On the 30th anniversary of Viet Nam News, we asked former and current members of staff to share their thoughts and memories about working at the newspaper
Nguyễn Công Khuyến, Việt Nam News's former Editor-in-chief
We discussed at great length the title of the future paper. Finally, Viet Nam News (VNS) was selected. We liked the name because it had a national ring to it. We were in seventh heaven when, in the small hours of June 17, 1991, the first edition of the Viet Nam News appeared at the same time in Hà Nội and HCM City. This was a momentous event, the crowning of months of trial and error. There was no end to celebrations at the head office in the iron-roofed top-floor newsroom. The staff was ecstatic over copies fresh from the printer's, some had stayed with the paper from the time it went to press until the wee hours of the morning when it was picked up by newsboys. Congratulations between head office and branch office and from well-wishers kept the wire hot throughout the day. It was mid-summer. The office was a regular oven, which caused many of the male staffers to cast off their shoes, sandals and even shirts, giving rise to our so-called "barefoot tradition."
Hans van Leeuwen, former copyeditor
I joined Việt Nam News in mid-2000, for a two-year posting funded by Australian Volunteers International. I was in my late 20s, and most of the staff were bright young graduates in their early 20s. I came with my then partner Emily Pettafor, who also had an AVI posting at the paper. So for us, Việt Nam News was more than a job, it was like a family.
We had a serious task, getting a newspaper out seven days a week. But there was always time for a joke or a chat, for an enthusiastic office snack break, for a lunchtime Vietnamese-language lesson, or a bit of “đi chơi” (hang out). Even though journalism can be a high-pressure business, what I most remember is the wide, warm smiles.
Although we produced a nicely polished paper every day, there were plenty of challenges. Only one computer had an internet connection. There were only one or two telephones in the office. Two reporters often had to share a computer, taking it in turns to write their stories. When it wasn’t their go, they’d offer advice and support to their colleague. I often felt guilty, as a sub-editor, having a computer all to myself; but I envied their intimate collaboration.
Working at Việt Nam News was an amazing way to learn about a culture and people I quickly came to love and admire. As I edited the stories, I would go back to the original Vietnamese text and think about how words and concepts are so differently framed and structured in our two languages. We weren’t just translating words on a page, but also ideas, narratives and culture. It was a pleasure and a privilege to help the Vietnamese staff show their world to the one outside.
Journalism, and Việt Nam itself, have changed a lot in the intervening two decades. But I hope that the newspaper’s mission of sharing Việt Nam, and its culture of sharing smiles, snacks and stories, has endured.
Ngô Thu Phương, former reporter
What can you say about your family in a short paragraph? It's almost like Grade 1 homework.
That's what I thought was I was asked by a senior editor of Việt Nam News to write about my feelings for the newspaper that I worked for over 14 years. Millions of memories flashed back and now I realise I would need editions and editions to have all my thoughts published. The truth is I owe both my professional and personal growth to the paper. Those 14 years were the most challenging but exciting time of my career life. I will never forget how depressed I was when I failed to write my first piece of news in English from an original Vietnamese version or how hard I racked my brain to come up with new columns for the national news pages overhaul. I was very grateful, as was VNS as a whole, to have foreign copy editors, who taught us the Western journalism style that we could hardly learn in our Vietnamese schools.
Like most newsrooms, we were hectic with ideas, pitches and news scoops while chasing deadlines every day. Yet for some unfathomable reasons, we managed to socialise after work. And from there, we formed our close family ties. That's why each of us always calls VNS our second home even when we are no longer there.
My heartfelt congratulations to you on your 30th birthday, VNS! I do hope the VNS spirit will keep burning for generations to come and make the paper stronger than ever.
Vũ Ngân Bình, former Việt Nam News's Deputy Editor-in-chief
I started working as a reporter at Việt Nam News just days after the first national English daily newspaper was launched on June 17, 1991. I am proud of Việt Nam News and always loved working at the newspaper until I retired in 2018.
