Vietnam Coracle 12-Year Anniversary Q&A with Tom

12-Year Anniversary Q&A with Tom

First published June 2024 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

Tom, Vietnam Coracle

Tom Divers is the founder and creator of Vietnam Coracle. He’s lived, travelled and worked in Vietnam since 2005. Born in London, he travelled from an early age, visiting over 40 countries (he first visited Vietnam in 1999). Now, whenever he has the opportunity to make a trip, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders and his trusty motorbike, Stavros. Read more about Tom on the About Page, Vietnam Times and ASE Podcast.


Vietnam Coracle 12-Year Anniversary Q&A with Tom
This is me hiking in the pine forests of Lâm Đồng

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Q&A WITH TOM

12 Readers’ Questions to Celebrate 12 Years of Vietnam Coracle

To celebrate the 12-year anniversary of Vietnam Coracle, I asked readers for questions about me or my website. I’ve selected 12 of the questions posed by readers and answered them below. Click any of the questions in the following list to read my answer. As I am generally camera-shy, I’ve illustrated this post with photos from a recent 8,000km road trip around Vietnam. Thanks to everyone who wrote to me for this Q&A post, and thank you for reading, using and supporting my website over the years. Tom

Selected Resources What’s this?

Support My Site!
Please donate or become a patron if you enjoy my work. Vietnam Coracle is totally free & independent. I do not receive payment for anything I produce.
Thank you,
Tom


QUESTIONS:

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Vietnam Coracle 12-Year Anniversary Q&A with Tom
My mobile work station (this one is in Hà Nội): celebrating 12 years of the website

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Question 1:

How many days do you spend on the road each year?

“I spend roughly a third of each year on the road. In recent years my rhythm has been pretty consistent: for every 15 days, I spend 5 days away from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), where I am based. This is largely dictated by my teaching job which requires me to be in the city on specific days: I plan my travel and research trips around my teaching schedule. I find this is a good balance as it means I get to travel regularly but also maintain strong roots – friends, hobbies, work, a home – in Saigon. In addition, once or twice a year I usually have the chance to take a multi-week road trip, during which I travel north to research guides for that region. I do this during my favourite months in the north: April-May or September-October.”

Selected Resources What’s this?
Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
Research road trip in the north in May, one of my favourite times of year to be in the region

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Question 2:

Do you make a decent living from the website?

“The site makes some revenue, but not a lot. After I’ve paid the various monthly running costs and the people who work with me on Vietnam Coracle, there isn’t really any ‘profit’ left to speak of. Obviously, my ‘product’ is free, so I’m faced with the common digital age dilemma of how to make a living from that illogical base and also how to do so without compromising the integrity and independence of the website. Over the last few years, donations from readers have helped buoy the site’s income, for which I’m very grateful, and also the people who’ve joined my Patreon.

To maintain the site properly, I spend 4-8 hours everyday working on various aspects of it. I run Vietnam Coracle because I want to – no one is telling me, forcing me, or employing me to do it. But the larger the site gets, the more there is to do and the more time and money is required to maintain it. In order for this to be sustainable, the site needs to generate more revenue than it currently does.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
Coracles lining Cửa Lò Beach, near Vinh in Nghệ An Province, north-central Vietnam

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Question 3:

If you had to choose one place in Vietnam, where would it?

