First published July 2022 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
It’s 10 years since I published the first guides on Vietnam Coracle, in the summer of 2012. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of my website, I’ve written an account of the early stages: its conception and development; why I started the site; who I was and where I was when I sat down and began to write and create Vietnam Coracle. Thank you to everyone who has read and used the site over the years, and particularly to those who have donated or become patrons of Vietnam Coracle. Happy Anniversary!
10 YEARS OF VIETNAM CORACLE
I had no idea, in 2012, that the website I was beginning would still be running a decade later. This page is a recollection of those early days. I’ve also included some thoughts about whether I think Vietnam Coracle has been ‘successful’ and what I look forward to in the future. I recognize that this is a little self-indulgent, but a moment of reflection seems apt after 10 years of running the site. All the images on this page are contemporary with that period: 2011-2013. I’ve never been keen on having my photo taken, so forgive the sunglasses, hats, helmets and backs.
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Vietnam Coracle has always been free to read & independent. I’ve never received payment for anything I write & there’s no sponsored content. If you like this website, please make a donation or become a patron.
Thank you, Tom
The Beginning: Who I Was & Where I Was
At the end of April, 2012, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment on alleyway 18bis Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street, in Đa Kao Ward. The apartment occupied the second floor of a typical Sài Gòn townhouse next to the entrance to Hoa Viên, a Czech-style brewery that had been a drinking and dining institution in the city since the mid-1990s. Small but cosy, comfortable and centrally located, my new apartment was on an alleyway populated by small businesses, start-ups, family homes, food and drink outlets. It was a fairly quiet area, save for the drunken shouts and laughter of late-night revellers stumbling out of the Czech brewery before midnight.
Although my girlfriend at the time often stayed with me in the apartment, this was the first time I’d lived by myself since moving to Vietnam, in 2005. In fact, it was the first time I’d lived alone since I left my parents’ home in London and moved to university accommodation in the capital, aged 18. My previous household in Sài Gòn consisted of six of my closest friends, plus their partners and various others sleeping on the couch, the balcony, the rooftop and the kitchen floor. The house’s nightly occupancy was 10 people or more. Looking back, moving into an apartment alone in 2012 probably gave me the time, space, privacy and lack of distraction that was necessary to get the site started. The rainy season came early that year and the long, wet, grey days were conducive to extended periods inside the apartment at my desk on my laptop. Being in a relationship at the time may also have provided the stability, security and support that helped me focus on starting a new project.
I also think it’s no coincidence that I started work on the site at roughly the same time I re-discovered tennis. The most productive periods of my life have usually been balanced with some form of athletic pursuit, often tennis. I’ve played since I was a child, but, when I arrived in Vietnam, I stopped for six years, giving me the opportunity to try other physical activities, such as martial arts, dance and badminton. But the only sport I’ve ever been any good at is tennis. I restarted a few months before moving to my new apartment. I still play today and I still use the physicality of tennis to balance the static pursuit of writing and maintaining a website.
Conception & Development: Why I Started the Site
I’d been considering some form of ‘travel writing’ for several years. Since my late teens, whenever I travelled internationally, I often wrote diaries as a form of personal expression or long-form emails to my parents. After a few years living in Vietnam, I began to submit travel essays to online publications, I entered a couple of travel writing competitions, attended a travel writing course in London hosted by Peter Carty, and pitched ideas for travel stories to newspapers and magazines. None of these yielded any results. Nothing I wrote was published and most of my attempts at contact did not even receive a reply. We forget, now, how difficult it was to get your work out there, visible and seen, before the world of internet self-publishing really took off. Essentially, unless you had an introduction to, or connection with, someone in the publishing industry, it was highly unlikely anyone would even glance over your writing, let alone publish it. The same was true with most forms of creative expression – music, art, film, writing. But then, blogs, audio- and video-sharing platforms, and social media changed everything.
In November, 2011, I was back in London for a visit. On a bracing autumnal evening in Haringey, I went to a dinner party hosted by my school friend, Harry, who founded digital agency, Outlandish. Over dinner, he suggested I start a travel blog and offered to set it up for me on WordPress. “You like to write, you like to travel”, he said. “I’ll help you get started”. A few months later in Sài Gòn, I took Harry up on his offer.
At the time, I was very unfamiliar with the necessary technical apparatus to begin a travel blog – WordPress, Google Maps, YouTube, digital cameras, HTML, PHP. There were long, frustrating hours spent getting to grips with these tools. (Indeed, I am still a tech novice, as I’m sure Ben and anyone else who knows me or has worked with me on the site can attest to). There was very little travel or writing in those early stages. But, it was still more stimulating and exciting, and felt more pro-active, than composing another email to another editor who would likely never read it or reply to it.
As I looked further into the possibilities, I realized the potential to create a vivid, well-written, carefully researched, beautifully illustrated and highly practical website for more off-the-beaten-track independent travel in Vietnam. Popular destinations – such as Hội An and Hạ Long Bay – were already well-represented and comprehensively covered by big name guidebooks and online resources. But there wasn’t much – in English, at least – for off-the-beaten-track exploration. My most memorable travel experiences in Vietnam had been away from well-known destinations. Noodle Pie – one of the first foreigner-in-Vietnam food blogs – was great for off-the-beaten-path dining and drinking; Rusty Compass had enticing short videos of places most travellers didn’t go to or know about; and Travelfish wrote about ‘unpopular’ places with enthusiasm. All of these resources greatly excited me. But, once I’d consumed everything in their archives, I wanted more. And there just wasn’t any.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. However, I was limited by the extent of my own abilities. Progress was slow. Everything took me ages to do. I was learning new things – and coming up against new problems – every day. It was at least a year before I got into a rhythm and my work-rate hit a stride. It was a further two years before anyone really began reading the site, using it, commenting on it and sharing it. And, it was three years before I made my first dollar from the site. Clearly, traffic and financial reward were not the main motivating factors when working on Vietnam Coracle during those initial few years.