I will never forget the hard days working in poor conditions in the headquarters office in the early years of the newspaper. Our newsroom was on the fourth floor of an old building on 79 Lý Thường Kiệt Street, Hà Nội, with a metal roof, making the atmosphere in the room hot and stuffy in the summer. You can imagine how miserable it was writing stories on paper by hand as there were only two or three old typewriters in the office, and we worked long hours under the heat and loud noise from the old ceiling fans running above our heads.
I was often asked by the then Editor-in-Chief Nguyễn Công Khuyến to make phone calls to different sources to check details or get further information to add to our stories when he edited them. In its fledgling period, not many Vietnamese people had learned about the existence of an English daily newspaper, and when I contacted people to ask for information it took extra time for me to introduce the newspaper before getting to my main reason for calling.
It was not uncommon for reporters to wait for our turn to either use the desk telephone to get further information or type our stories after being edited by Editor-in-Chief Nguyễn Khuyến by hand. We often finished work late in the evening. Sometimes, it was really hard when I had to work on late stories in the evening with an empty stomach to meet the deadline for the daily newspaper while my mind was on my young toddler being sick at home.
The majority of staff at Việt Nam News were women reporters. Many of them had to work late and had night shifts. Besides their busy work schedule, the women had to take care of their children and often brought them to the office at around 4 or 5pm after school. Then they went back to work and their children played at the office as they waited for their fathers to take them home later.
The excellent leadership and management of Editors-In-Chief Nguyen Cong Khuyen and Tran Mai Huong in the past years and Trịnh Thanh Thủy who holds the post today, together with other senior editors like Nguyễn Tri Bình, Nguyễn Hoàng Phúc and Lưu Vạn Kha, helped inspire the staff who were devoted and responsible to make the newspaper an informative and reliable source of news over the last 30 years.
Since being away from Việt Nam News, I have particularly missed snack parties on Friday afternoons at the office, or the times we shared homemade foods at lunchtime, or enjoyed time going out with colleagues on their birthdays or on trips to Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Hue, and Hoi An together.
I have missed the years that we worked hard and had fun together, in the common, big Việt Nam News house.
I am proud of Việt Nam News and I am happy to be a member of the Việt Nam News family.
Happy 30th birthday Việt Nam News - with best wishes from Ngân Bình, Kiev, Ukraine.
Tôn Ánh Thu, current reporter at Việt Nam News's HCM City office
I started working at Việt Nam News’ HCM City branch office in 2003 and at first, I worked in the advertisement and circulation room’s circulation division. After I had worked in the circulation division for about seven months, my then boss Nguyễn Tiến Lễ, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, decided to transfer me to work in the newsroom as a rewriter to translate news stories from Vietnamese into English. When informed of his decision, I was happy and worried because it was a turning point in my life but I did not know I if would be able to the job well.
I had a chance to work in all the branch office’s rooms and to work with the branch office’s first five staff members. I liked hearing them telling stories about how Việt Nam News was started, how they worked in the first years to develop and promote the newspaper, and other stories related to the newspaper. Their stories made me feel more proud of working at Việt Nam News. They retired and I often miss them. When I moved into the newsroom, I was the youngest staff member and am now one of the oldest staff members in the newsroom. I am grateful to work at Việt Nam News.
Nguyễn Khánh Dương, current reporter
By coincidence, I held the printed version of Việt Nam News for the first time 23 years ago when Việt Nam News celebrated its 7th birthday. At that time, my mother was working for the printing house of the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) and I usually went with her to work on late shifts and saw VNA newspapers, including Việt Nam News, come out of the printers late at night. At the age of five, I didn’t know how to read foreign languages but Việt Nam News was one of my favourite newspapers in my mother’s workplace because of its eye-catching layouts. I remember colouring the black and white cartoon pages was my favourite way to pass the time while waiting for my mother.
