- Vietnam is among the hardest countries in the world to report in, as it ranked 175th out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 Press Freedom Index.
- Despite this ranking, foreign journalists face much less scrutiny than their local counterparts, meaning it is possible to travel around the country for field reporting, though those trips can end in utter frustration.
- The fast-growing country sits at the intersection of numerous environmental issues, from wildlife trafficking and climate change to deforestation and urbanization, meaning a wealth of stories is available for those willing to put in the work to get them.
- This post is insider content, which is available to paying subscribers.
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — As the sun began to set behind the mountains of far northern Vietnam, two plainclothes policemen barged into the country house where I was interviewing an elderly farming couple.
The officers demanded my passport, and started asking my fixer why we were there and what I was taking photos of. We were a few miles from the border with China, where officials can still be paranoid about the presence of foreigners. However, I had received prior approval to be there, and I was photographing a stove.
After 20 minutes of back-and-forth, with my fixer repeatedly assuring me that everything was OK, the police left. Everything was indeed OK, but I was shaken up.
Fortunately, this has been my only in-person run-in with the authorities in more than two years of reporting on the environment in Vietnam for Mongabay, but it is evidence of the challenges that come with working as a journalist in a country with a deeply unfree press.
In its 2018 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 175th out of 180 countries, in between Sudan and China.
The story, which looked at the intersection of livelihood improvement and primate conservation, depicted important work in a remote corner of the country that is overlooked even by domestic media. These are the types of issues that I really enjoy exploring, since few other reporters are doing so here, and even fewer outlets are interested in covering them.
While I was happy with my article in the end, it wasn’t easy to put together: getting to the border required an exhausting 14-hour overnight bus ride from Hanoi along twisting mountain roads, and another one at the end of the trip.
As a foreigner, I understand that I hold a position of relative privilege: if I anger the wrong person, the worst that will happen is I will be kicked out of the country. Vietnamese journalists, meanwhile, can be jailed. Of course, being forced to leave Vietnam would be terrible: over the last eight years I have built a life here, and I live in a house with my American girlfriend, two dogs and a cat.
This fact is always somewhere in the back of my mind while I’m working on story ideas and reporting. My girlfriend is extremely supportive of my work, but I would feel incredibly guilty if my work ended up with me having to exit the country. I’m not even sure what the next step would be if I were to get in real trouble, as she has also built a career in Vietnam and wouldn’t be able to just pick up and go. Such a development would be truly life-altering.
My concerns aren’t assuaged by how frequently journalists working in other countries ask if I’m worried about attention from the leadership here.
Thankfully, articles published by foreigners in English rarely attract government attention, since most people here don’t speak the language and anything intended to foment dissent would need to be written in Vietnamese. Perhaps the bigger problem, then, is the self-censorship that I put myself through just to be safe. I have talked to journalists working in other countries who think self-censorship is a reporter’s ultimate sin, but when you live in a country like Vietnam, it is a fact of life.
What this means is that I can’t always pursue story leads that I want to pursue, especially when they are related to powerful corporations, which can actually be more dangerous than the government.
On a lighter note, environmental reporting here has also given me the opportunity to have some truly incredible experiences. At the top of the list would be the story that took me into Hang En, the third-largest known cave in the world, located in a national park in central Vietnam.
I’ve been lucky to see a lot of beautiful natural landscapes in my travels, but nothing prepared me for the breathtaking view that greeted us once we entered the cave. The enormous main chamber stretched into inky blackness, while thousands of swallows, which the cave is named after, filled the space with their chirps and cries from the distant ceiling. Our campsite on the sandy floor — yes, there is a beach inside Hang En — looked like a toy set in the immense space.
The grandeur of nature was almost overpowering, and it is moments like that that make the stress of reporting here worth it. Plus, it resulted in possibly the most positive story I’ve written yet for Mongabay, a welcome break from illegal deforestation, climate change and cratering primate populations.
Such reporting has also led me into situations of outright comedy. The best example of this was a trip which took me to a fairly apocalyptic wood-processing town south of Hanoi. My local contact had arranged a meeting with the top official there. I didn’t really expect much of a result from that meeting, as government officials here are uniformly tight-lipped, and particularly reticent to speak to foreign reporters.
We arrived in the town, and the official didn’t answer his phone. After an hour of wandering around, with woodshop employees wondering why on earth a foreigner was there, he finally answered, with one problem: he was drunk, and had no idea who we were or what we were talking about. It wasn’t even 2 p.m. We left the dreary town and drove back to Hanoi without obtaining much of anything useful.
I’ve found that being a foreign reporter in Vietnam is both a blessing and a curse. My passport gives me a protection that local journalists don’t enjoy, while the way I look means anyone who has reason to be suspicious is immediately on alert. I can’t just walk into a town and start talking to people, as word of the foreigner asking questions will reach local police in no time.
That won’t deter me from undertaking further environmental reporting this year. I’ve already written about the state of mainland Southeast Asia’s mangrove forests, as well as a dramatic anti-wildlife trafficking campaign held here in Ho Chi Minh City.
In the coming months I plan to further explore mangroves in Vietnam, as well as issues such as climate change and forest management, which are vitally important as the country continues to develop.
I’m thankful to have had this experience here thus far, and I look forward covering this beautiful, at times frustrating, country further in the future.
Banner image: Hiking through the tiny village of Doong in central Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.
About the reporter: Michael Tatarski is Editor-in-Chief of the Saigoneer and a Vietnam-based freelance journalist. You can find him on Twitter at @miketatarski.
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