“I genuinely don’t have more of more of an affinity to one place than another in Vietnam: all regions of the country appeal to me for different reasons and at different seasons. I think it also depends on what the purpose is: to travel or to live. Since moving to Vietnam, I have always lived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), but I have visited every province in the nation. Given the choice, I would live and travel in different regions and cities during different times of year. From November-March, I would base myself in the southern provinces and the Central Highlands to make the most of the dry season, when the weather is bright and warm along the coast and islands and in the mountains. I would divide my time between places like Dalat, Phú Quốc, Trà Vinh, Hà Tiên, Đắk Nông and Vũng Tàu. Then, when spring is turning into summer and the heat becomes unbearable in the south, I would move up to the central provinces, spending April-June on the coast north and south of Nha Trang, Phú Yên, Quy Nhơn, the highlands of Quảng Ngãi, soaking up the food, culture and architecture in Hội An, Đà Nẵng and Huế, and exploring the dramatic landscapes of Phong Nha, Nghệ An and Thanh Hóa. As summer turns to autumn, I would head north into the high mountains of Sơn La, Điện Biên, Sapa, Hà Giang, and Cao Bằng where the rice terraces would be ripe and ready for harvesting. Finally, before autumn turns to winter in the north, I would spend October/November in Hanoi when the capital is at its best, returning south to catch the beginning of the dry season and start the cycle all over again.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
Back roads in early summer in Thanh Hóa Province

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Question 4:

How long does it take to produce a new guide for the website?

“It depends on the guide. Motorbike guides are usually the most time-intensive to produce. To take a recent example, the Lam Sơn Loop is a 425km route covering a rarely travelled part of north-central Vietnam. The research took me 4-5 days on the road, including taking photos, mapping routes, gathering details, such as accommodation, places to eat and drink, sights, history, etc. Then bringing all the research together took another 5-7 days of writing, editing, illustrating, mapping, formatting and presenting. So, altogether, the Lam Sơn Loop was a 10-12 day project. Reviews of transportation or accommodation (recent examples are the Tuần Châu→Cát Bà Ferry and Mai Châu Ecolodge) take a couple of days of research and then a few days to write and format – so under a week to produce. Full destination guides, such as the Côn Đảo Islands, can take several weeks to research, write and produce, but guides to specific sites or activities, such as Hiking Núi Đá Bia Mountain or Đại Lãnh Beach, only take a few days. Compilation guides, such as the Hội An Food Guide or Vietnam Reading List are research-heavy and require 1-2 weeks or even months to produce. All of this means that I generally have multiple guides in production simultaneously, but the rhythm for publication is one new or fully-updated guide per week.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
A hairpin on a mountain pass in Quảng Ngải Province, researching a new motorbike guide

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Question 5:

How good is your Vietnamese language?

“Nowhere near as good as it should be for someone who has been living in Vietnam for as long as I have, and for someone who actively tries to learn the language. I used to have Vietnamese lessons at several schools and universities in Saigon, but for the last several years I self-study using books and apps. Each year my Vietnamese does improve, but it’s painfully slow. I can get around and do all day-to-day things in Vietnamese, but I’m still not comfortably conversational. I know many foreign residents in Vietnam who have been here for a far shorter period of time than I and their Vietnamese is excellent. Sometimes when I say something relatively simple in Vietnamese, people will exclaim, “You speak Vietnamese so well!”. This is very encouraging, but ultimately it’s also a sign that I don’t speak Vietnamese very well: When I go out with people who do speak Vietnamese well, nobody mentions it, because their fluency is so apparent that it’s not worth stating. It would be like meeting Lionel Messi and saying, “Oh, you’re so good at football!”

As a language teacher myself, I know that effectively learning a language is not only about trying hard and being a diligent student, it’s also about personality: some of the best language learners I know are outgoing characters, not afraid of making mistakes in social contexts. I am generally not like that and I’m certain this has impeded my progress. But, I do have a genuine enthusiasm for the Vietnamese language – I like the way it sounds, I like its playfulness, its poetic turns, its regional idiosyncrasies – I want to learn it, and this will hopefully mean that I continue to get better.

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
Sunset on the Perfume River in Huế, where I find the Vietnamese accent easiest to understand

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Question 6:

What’s your protocol for keeping your guides up to date?

