Before becoming a journalist writing for publications like South China Morning Post, Thomson Reuters Foundation and Al Jazeera, Sen Nguyen was constantly teased as a child for being the only member of her family with “monolid eyes.” Her relatives joked that she must have been adopted because of her single eyelid fold.
“As a kid, I did not realize that they were silly jokes so they had a serious impact on my self-confidence,” Nguyen said. “I decided to do well at school to make up for my impairment in the beauty department.”
Born and raised in Hanoi, she studied hard and scored not just one but two fully-funded government scholarships for undergraduate and master’s degrees in South Korea and London, and became the first journalist in the family.
Using the platforms she has now, the 27-year-old Nguyen is tackling important issues like climate change and migration and hopes to break the cycle of pressuring women to stick to social standards — becoming a wife or a mother at a very young age or conforming to prejudiced ideals of beauty and attractiveness.
Earlier this year, Nguyen was among the 12 journalists awarded the Mekong Data Journalism Fellowship by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the East-West Center to report on critical water security issues in the region. Her coverage of environmental disasters in central Vietnam and poor local government planning and environmental hazards in the Mekong Delta were among the works that helped land the fellowship. Her October story in South China Morning Post, “Vietnam's addiction to coal shows tough climate choices developing Asia faces on emissions pledges,” was a result of the fellowship. The goal is to provide journalists from the Mekong region with exposure to experts in the region and the US, intensive database training, story production grants and mentorships with senior journalists.
“On top of individual reporting, my other colleagues and I are also collaborating on projects about migration and women’s issues,” Nguyen shared in one of her interviews.
Vietcetera spoke to Nguyen about her professional journey and the story behind ‘Vietnam and Boba’ podcast, her latest passion project.
You're about to conduct a face-to-face interview with a national icon or write an article that people across Asia will read. What's going through your mind?
I have been doing the latter for quite some time now and the process of making one has come quite natural to me. I often say I am a terrible writer, but I am a better rewriter. I produce better work — by which I mean balanced, nuanced, thorough and relevant — when I allow myself time to go back to them. This is why I have chosen to work as a feature writer.
Some questions come to mind when I edit my own work: Why is this paragraph here? Can I say this in a shorter way? Who are the local voices and how do I get in touch with them? What is the context of this issue because context is crucial? Have I saved the receipts of the information/data I used? Then again, my input is not everything. Here’s what I believe in: Good reporting doesn’t have singular heroes – whatever form of journalism you are consuming is a team effort. Newsmakers, interview subjects, analysts, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, fact-checkers, local fixers, technical and language interpreters, and tip-off providers, etc. The journalist is a crucial actor in this ecosystem but they rely on many others to do their job.
Take us back to that moment when you decided journalism was the path you wanted to take.
It wasn’t a lightbulb moment. I had been doing journalism when I was a student in South Korea. I started out working for the school’s magazine, the city’s magazine and radio station. My wonderful time in Korea ended when I got accepted to study anthropology at Lund University in Sweden, but I didn’t get a scholarship. I didn’t ask my family because I knew we wouldn’t have the financial resources for that, so I gave it up. I moved to Saigon and rekindled my interest in journalism. I mean, I get to make a living by being curious about the world and hopefully inspiring others to be so too — it is a pretty good deal! Besides, working as a bilingual journalist means I get access to a multitude of perspectives. It is almost never boring.
You have built a career in reporting through various multimedia platforms, especially globally. What are some of the challenges of being an international journalist in this digital age?
Staying relevant, engaging while at the same time sufficiently distant. I’m rather private about my personal life on social media. I can tell you stories about myself, as I did above, but they are nameless, faceless or untraceable (hopefully). I want to be connected with my readership like other senior journalists who have been around much longer and find the competition palpable, but simultaneously, I want to be in full presence with my loved ones.
Tell us a bit about your experience developing your career as a Vietnamese journalist and having the opportunity to represent the Vietnamese voice through so many platforms.
I think the answer to this question is alluded to by others. Besides, I’m also not comfortable with being seen as a representative Vietnamese voice because I’m not. I just happen to be one of the few English-medium Vietnamese journalists. There are a lot of other journalists who have done impressive work on various platforms.
We’ve heard a lot of great reviews about the Vietnam and Boba podcast. What’s the story behind it?
For readers of Vietcetera who haven’t heard of Vietnam and Boba, it is an English-medium podcast that explores Vietnam’s cultural and socioeconomic issues in-depth with local people and long-term residents in the country. You will get to hear a lot of Vietnamese and people speaking with a Vietnamese accent!
From important issues like migration, mental health, climate change, to COVID-19, we hope the show will help you learn something new about Vietnam, expand the conversation about it at an international level a little bit and perhaps even challenge the pre-assumptions about the country, people and culture. Unlike most podcasts which are done in the Q&A format, ours is done in a storytelling style that requires a lot of work and time to produce and edit. We welcome supporters to help this independent project free from ads. Please get in touch - we are on Facebook and Twitter!
We call it Vietnam and Boba because, well, first of all, it sounds pretty catchy. But really what it means to tell you that we, as in the people who bring you this podcast, represent a generation of young Vietnamese born after the Vietnam War ended, in 1975, WAY after, and we would like to show you Vietnam as we know it.
And also we drink a lot of bubble tea growing up, you know, bubble tea generation, lots of flavors, excitement, and surprises — like what this show should be.
I had this idea for a while, but I didn’t have the motivation to execute it until a dear friend of mine gave me a push. My producer, Giang Pham has been my rock. Anh Giang is a brilliant multimedia storyteller who masters the technicality of the work. What is more important, though, is the fact that he and I share similar values and expectations both of the work we do and ourselves as a person. We only had our ''first official’’ meeting about the podcast when the Saigon lockdown was lifted in early October. No cafe or restaurant was open at the time, so we just sat on the sidewalk under the rain. The city’s rebirth rejuvenated us and helped us prepare for the challenge.
The stories you share, the articles you write — if they could only do one thing for the reader, what do you hope that one thing would be?
When it comes to not just my work but that of others, I would like to invite them to think about whether they have learned something interesting and useful from it, how my work can improve, whether I have included Vietnamese voices — both ordinary and authority — about an issue that concerns Vietnamese people, whether they have read in full/given it enough time to make a judgment among other things. I want journalism to be not only diagnostic of the issues reported on but also of the people who consume it — did you learn something about yourself? All sounds pretty good in theory and requires lots of time and meditation in practice, but I still think it is worth pondering.