Join Granger Whitelaw and Brian Letwin as they discuss the Saigoneer in Vietnam, listen to the interview and get your “culture on”. We hope you enjoy this latest edition of The Lotus Talks!
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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability.
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Granger Whitelaw: Good morning and welcome to Friday notes. This is Granger Whitelaw. Well, it’s been an exciting week here in Saigon. We have been dealing with the Coronavirus scare and I certainly don’t want to waste your good time talking about that, but it is something that, is on everyone’s mind. So I will share this, make sure you’re washing your hands and if you’re not feeling good. Don’t go to work. Keep out of the general population if you can. And, let’s be careful, I think, hopefully, you will see a containment here and or reduction in this whole thing.
So Monday we were talking about, Asia, where are we now and economic indicators from the last couple of years. kind of where I see things going, how we’re viewed here in Asia and, some places where you can certainly look at leveraging and in growing your business and improving your business.
Granger Whitelaw: And, I always say that, the best way to do that is through partnerships. At this point in time in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. good partners are gonna help you scale faster. And, changing your mindset to look at that. I highly recommend it.
Granger Whitelaw: Today we have a bit of a different, plan. Usually, we profile a business that we talk about, the idea on Monday, but since we’re talking about facts, news, those kinds of things, I thought I would take the opportunity to, speak with a gentleman who’s been in, Asia in Vietnam for a number of years, has a fantastic website, for information. not necessarily business, but really culture and, society and other stories, that anybody here visiting or living really should know about. and the ex Pat community and the Vietnamese community. So let me introduce him. Brian Litwin from Saigoneer. Brian, good morning.
Brian Letwin: Hey Andrew, thanks for having me.
Granger Whitelaw: Well, it’s great to have you, man. I love your, I love your online magazines. I SAIGONEER, it’s very cool. Thanks. I feel it’s a very artistic too. I kinda dig the, the look and feel and the vibe of it all. Brian Litwin Well, I can’t take credit for that. I just run the thing. And that people who are more creative and better at using their, their hands do the God’s work of making it look nice and creating nice content.
Granger Whitelaw: I don’t believe that. Now you, you’re one of the founders of a Saigon, right You and, Alberto – Albie he goes by. Yeah. Yeah. Really nice guy. Super nice. Yeah. So I’m not everybody listening to the podcast knows about Saigoneer. I know I’ve asked, some different people. I was actually with lunch with someone today and mentioning the Saigoneer and they’re like, what’s that So, I think it’s important to kind of get the word out about what you guys do and, really the expat community probably listens to this podcast a lot. tell us about Saigoneer.
Brian Letwin: Sure. So Saigoneer is the largest English language and Korean language, lifestyle website in Vietnam. so we cover topics ranging from, newsier things like, we’ll write about the Corona virus stuff a bit. Although we had an editorial meeting yesterday and we all agreed not to do daily articles about it. we are not a news source. We do not make news.
Granger Whitelaw; you resource news,
Brian Letwin: right So if the Vietnamese press has published it across the board, then that kind of gives us license, pun intended I suppose to, to kind of run with it a bit. and then we try to put it out there because for a lot of the ex-Pat readers that we have, the English language news sources here are a bit limited.
Granger Whitelaw Yeah. And quite frankly, you know, who knows if they’re accurate. Right Brian Litwin Right. So for us, we try to go through the Vietnamese stuff and instead of looking at one Vietnamese source, if we’re covering news, which we try not to do as much as possible, but if it’s something in our purview, we’ll go through five to seven different Vietnamese publications.
Granger Whitelaw: Okay. So when you vet a story or something you’re going to write about, you’ll look at VN news and all the different ones. I can’t say other nations, but your staff, your Vietnamese staff will go through that, vet that and really kind of try to pull together a story, if you will, in order to use the best one you find out there.
Brian Letwin: Exactly. I mean, you’ll, you’ll find facts differ, numbers differ from source to source. So if somebody says, you know, 10,000 of this and then another source will, it’s 110,000 and you’re like, all right, well there’s gotta be a real number in the middle here somewhere. And so you try to at least corroborate that you can find five sources that all have the same number or something or you just don’t,
Granger Whitelaw: and then take that and then you kind of rewrite a article or
Brian Letwin: the goal is to kind of apply Western norms to media in general. So when it comes to news specifically, like we’re talking about right now, or newsier content, the idea is to, instead of looking at it in a vacuum, this is happening right now. We try to look at what happened before, what might happen in the future, pulling in, local news sources. But there was a lot of times where it’s something, you know, any topic probably is not specific to Vietnam. So delays in a Metro line happen everywhere. So you can kind of say, okay, if it’s happening here in this way, it stands to reason that in this other place we can look at and see from lessons that they’ve had if they will take, you know, five more years or 10 more years or something like that. So try to apply context, I would say to everything. And that’s really what the core Saigoneer is about and why we made it was to establish more context for anybody living in Saigon and finding out 10 years ago when we kind of started pulling the idea formed, that there is a lack of, of knowledge for a lot of topics in Vietnam. and a lack of awareness for a lot of things. Granger Whitelaw: Or Depth Brian Litwin: or depth – That would probably actually be a better way to say that. Yeah. among Vietnamese as well. Granger Whitelaw: I mean you not only cover things, more deeply if you will, but you cover a wide range, an XPLR, which is Explorer. Exactly. You know, you have calendars and events, blog, you event coverage, you have a Eat and drinking. So F&B, entertainment, education, shopping, travel services. I mean this is all stuff that’s important for business-people. And this is a business podcast, those folks to know about, right I mean, if you have clients in town, you may want to know where to go for an event or what’s happening, what kind of entertainment is going on. Or maybe their wives want to go shopping. So Saigoneer becomes a really becomes a good business tool.
