Last month, I mentioned Vietnam: Rising Dragon, a new non-fiction book by veteran journalist Bill Hayton, which after reading the introduction and few reviews of, I immediately placed high up on my must-read list. I recently had the opportunity to ask the author, who was based in Vietnam as a correspondent with the BBC in 2007-08, some questions about his work—and more about the intriguing South East Asian nation:
Why did you write Vietnam: Rising Dragon? When did you start to formulate the idea?
I decided to write the book in January 2007 after I had been in Vietnam for about 8 months. It’s amazing how a journalist can spend time in a place—writing perfectly good articles about day-to-day events—without ever really getting to know what lies behind them.
I realised that even after all that time I still had very little idea about how the country actually worked—who made the decisions, what guided their thinking and why? And I decided to try and find out. I wanted to find out the answers and explain them in a book for anyone else who had the same questions as me.
I wanted the book to be a good read for business people working or investing in the country, for travellers and tourists who want to get to know the country more deeply, for those who had some experience of Vietnam in the past (perhaps in the military) and wanted to see how much the country has changed and for students or anyone else seeking an introduction to modern Vietnam with all its noise and vibrancy.
Did you run into any problems working in the country and researching your book?
Researching the book in Vietnam caused me some trouble because I went to meet people working in the government and the Communist Party without going through the formal channels—which are very slow and bureaucratic—but it allowed me to get to understand the political system much better. However, it took another two years of research after I left the country—reading academic papers, interviewing experts and Vietnamese journalists and others living abroad—before the book was finished.
So exactly how long were you in Vietnam?
I spent a year there. I would like to have stayed longer but the Vietnamese authorities decided not to renew my visa. There are very strict regulations on foreign journalists in Vietnam. These are largely ignored until a journalist writes articles that the government doesn’t like—and then they can be enforced very tightly. I wrote too many articles about subjects the government didn’t like—in particular the dissident movement—and lost my visa.
Has anything changed for you since the book came out? Will you go back to full-time journalism or continue to write more books?
Yes, I’ve realised that I enjoy writing books more than day-to-day journalism! However my regular job is working in news and book writing will have to remain a secondary activity for the moment. I’m currently working on a book about sea level rise—which is expected to have a serious impact on life in Vietnam among other countries.
Bill Hayton now has a self-maintained Facebook page for Vietnam: Rising Dragon here, which he regularly updates with stories from Vietnam and commentary.