For all of the technical skills I didn’t posses, I felt I did have some of the other qualities that would be necessary to create a good online travel guide. I was relatively well-organized and self-disciplined, I had lots of on-location travel experience, a decent eye for photography and feel for design, the ability and, more importantly, desire, to write and express my travel experiences in a coherent form. I knew I wasn’t good at any of these skills, but I was capable.
I remember feeling very strongly that my travels in Vietnam were worthy of expression. By 2012, I’d already travelled a lot for a 28-year-old – from Mongolia to Madrid, Chile to China, Ethiopia to India, Oman to Ontario – and I knew that the experiences I’d had in Vietnam matched or surpassed those I’d had elsewhere. This was nothing to do with me; rather, it was the nature of Vietnam – its people, landscapes, food and culture – that made it such a special place in which to travel. In-person, I was not a good story-teller. When I’d return from a trip, my friends or family would ask about it, but I found myself incapable of expressing my experiences well enough to hold their attention for long. Perhaps, then, I’d be better able to communicate and engage people through the written word, accompanied by images.
But it wasn’t just communication that made me want to start the site. I didn’t want to write a sort of diary about where I went and what I did. I wanted the site to be practical, so that anyone who read it could go out and do what I was writing about for themselves. Loads of other people in Vietnam travelled like me, went to places I went, knew much more than me about where to go, what to do, and about Vietnam in general. But there wasn’t a go-to practical resource for how to do these things independently. Week after week, I’d meet people – expats, backpackers, couch-surfers – who’d travelled the length of Vietnam and were ultimately disappointed by the experience. In all cases, they’d followed the standard route, taking in all the so-called ‘must see’ destinations. It wasn’t their ‘fault’, there simply weren’t many alternative sources of information out there that might point them in a different direction. There were several good off-the-beaten-track travel and motorbike tours available. But, while these tours were excellent and helped enrich travellers’ experience of Vietnam, they were often expensive and out of many people’s budgets. What’s more, nothing really compares to the thrill of independent travel: doing it yourself.
I’d read guidebooks all my life. I liked how they were practical, and how they made me feel safe and secure in situations and contexts where I was totally out of my element. When travelling alone in an unfamiliar country thousands of miles from home, a good guidebook is your friend, travel companion and protector. But, I also enjoyed reading travel literature – from Graham Greene to Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway to Laurie Lee, Paul Theroux to Norman Lewis, Bruce Chatwin to Anthony Bourdain. Guidebooks provide the nuts and bolts of travel, but travel literature provides the inspiration to travel. Nonetheless, I often wished my favourite travel books had a more practical element. Wouldn’t it be great if, when Kerouac is describing the North Cascade Mountains, you could flip to the index for the exact location on a map, along with transportation information and accommodation options nearby.
Websites and blogs – the Internet – allow writers to do exactly that by linking seamlessly from the main body content to maps, appendages and auxiliary information without breaking the flow of the prose. I found this exciting. Guidebooks can be boring when they get bogged down in the practical; travel writing can be frustrating when it lacks practical information. But an online travel website can do both at the same time. That’s what I wanted to create: something enjoyable to read and practical, neither at the expense of the other, and illustrated with good photos and short videos to boot. I have done my best over the last decade to realize this.
Has it been ‘Successful’ & What’s Next?
On a personal level, Vietnam Coracle has been a success. The site gives me purpose and engages me with Vietnamese culture, people, food, history and nature. Working on the site encourages me to learn new things, to travel, to communicate, to think creatively, to pursue writing and photography, to come up with ideas, to be disciplined, and to occasionally operate outside of my comfort zone. The site has provided me with focus and joy over the last decade and I often feel proud of it.
From the perspective of the ‘reader’, the ‘traveller’, or the ‘user’, I think there’s grounds to consider the site successful in so far that it has provided a practical aid for people to explore, experience and enjoy Vietnam in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to had the site not existed. I know from readers’ emails and comments, that many people have followed my guides and articles around Vietnam and have fallen in love with the country as a result. I know, too, that some people read the site purely for pleasure, without any intention of going to the places I write about.
From a financial or business perspective, however, I imagine the site would not be considered successful by most metrics. By the standards of internet success, traffic is modest, social media statistics are unremarkable, and revenue is low. Despite this, the site is pretty healthy. Vietnam Coracle weathered the pandemic – when travel was essentially impossible for two years – and more and more people read and use the site. My enthusiasm for creating new content and maintaining the website is undiminished. What’s more, I personally feel that the site looks better, reads better, and works better than ever before.
Looking ahead, I will continue much as I have done for the last decade. But, for me now, the most exciting aspect of the site is working with other people – writers, developers, travellers, designers and journalists. There is simply too much ‘good stuff’ in Vietnam at this moment in time for one person to cover. So far, I have greatly enjoyed the dynamic of working with a team of people. I love hearing their ideas, seeing their work, feeling their enthusiasm and learning from them. I hope this is a part of Vietnam Coracle that will grow in the coming years.
It goes without saying that I am extremely grateful to all those who’ve helped me, encouraged me and worked with me on the site over the years – you know who you are. But especially Harry for planting the seed, Carl for his technical support during the years we shared a house in Sài Gòn, Ben for his excellent and continuing work, dedication, and vision for design, my friends and new writers – Luke, Thảo, Patrick, Biên and Josh – and my parents for their early encouragement, editing and advice. And, of course, to everyone who reads and uses Vietnam Coracle, or who has shared the site, donated or become a patron.
*Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this article because I want my readers to know about the concept behind Vietnam Coracle and why I started this website. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page