Granger Whitelaw: Business tool.
Brian Letwin: Okay. That’s cool.
Brian Letwin : alright. Love email don’t you — yeah, I think, in a way you can kind of say that’s like the timeout part of the website timeout magazine. So that’s like the, you know, what’s going on
Granger Whitelaw: town from New York.
Brian Letwin: There you go. but that’s just one part of the website, right So I think what, what our goal was trying to do is kind of take what’s worked in other places. and because we’re in a market like Saigon, Vietnam, we also have a website in Hanoi as well, we try to take what works and put it all together in one place. So that can mean in the case that you just mentioned business listings and events, but also in a more new Yorker magazine’y way. We’ll write 6,000 word articles on the history of rubber in Vietnam going through the colonial period up through the American arts and culture profiling, young musicians and artists and things like that. So there’s not really a apples to apples comparison of another media platform. I can see, I think we’re inspired by a lot of different ones. Timeout as one New York, the new Yorkers, one Gothamist, which comes from where I’m from in New York was the original kind of thing that then inspired it because they were always good about being hyper-local and really focusing on issues that is a resident of a city. You felt like you knew that place better. And that’s the main goal, I think.
Granger Whitelaw: And you also did some stuff at heritage also, not just for a Saigon in Vietnam, but Asia in general.
Brian Letwin: Yeah, I would say the heritage stuff probably represents is like 99% Saigon or 90%. We do some stuff. Old photos of Taiwan or China or Japan. Yeah. That’s probably people’s universal favorite section of the website is yeah, we’ve had historians write for us like Tim doling, so he’ll spend a whole article writing about a specific building or street or person that affected the history of the city. so yeah, those are, those are definitely are kind of bread and butter.
Granger Whitelaw: It’s tough to know too. I mean, again, you know, if you’re doing business in a, a foreign country like Vietnam and understand the heritage and the culture is really important because it gives you a better ability to communicate and to share and to understand how to do business in the culture, maybe why some people make decisions in business or in life. They do. And historically, understanding history is really, really important. and going to the future, not making the same mistakes or just respecting how things are done.
Brian Letwin: It’s also something brands and business people can leverage as well as they try to make opportunities for themselves here. there’s a lot of really rich layers to the history of Saigon, Vietnam and it’s such a young country. So I think a lot of it kind of gets lost in the shuffle. but it is still part of the city’s identity. So, you know, even Saigoneer, we use the word Saigon, not Ho Chi Minh city in the name, which is pioneer, pioneer basically. to be totally honest, the, I wanted a different brand name go-daddy said no, that domain is not available. Here are seven domains that you might want to buy. And I went and kind of gotten this, no, no, no. Hey, that looks pretty good. And then when I met Alberto independently, he had also registered a blog called Saigoneer. He’s the only other person I’ve met who’s independently arrived at the same brand names.
Granger Whitelaw: Oh, is that right? How did you guys meet?
Brian Letwin: my wife is a Hispanic-file. I guess that’s the way to say that. She went to school in Spain. She’s Vietnamese.
Granger Whitelaw: So Spanish men, Spanish wine?
Brian Letwin: all of the things original, definitely. I remember her telling me that her interest in Spanish culture originated, taking a Spanish class at the Ho Chi Minh city school, university of social sciences, and having a crush on her teacher and that led her down the path to be
Granger Whitelaw: they can be handsome. Those Spanish guys, t Brian Litwin: they can, Alberto is a very, very handsome man. Granger Whitelaw: Watch out for him.
Brian Letwin: He knows he’s the godfather of my child. I don’t think I have too much to worry about with him. but yeah, my wife got into that stuff and so they met before I met either of them and they were friends. So when we started dating my wife and I, that is, we would start to meet up with her Spanish friends and he was one of them and everything kind of went off from there. Yeah.
Granger Whitelaw: Oh, I didn’t know that story. Interesting. And now you have the Urbanist in Hanoi, right. Which is — why, why call it the Urbanist not Saigoneer Hanoi?
