black flies at home. Fortunately repellant keeps them away. Non-native possums are known to browse through garbage, so keep food and rubbish packed up at night. The track runs mostly along the water, which means you’ll get the glare of reflected sunlight off the ocean. Add to that the typically thin ozone layer over New Zealand, and you should realize that sunscreen is vital. I received some of the worst sunburns of my life in New Zealand because I forgot to wear it.

Overall, Abel Tasman offered me a very pleasant walk with spectacular views of subtropical forests and golden sandy beaches. No traveler should leave New Zealand without hiking at least one track, and if you only have time for one, I believe it should be Abel Tasman. Not only will you experience one of New Zealand’s most pristine ecosystems for yourself, but you also support the local communities by using their services around the park and encourage their effort to protect treasures like this for future generations.

For More Info

Huts are $25 ($10 off season) and campsites $10 ($7 off season). Book online through the DOC at, or through the Great Walks Helpdesk Nelson (phone: 546-8210; email: or in person at some visitor centers.

Nelson accommodations include Tasman Bay Backpackers (phone: 548-7950;; 10 Weka St.) and Nelson Central YHA (phone: 545-9988;; 59 Rutherford St.).

The official Abel Tasman Coastal Track Brochure, park map and tidal chart (Abel Tasman has the largest tidal differences in the country) available at the DOC website and Nelson Visitor’s Center will provide you with all the information you need to hike the track. If you are hiking other tracks around the country, you may wish to also purchase Lonely Planet’s “Tramping in New Zealand,” 2006 edition.

Abel Tasman Coachlines (phone: 548-2485; leaves from Nelson and goes to both ends of the track. Abel Tasman Water Taxi (phone: 528-7497; is among several companies that can pick you up and drop you off at any section of the track.

Updated Note: Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit' Filmed in the Nelson & Abel Tasman Area in late 2011. For more information on travel in New Zealand, please visit Tourism New Zealand.