“This has become an increasingly significant issue as I have now accumulated over 350 guides, articles and reviews on the site. Trying to keep them all up to date would be an impossible task – there would be no time to create new guides. Starting a few years back, I began to prioritize full updates for the most popular guides on the site. As per the 80-20 principle, about 20% of my guides account for about 80% of traffic, so these are the ones that I try to make sure I update within a reasonable time-frame: usually every couple of years. As you might expect, some of these high-performing guides include the Hà Giang Loop, Phú Quốc Beach Guide, the Hải Vân Pass, Côn Đảo Islands, etc. Depending on the guide and how significant the changes are since last publication, researching and writing a full update can take a lot of time and work: often as much as a week of on-location research, followed by a week of writing. Another way that my guides are kept up to date is via the comments section at the bottom of every post on the website. This is where readers can post their recent experiences of destinations, routes, restaurants, hotels, etc. These comments are extremely helpful, both for me and the Vietnam Coracle audience.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
A recent research trip to write a full update of the Beach Bum coastal route from Saigon to Hanoi

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Question 7:

Will AI impact your website & change the way people travel in Vietnam?

“I’ve actually been meaning to write an article exploring this for several months. I think it’s inevitable that advancements in AI will change the way people travel: how they obtain information, where they go, how they interact with the country they travel to. I also think this will likely impact how people consume travel content and what they expect from it. I know some travellers who are already using ChatGPT to plan their itineraries in Vietnam or in specific Vietnamese locations. However, the ones I’ve seen so far have been very average, middle-of-the-road itineraries that hit all the usual sights while throwing in an unusual, off-the-beaten-path kicker. But the nature of AI means that it will get exponentially better all the time, so I’m sure it won’t be long at all before a traveller can ask, “Give me a 2-day itinerary for Phú Quốc Island that avoids tourist hotspots and takes me where no one else goes” and the result will be as good as asking someone who’s spent 10 years exploring the island.

I think all travel writers and travel publications are wondering what the impact of AI will be on their profession. Having recently returned from a 2-month, 8,000km road trip up and down the nation, I didn’t meet a single traveller who was using a traditional guidebook to get around the country. Most people simply use Google Maps as an all-in-one travel resource: maps, sites, dining, hotels, translations – everything can be done through that app alone. What I plan to do sometime soon is conduct some experiments with AI, evaluate them myself, and then publish them on the site so that readers can see the results. For example, I might compare an AI itinerary for a route or destination that I’ve already covered, or ask it to write a guide in the style of Vietnam Coracle, and see what the results are like.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
AI can’t do this…yet: a delicious bowl of mì quảng noodles in its home province of Quảng Nam

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Question 8:

What was the biggest mechanical problem on your travels & how did you get it fixed?

“In all the years I’ve been riding my motorbike, Stavros, I’ve never had a catastrophic mechanical problem, but I have had several inconvenient breakdowns. I am mechanically inept, so when something goes wrong with my motorbike, I am entirely at the mercy of whomever the nearest mechanic happens to be. Perhaps the most bizarre problem occurred years ago when I was riding along the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, which is one of the most scenic and least populated stretches of road in the country. About 10km south of the only significant settlement for some 200km, I got a puncture on my back tyre. I managed to nurse my bike to Long Sơn hamlet where the only mechanic in town found that a bamboo toothpick had somehow penetrated the 2 inches of rubber of my back tyre and inserted itself in my innertube without snapping. For more than a decade now I’ve been using tubeless tyres and I’ve hardly had a puncture since – I highly recommend them. Another more serious breakdown occurred, again on the Ho Chi Minh Road, when I rode 540km on the hottest day ever recorded in Vietnam (that record was broken last year). At some point I suppose Stavros just couldn’t take it anymore and smoke started pouring out of the exhaust. By nightfall, I had managed to gingerly ride it into Thanh Hóa, the nearest big city with a large Yamaha garage. Over the next couple of days, the mechanics operated on Stavros until it was fixed. I can’t pretend I understand exactly what they did, but that was 8 years ago and Stavros is still on the road today.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
Even after a quarter of a million kilometres, I’ve not had any catastrophic breakdowns on my motorbike, Stavros

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Question 9:

Do you see yourself running the website for another 12 years?

