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Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Bookpleasures.com and Sketchandtravel.com is excited to have as our guest, author Samantha Coomber.

Samantha, from England, is now based in
Hanoi and is a leading specialist on Vietnam. For 15 months off and on she backpacked extensively around Vietnam by herself, exploring places few tourists would dare to venture. Samantha has been involved with the updating and research for Rough Guides Vietnam and two Rough Guides South-east Asia Vietnam sections.

In addition, the Vietnamese Government tourism department, (the VNAT), recruited her to set-up and launch a new monthly tourism/ex-pat magazine-the first and only foreigner in this department.

Samantha has also written entirely the first edition of Insight Pocket City Guidebook to Hanoi and Northern Vietnam and she has updated and edited the fourth edition Luxe Guide Hanoi. Her articles have appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Australian newspaper.

Good day Samantha and thank you for agreeing to participate in our interview. Samantha: My pleasure!


Samantha, when did your passion for writing begin? What keeps you going and what does travel mean to you?


My passion for writing is inextricably intertwined with my passion for travel - that's how it all came about. Writing and my travels are my two huge passions in life, my raison d'etre, but the writing came later. I have traveled the world for years, experiencing some very exciting trips, such as cruising on a Felucca boat for three days along the Egyptian Nile River, trekking the Nepalese Himalayas, climbing Mount Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, white water rafting in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe and sailing round the Whitsunday Islands, Australia.

It did help that I was in the UK travel industry for 14 years, which funded my constant quest to seek new cultures, countries and experiences. During my twenties, I was a holiday guide for UK tour companies based in European summer resorts - in Corfu (Greece) and Spain - plus winter ski resorts in France and Italy. After that, I was based back in London, working for various tour operators in sales and marketing positions taking full advantage of tour industry discounted fares and business trips across the globe.

In fact, I've spent most of my money over the years on travel; but for my efforts, have acquired trunks of photos and global artifacts, including a scary Zimbabwe papier mach mask, poison darts from Borneo and a Tibetan hand prayer wheel from Nepal! I started writing about my adventures later on, around 1997, still in London. Putting down on paper about my travels helped me cope with a break-up of a long-term relationship. Writing brought a new sense of purpose into my life - that is with me now for the rest of my life.


Do you recommend other travel writers find a niche or specialty? Why and how did you choose Vietnam as your niche? What have been the rewards for you?


Travel writing only became my career once I hit Vietnam, in 1998. And this came purely by accident. Aged 37, I quit my white water rafting marketing job and London apartment and booked a one-way ticket to Australia, via Vietnam and Bali. The plan was two years in Sydney, then back to London.

It has now been seven years away from London, with two years in Sydney and over five years in Vietnam totally unplanned! En-route to Sydney, the one month backpacking trip around Vietnam turned into four months. I fell in love with the country and backpacked across Vietnam by myself, almost turning native. Vietnam so inspired me that I changed all my plans became totally obsessed with the place and started incessantly writing about it and my travels.

I had planned to look for marketing roles in Sydney, but as soon as I arrived, decided to be a travel writer, as Vietnam had inspired me to write non-stop. Not a very smart move at 37, with no journalistic background / training, not a great deal of money and no industry contacts!! But I had so much passion about this and knew I had finally found my calling, that I plugged away with a blind belief in myself.
It was tough to start with, but my family helped me out and it eventually paid off. I returned to
Vietnam for two more backpacking trips; articles started to get published and things snowballed with writing work. Rough Guides travel guidebooks commissioned me to update their Vietnam guidebook and while backpacking around for six months in 2001 - updating the third edition Rough Guides South-east Asia Vietnam section - I got an e-mail from one section of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), the tourism department of the Vietnamese Government, that I had written an article for three years previously.

They wrote; "your dream of living and working in Vietnam is about to come true". I was headhunted by the VNAT to help set-up and launch their first English-language tourism and ex-patriate magazine, in January, 2002, based in Hanoi as the writer/ editor. I had never worked on a magazine, nor as a reporter and I had to set-up the magazine with a team of Vietnamese in less than four weeks!
The magazine is still running successfully and after a momentous time for (an unplanned) four years, have now set myself up as a freelance writer in
Hanoi. I wrote my first book, Insight Pocket City Guidebook to Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, published worldwide this year, and am now writing my own book about my amazing experiences in Vietnam; a very humorous, anecdotal book - and am currently looking for publishers!

