From investigating the nutritional barriers to education in rural Vietnam to interviewing Drake about his luxury French champagne, the stories of what we eat and drink have kept writer Dan Q. Dao on the road for a long time. There is always the delight in sharing new tastes with readers; the larger challenge that Dan tasks himself is to ask what cultural and political insights might be hiding at the bottom of a glass.
We recently connected with Dan in Saigon, far from his home but close to his roots; a city now bustling with untold stories “from new nightclubs to craft breweries and hotels” around every corner. Read our discussion about his experiences as a Vietnamese-American navigating a diverse and nontraditional career below.
Can you describe to us the first time you felt distinctly Vietnamese?
I had a complicated relationship with being Vietnamese-American. From first grade until high school, I attended an all-white, conservative Southern Baptist private school. When I was just five years old, I asked my mom if I could dye my hair blonde and get blue-colored contacts. I never quite felt like I belonged there. Outside of school, however, I was surrounded by Vietnamese family, friends, and community in Houston. My parents always stressed the importance of speaking and reading Vietnamese, eating Vietnamese food, and respecting traditional Vietnamese customs. But it always felt like I was living two separate lives—the out-of-place Asian kid at school and the sometimes rebellious second-generation American son at home.
When I was 10, I went to Vietnam for the first time. I wrote an essay afterwards talking about how I felt truly at home in Vietnam. That was definitely a turning point, and it’s still true of how I feel today. Ironically, however, it wasn’t until I moved to New York City at the age of 16 to attend NYU that I truly appreciated my background. Without a large community of Vietnamese people in New York, I felt homesick for the sound of the language and the taste of the pho.
And now, you are often coming to Saigon to report on stories and create bridges between Vietnam and overseas. What compels you to work in Vietnam?
If you asked me five years ago if I saw myself working in Vietnam one day, I would have laughed. Despite feeling a vague cultural sense of belonging in Vietnam, I’d grown up with the mindset that I’d go to college, work my way up some kind of corporate structure, and eventually settle down somewhere in America. But two years ago, I started going out on my own in Saigon, meeting interesting, creative people and seeing a different side of Vietnam. It made me curious. Everything really fell into place when I was laid off from my editor role at Saveur, a food and travel magazine. Being forced to go freelance turned my five-year plan upside down and allowed me to look beyond it to see the other possibilities in life.
Beyond my personal reasons and timing, Vietnam is an exceptionally exciting place to be right now. The culture and the energy are incredible. With all the innovation in the country—from new nightclubs to craft breweries and hotels—I knew I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t give it a shot. I want to be part of the next generation of Vietnamese people building a better Vietnam for the future. It may be overly confident, but I really do think I can bring something to the table with my experience in media and hospitality.
Why did you decide to be a writer?
English was always my strongest subject, and I genuinely enjoyed writing in school. I originally chose political journalism as my major, but quickly became disillusioned with politics in college. I still tried: I interned in news and production departments at CNN, NBC, and the New York Post while in college, but nothing really resonated with me. Post-graduation, I worked in restaurants and did PR, but I felt like something was missing. So I applied to a local magazine, Time Out New York, to cover food and drink. That was my first journalism job. It just kind of happened.
Is there a subject that you find the most rewarding to cover?
While I was at Time Out, I picked up bartending to make some extra money. This led me to start covering spirits, cocktails, and bar culture, which eventually allowed me to travel to visit Cognac chateaus, mezcal palenques, and whisky distilleries. Though I’ve since moved on to covering general travel, music, and pop culture, the beverage world will always be my home base. There’s so much you can tell about a person or group of people from how they drink. It’s endlessly fascinating, and gives me a jumping point to cover broader travel, nightlife, and business.
What principles do you hold on to when navigating ethically complex stories?
Honesty, transparency, and compassion. Honesty, because lifestyle journalism is still journalism—the stories we tell must be true and grounded in fact. Transparency, because we owe our readers full disclosure of our interests—were we paid to cover a certain brand, or are we covering them because we genuinely believe in what they do? And compassion. Sometimes people try so hard to be good writers, but forget to be good people.
Do you feel obligated to bring certain perspectives to your writing?
Yes and no. I do draw on my background when it can further the reader’s understanding of a topic—whether that’s a travel feature about the Vietnamese crawfish I grew up with, or a piece about Asian-American representation in media. At the same time, I’m a journalist and I’m often writing from the perspective of an unbiased, third-person reporter or observer, interpreting facts and events for readers. It’s a fine balance of knowing when your voice is needed versus being self-important and inserting yourself for the sake of it.
It takes a lot of confidence, especially in an immigrant family, to develop experience and progress in a nontraditional way. How did you hold firm in your vision? How did your family react?
Well, I have to give my parents a lot of credit for being exceedingly supportive—financially and otherwise—of my career goals from day one. For all their strictness about curfews and speaking Vietnamese, they were not the type to force me or my younger brother to become a doctor or an engineer. Plus, after all those math and science tutors, they pretty much knew a STEM field was out of the question, ha.
Of course, my parents could only help me so much when I told them I wanted to be a writer. It always seemed like my peers knew much more about how to navigate the journalism landscape—they’d grown up reading glossy magazines, and had been groomed for the lifestyle of lifestyle media. They all knew how to swish their wine glasses and discuss fine art. It used to make me so insecure. But I knew I had to just fake it until I made it. I knew I was a good writer, and I just focused on that.
Between journalism and your other endeavors, from being a creative director to creating new cocktails, which hat fits you best?
I think writing and storytelling are my calling. But I’ve been lucky enough to not have to choose between any of my passions. That’s the best part of being in the “slash generation.” I’m a writer slash bartender slash PR professional slash consultant slash occasional nightlife host. And each of those roles has helped me in some way or another with the others.
For example, bartending every night of course made me more proficient in writing about drinks. And working as an editor has taught me to understand what journalists are looking for, which allows me to pitch my PR clients intelligently. Sure, there’s been a lot of grumbling from the journalism old-guard that young writers these days are doing marketing or influencer work on the side. But it’s called survival. I’m always eager to learn new skills that’ll help me prepare for our dystopian future!
Although you have your hands full, are you looking towards any new projects in the future?
I am actually planning to move to Vietnam full-time next year. I’ve got a few projects in the works, both here in New York City and in Saigon. It’s both scary and exciting.
Your favorite drink.
I’d always believed in the stereotype that rum drinks were overly sweet, and that rum did not sit well with me. Let’s just say I had some bad experiences in college. It wasn’t until I started bartending that I discovered the diversity and versatility of rum—from tiki cocktails to a rum old-fashioned to the perfect daiquiri. I’d say my favorite drink is a well-made daiquiri: 1 ounce of fresh lime juice, 3/4 ounces of 1:1 simple syrup, and 2 ounces of white rum—shaken with a big cube of ice and served in a coupe glass.