“I enjoy working on the site and this is what I want to do. Running Vietnam Coracle gives me the opportunity to express myself, reach an audience, engage with the country I live in, and practice various skills – writing, photography, design, research, travel, language, communication, editing and, in recent years, working as a small team. There are still many more things I want to do with the website and I always have more ideas for what to write about, so I’d happily continue for years as long as there’s still an audience. But it does need to be financially viable otherwise I can’t really justify the time, effort and money that goes into the site for another 12 years.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
I like my job! But I’m not sure it’s financially viable for another 12 years

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Question 10:

Do you have any plans to start a “Laos Coracle” or “Cambodia Coracle?

“Strangely, I get asked this a lot. I guess there is a demand for a travel-related online resource for both countries – a potential gap in the market that someone could fill. But I don’t have any intention of starting a “Laos Coracle” or “Cambodia Coracle” because I have very little experience or knowledge of either country. “Vietnam Coracle” is based on nearly two decades of living, travelling and working in Vietnam. By contrast, I have only visited Laos and Cambodia a couple of times, so I would be starting from scratch and with very little authority about my subject matter.

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
Vietnam is the country I know & love: I have no plans to expand beyond its borders

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Question 11:

Why did you move to Vietnam?

“I first visited Vietnam in 1999 with my parents. A few years later, after I graduated from London in 2005, I booked onto a TEFL teacher training course in Alexandria, Egypt. I chose the location because my major was in ancient history and Alexandria has a rich past. After signing up, applicants for TEFL have a 24-hour window in which to change their preferred location. For some reason, in the middle of the night, I changed mine to Ho Chi Minh City. I think part of the appeal of Vietnam over other potential locations was the informality of life that I had witnessed there during my 1999 trip – everything appeared to happen outside in the open rather than behind closed doors. Also, the ‘exoticness’ of a tropical climate and landscape and a culture totally removed from my own was attractive to me.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
I moved to Vietnam in 2005 to teach & to live in a country far removed from my own

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Question 12:

Do you think you’ll ever leave Vietnam?

“I have no plans to leave. I enjoy my life and work here in Vietnam and I think it’s one of the most exciting places in the world to be right now. Vietnam is the focus of my profession and a large part of my life: without it there’d be a big void to fill. But I know that things have the potential to change quickly at any given moment: from global events to personal circumstances, things happen that can shift your priorities and limit your possibilities. I have no idea what the future will hold: it may lead me back to my home country (the U.K) or somewhere else or perhaps I’ll continue to stay happily in Vietnam.

The longer I’m here and the stronger my social, professional and emotional attachment to the country becomes, the more aware I am of the comparatively tenuous nature of my legal attachment to Vietnam. As a foreign resident, I have a Temporary Residence Card and Work Permit, both of which need to be renewed every 2 years. This is fine, but it serves as a regular reminder that, no matter the depth and longevity of my personal connection, my legal connection is only temporary. This didn’t concern me much at all for the first decade or so that I lived and worked in Vietnam, but the older I get and the more attached to the country I become, the more it plays on my mind.”

Vietnam Coracle 12 Year Anniversary
I have no plans to leave Vietnam, but no one knows what the future holds

*Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this Q&A because I want to celebrate the 12-year anniversary of my website. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page

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Questions, updates and trip reports are all welcome. However, please keep comments polite and on-topic. See commenting etiquette for details.

  1. Alan Pead says:
    July 2, 2024 at 2:10 AM

    I enjoy reading your articles,
    they remind me of the times I’ve so
    spent in VN. It’s different to to other South Asia countries not so much the topography but the people, open friendly and authentic. I’ve done a massive amount of on the road travel in my 75 years and it’s still one of my favourite countries.
    Good luck to you on your travels, we are all moths to a flame, just follow your nose and enjoy the ride.

    1. Tom says:
      July 2, 2024 at 4:28 AM

      Thanks, Alan.

      Best,

      Tom