Vietnam and my writing career all happened by complete accident, with one thing leading to another. It's turned out far beyond my expectations. If you truly believe in something, love what you do and are good at it, you will succeed. Don't be fazed by anyone. Your writing niche follows in what you are interested in. I write about Vietnam as it inspires me every day and I am now a specialist on the country, but it can be a bit dangerous career-wise to rely on one subject, so I have gradually diversified this with lifestyle and gourmet writing, editing work, plus covering other Asian countries. The rewards have been huge; financially, er, no, but self-fulfillment in writing a book and getting articles published, living the life as a writer in Asia Pacific, being acknowledged as a writer, yes. I always get a thrill when I introduce myself as a writer.


If you had to choose 8 venues in Vietnam or South-east Asia that you would consider to be the most romantic for a wedding celebration, honeymoon or romantic getaway, which ones would you choose and why?


 For a romantic getaway / honeymoon in Vietnam:

 ***The luxurious, high-end Evason Hideaway at Ana Mandara, (near Nha Trang). It's in a tropical, lush sanctuary on deserted Ninh Van Bay and you have your own private villa with pool.

*** Hoi An Riverside Resort, a stunning French-Vietnamese boutique hotel in Balinese-style gardens along a river in the ancient port town of Hoi An, is perfect, and they can arrange honeymoon packages and traditional riverside wedding ceremonies.

***Chartering a luxury, traditional Chinese Junk boat around mystical and stunning Halong Bay, Northern Vietnam, is wonderful for a romantic getaway, wedding reception, or even a sunset on deck wedding ceremony with a difference!

***Also for wedding receptions, Moon River Retreat - situated in a village along the Red River, 7km from Hanoi, with exquisitely decorated, traditional Northern Vietnamese guestrooms and restaurant. Evening wedding receptions can be held at the old riverside courtyard, adorned with Buddha statues, exotic blooms, candles and silk lanterns hanging from fragrant trees.

***For the actual wedding ceremony  I would choose to be near water or on a beach, preferably at sunset. The Botanical Gardens in Sydney, Australia, with its gazebo in lovely tropical gardens, alongside magnificent Sydney Harbour; or a beach-side ceremony on Hayman Island, a luxury resort island on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, or one of the luxury Oberoi Resorts, especially Oberoi Bali, with a traditional Balinese wedding on their beach-side grounds. But the place I have set my heart on if I ever get married (ha ha ha) is the Four Seasons Resort Bali, Jimbaran Bay, Bali, set on a dramatic hilltop overlooking the bay. They can arrange exotic Balinese weddings in the grounds of your private villa (complete with separate sleeping, bathing and living pavilions, plus plunge pool with ocean views). Mind you, my Zimmer frame might get stuck on the rock steps!


How easy or difficult is it to travel to and get around Vietnam? How safe is it? Could you also tell our readers something about the costs of hotels and travel in Vietnam?


There are more and more international flights flying into Vietnam now; even direct flights from the US. Traveling around Vietnam, generally speaking, is safe and cheap, but transportation infrastructure is not as developed as say, Malaysia or Bali.

When I was backpacking around Vietnam, most of the time I used public transport,  local ferries, minivans, prehistoric local buses, 24-hour train journeys from one end of the country to the other on the very uncomfortable Reunification Express, and hiring locals to drive me around on their motorbikes.
I traveled like this not only because it was cheap, but also as it put me in touch with locals and local life, got me off the beaten track and continually provided me with good travel stories! If you are stuck in an air-conditioned bus with other foreigners, you aren't going to really experience a country. Mind you, I put up with some sobering conditions; crammed in six-berth overnight trains, with three generations of Vietnamese families plus their live chickens; or squashed up with as many locals as physically possible into minibuses heading up the mountains.

Sometimes I used the national airline carrier, Vietnam Airlines, when I wanted to move around the country in more comfort. And there are open-tour buses geared to foreigners  especially backpackers - that run up and down country between the main tourist hubs, and are easy to book through travelers cafes. I traveled alone for 15 months in total and as a solo female found it extraordinary safe, experiencing hardly any bother (so liberating for a woman!) and this spurred me on to travel and conduct my travels in a way I would NEVER do elsewhere.