About 15 years later when I was at university, also by coincidence, my English teacher chose Việt Nam News as a reference for our major. The articles in Việt Nam News taught me my first lessons on news structure as well as news translation.
Now when I hold a copy of Việt Nam News in my hands, I can see pieces of news that I translated and stories that I wrote by myself as a reporter. Let me call Việt Nam News a friend as we, Việt Nam News and myself, are about the same age.
Despite these tough times, I hope Việt Nam News will make changes in this special anniversary year and weather the storms to uphold its position as the national newspaper for external services.
Happy birthday Việt Nam News!
Trần Quỳnh Hoa, former reporter
Thank you, my dear Việt Nam News, for being an important part of my youth. I grew up tremendously with each story I wrote during my exciting six-year ride with you, and the lessons you taught me made me who I am today. Happy 30th birthday! I look forward to seeing you come out even stronger tomorrow.
Nguyễn Minh Huyền, former reporter
My memories of Việt Nam News are a lengthy collection spanning my 13 youthful, valued novice years that I ‘lived’ with the paper, a little before its fourth birthday and soon after its 17th anniversary. During those years, I met and befriended many people and spent many late-night shifts at the 79 Lý Thường Kiệt Street newsroom to learn the trade and perform a decent job. I treasured all my moments there, be they joyful, ponderous, proud, or even sad. In this limited space, I simply choose to recollect my first days there – as true as a Vietnamese saying that goes: “The first step is always the hardest.”
It was the beginning of summer 1995, I was in my third year of undergraduate studies in the English language at the Hà Nội University for Foreign Studies. Hearing my introduction and aspirations, Mr Nguyen Khuyen, the Editor-In-Chief, accepted and took me to a senior reporter and copy editor, Mr Tri Binh, to induct me and assign me tasks. Binh became my first mentor at work. Binh was a war veteran, indeed a war invalid, who had immense life experience, critical thinking, a sharp mind and words, and yet a great love for reading and watching films. He could chat for hours about an interesting book he had read or a newly released Hollywood film. Binh was a great storyteller; not only his features were beautifully written, but his late-night news pieces were also so skillfully reported that the often boring handshaking and the like stories became appealing and newsworthy to foreign readers. I was fortunate to be able to work with and learn so much from him until, sadly, illness took his life in 2006.
Like other newcomers then, I started off with “In Brief” news pieces. My brief articles of 100 to 150 words each were often coverage of local news from economic, education, health to social issues. I submitted each piece to Binh and he would often return them for a rewrite, or research for more information, or double fact-checking, or a new lead. Binh was very quick to point out my mistakes, sometimes in one morning I had my piece returned three times for changes. Yes, I might have been embarrassed to see my mistakes, but Binh never made me discouraged. I kept trying, worked hard, and was glad to see my improvements, little by little. I learned how hard it was to write a short but sufficient, attractive and balanced story. Days later, I got used to the tasks and Binh let me work with other junior staff so that I only came to him for difficult questions. I still recall my happiest moment when I got paid for my internship five months later. I had been paid for tutoring English since my freshman year, but that was my first money from being a reporter!
It would be a shame if I failed to highlight how fortunate I was in those days to join on-the-job training sessions conducted by Terry Hartney and Diane Fox, experienced Australian and American journalists who worked as copy editors. We cherish Terry and Diane for their heartwarming passion to nurture the young generation of Việt Nam News. I learnt the alphabet of journalism and how to write a conventional inverted pyramid story or an attractive lead. I also had the luxury to learn from professional western editors like John Loizou and Philip Mulvey, who were always willing to share their experience in the trade.
I left in July 2008. What stays are the sweet memories of a newspaper in its youthful bloom as in the Vietnamese saying: “17 years of age can break a buffalo horn.”
Hari Chathrattil, former copyeditor
For me, Việt Nam News has always been a work in progress, a paper trying to reach its potential against some formidable odds. Personally, it not only enabled professional growth in many aspects, it also helped see setbacks as temporary.