How did the plan of publishing an English-language magazine come about?
It came originally from someone I was working with in Singapore in early 2005. He had done a magazine in Saigon in the early 1990s and somehow revived the idea with me. However, it wasn’t until I returned to Vietnam a couple of months later that I discovered it was really possible. The same friend ended up as one of the founders.
How difficult was it to get going?
Very. It was all about getting the license. And to get the license we had to have good contacts. Fortunately we found someone who could help on that front. The other issue was convincing people that what we were doing was worth supporting. One person, who’s now a good friend of mine, even told me in less-than-polite words where to get off.
Running a business in the cultural area is clearly more sensitive than if you were, say, a manufacturer of widgets. How do you walk this line?
I don’t really know, to be honest. I guess I’m just a sucker for punishment! Also, I’ve never manufactured anything in my whole life.
Your journalists need to be well informed about Vietnam. How hard is it to find and keep knowledgeable staff in such a transient market? Has it got easier or harder?
It’s very difficult. And it’s no easier now than it was at the start. It’s all in the details. What do they see when they write about this country? Let’s say they want to talk about crossing the road. How will they talk about it? If they write like they’re a rabbit caught in the headlights, forget it. However, if they see more into it — for example, can use the concept of crossing a road as a metaphor for life in Vietnam — then they may have something.
What would you say are the three key attributes you need to run a business like yours here?
Perseverance, patience and the realisation that a bit like Sisyphus, no matter how far up the mountain you push the boulder, it will always roll back down again.
How (and how much) has the arrival of online publishing changed your business?
Loads. It’s affected business models, not just for us, but for everyone in the media industry. I think we’re finally getting to grips with it and what people want from digital. But it’s taken a bit of time.
Presumably your core audience is from the Anglosphere. How much have you been able to draw in non-native English readers (especially Vietnamese). Has the readership profile changed over the years?
Our non-native English speaking readership has grown dramatically over the years. Vietnamese readers alone make up 25% of our audience. Not bad, really. The key has been changing the focus slightly so that this is not just an expat rag — it’s got a bit of something for everyone.
Has the business given you the opportunity to meet well-known people or enjoy unusual experiences which otherwise you might not have had?
Yes, without a doubt. It’s enabled me to travel pretty much everywhere in Vietnam and meet people from all walks of society. For me, though, the most unusual experiences were when I climbed Hamburger Hill — my relationship with the Co Tu guide was bizarre — and the crazy, crazy day I spent in Kontum where I ended up at an ethnic minority wedding drinking rice wine out of a straw from a shared pot.
Have there been any highlight moments which stick in your memory?
The launch of our Hanoi edition in November 2009. We did it at Softwater by the Red River. Because the party was on a lawn, we got everyone to take off their shoes before they were allowed in. The idea was to get rid of airs and graces, and put us all on the same level. It worked. Oh, and of course, this article. Finally I am being allowed out of the woodwork!
You’ve obviously seen an enormous amount of change in your 16 years here. What has been the most surprising change to you?
The speed of it. If I compare early 2000 to now, it feels like we’re in a different universe.