Through this, I often ended up as the first foreigner to reach a place, or traveled to places few foreigners ventured. It seemed that I was respected as a woman traveling alone; and even if I got asked out for a coffee by the motorbike man, it was after the business transaction, not during it. Vietnam is definitely the safest country I have ever traveled / lived in; but this may be due to the fact that the Socialist Government severely penalizes anyone harming a foreigner.

Broadly speaking, hotels and transportation are relatively cheap in Vietnam, especially compared with prices back home, although it's not as cheap as Bali and Thailand. Hotels range from dorms to 5-Star, anything from USD$5 to USD$500, plane hopping from one city to the next is just slightly more expensive than the (woeful) national train service. Hiring taxis are much cheaper than back home and long distance tourist buses, although uncomfortable, are good value.


As a follow up, what challenges or obstacles did you encounter while traveling around Vietnam and how did you overcome these challenges? What has been the biggest reward for you traveling around Vietnam and South-east Asia and writing about this corner of the globe?


Like any developing nation, traveling around Vietnam can sometimes be frustrating and you have to allow for being hassled and ripped off occasionally, in hotels and with transportation. This comes with the territory, as Vietnam is a poor country and naturally, locals will try it on. Of course, if you are on an organized tour group, you are not going to experience this so much. And Vietnamese driving skills are probably the worst I have ever encountered, so that's something to bear in mind, as there are many road accidents here and traveling long distances can sometimes test the patience of a saint.

For me, it's just been a privilege, stimulating and exciting, traveling around Vietnam and South-east Asia over the years and then writing about it. Although it's been a selfish catharsis, I hope in some ways that my articles and books published on Vietnam has helped promote the country's tourism possibilities and make people understand better how Vietnam has dramatically changed from the war years. It has certainly been interesting cataloging Vietnam's rapid development, especially witnessing the rise of sophisticated, luxury resorts, spas and restaurants, etc.

I hope to give back something to this incredible country. I have written several articles for Thingsasian website ,  and have received some truly humbling e-mails from Overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) who wrote they never knew a foreigner could love their homeland so much and your article makes me so proud of my country; or from Vietnam War VETS who told me that some of my articles brought back nostalgic memories of places they encountered during the war.


How have you used the Internet to boost your writing career?


The Internet is a totally invaluable tool to my work, and has meant I can be a freelance writer based anywhere in the world; it doesn't matter where I am. About 95% of my work at the moment is international, with me never even meeting my employer! I got interviewed for my work with Rough Guides over the Internet and submitted updates and text to them without ever meeting them  I was in Sydney, they were in London.

The same thing working for most of my other publications: I was in Sydney, Fodor's were in New York; I am in Vietnam, I write a book for Insight books based in Singapore and again send an entire book text by Internet that gets published without ever meeting my employers. You can travel on the road and submit work to a complete stranger thousands of miles away, which means you can acquire work from all over the world, not just locally. It's also my market place and main tool to look for international jobs, network and promote myself, pitch stories and receive work offers through e-mails. The down side is, I'm now a slave to the Internet!


How do you come up with ideas for what you write? What methods do you use to flesh out your idea to determine if it's salable?


I don't need to think up ideas as such, as Vietnam just feeds the inspiration; although a good / interesting angle always helps get published. Whatever I have been doing in Vietnam for over five years, something always seems to crop up and I write about it: a new restaurant / resort, street scenes in Hanoi, an interesting destination I visit, encounters with the locals, a bizarre journey, etc.

But ideas change with my lifestyle. For example, when I was backpacking, I would write destination traveler stories, especially about the ridiculous situations I got myself into; but when I was an ex-pat, I would write about all the little quirky things of living life as an ex-pat in Hanoi. (Sometimes I wonder whether life imitates art or art imitates life).

Having been in Vietnam off and on since 1998, I am now able to write more in-depth articles like socio-economic studies of the country's progress since I have been here (i.e. the emergence of the Vietnamese Nouveau Riche), or in-depth interviews. I am lucky, as generally articles on Vietnam are very popular  at the moment, it's a literary gold mine and someone, somewhere, usually wants a Vietnam story, or a Vietnam guidebook updated, etc. But like any job, you have to know your market and adapt to what they want: just send off your stories to the appropriate place, they can only say no!


Do you have anything else you'd like to share with our readers?


Er, no. I have probably already said far too much: I can write and talk for England and have yet to experience writers block! But thanks for sharing all this with me!


Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.


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