Brian Letwin: So when started, there was no intention to scale it. It was a blog project that was something we would just trying to get information out there. My background, it was on the agency side working for companies like media comm. So I had a good experience on like the media buying side on agency side stuff. And I had worked for some publishers in the U S in New York before too. So I had, I had a pretty good idea of the industry, but again, it wasn’t like let’s make a business and, and do that. but as time went on and we got more popular and started making money, it became pretty apparent that there was the ability to expand whether in Vietnam to Hanoi or outside of Vietnam. and as we went through the exercises, branding a Hanoi-eer doesn’t sound great. You can’t, it’s difficult to use culturally. We’ll just leave it there. Hanoi and Saigon are not really, there’s, there are political issues at play and maybe political is too strong of a word, but certainly there’s weight, there’s culture..
Granger Whitelaw: there’s culture, differences and, there really are, I think people realize that. And, and I think that divide is still there to large degree is, is, is a, is coming together more and more. But from a branding standpoint, I can put it against you. So Saigoneer started off as what it was, but then you decided to come up with another brand, Urbanist, that you take to Singapore, Taipei, Cambodia… Where are you going with it?
Brian Letwin: So first off was Hanoi’s. so it was like you’re saying, kind of fill in the blank brands, so urbanist and then put a city so you want to keep it hyper-local. But urban is definitely describes the type of content that we make, which is urban focused millennial stuff. Sure. So the general plan for the next two or three years would be, with some things I can’t talk about too much, but the ones I can would be Taipei. So urbanist Taipei – cool – and Urbanist Singapore are what we’re currently fundraising
Granger Whitelaw: two super modern cities
Brian Letwin: two super modern cities, Taipei a bit less. It’s really in a sweet spot because it’s super developed but not to the degree in terms of expense and cultural ramifications of places like South Korea or Japan, which sacrificed a lot of social equity to get to their level of development in Taiwan. However they did it struck a really nice balance over the last 20 years
Granger Whitelaw: and people from Hong Kong, other places going to Taipei. It’s got a good mix blend culture.
Brian Letwin: Yeah. Got a West coast vibe. You have West coast U S vibe to it too. It’s really chilled out.
Granger Whitelaw: That’s cool. Wow. How exciting for you.
Brian Letwin: Yeah. Well we just got the, the, the key here is to, to get money to do this.
Granger Whitelaw: So if people are listening to this and they’re investors, which there are many, how would they invest in Saigoneer?
Brian Letwin: simply they would shoot me an email, Brian@saigoneer.com and take on the conversation
Granger Whitelaw: Brian@saigoneer.com , accepts checks, credit card, wire transfer,
Brian Letwin: cash. Yeah. All, all of the things..
Granger Whitelaw: That’s great. That’s exciting you’re raising money. I, I understand. I think you told me that you had done an earlier raise years ago and obviously you put that money to good use. So a certainly a solid investment for people to look at.
Brian Letwin: we’re profitable.
Granger Whitelaw: Yeah. You’re profitable. Hey, we’re really yet like an internet company that’s profitable today. Crazy, crazy sauce. Well, that’s really neat. I really appreciate you taking your time to come here. I, I enjoy this, online article & publications that you put out there. it really does guide a lot and is very informative. I don’t know how you create so much content with the staff. You have, you have a pretty small staff, don’t you?
Brian Letwin: Probably our best wildcard or innate skill set of Alberto and I mean we’re good at other things as well, but was pretty doing a pretty good job identifying human resources. So hiring the right people as everybody who listens and runs a business knows is more or less the key to running a sustainable business. If not that, then don’t even bother. So we’ve been very lucky to have a great staff and to retain them. So, you know, we have four full time editorial staff for just Saigoneer on the English side of it. We have two Korean staff who are doing the Saigoneer Korean version
Granger Whitelaw: and why Korea, not Japan or
Brian Letwin: well we thought those were the two considerations, when we started doing demographic research about two years ago to figure out which one to do and talking to clients as well and saying, all right, if you had the choice of, of advertising against a Korean audience or a Japanese audience, both wanted, everybody wanted both, but resounding Korean.
Brian Letwin: for the client side it was, they come and spend more money. They also have families. They’re long-term residents here in Vietnam to their district seven and they’re, you know, they live here. they’re ex-pats, whereas a lot of the Japanese are, business folks, you know, single men coming here to do that. And if you are a Japanese restaurant on Le Than Tho street, that probably is your demographic that you’re going for. Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean, if you see guys who have the names on the Saki bottles, like they go there every night and just sit down for four or five hours, eat, probably drop, you know, 200 bucks and just drink and they sit next to each other — and Japanese culture.— That’s what it is and it’s great and that’s wonderful in its own way. And I like doing that every now and then as well when I have a late plan
Granger Whitelaw: as long as you’re not paying – hahaha
Brian Letwin: And then also just from a pure number standpoint, there are numbers are not…well.., there’s no way to know what the real numbers are. But best figures are about 80,000 Koreans living in Saigon and about 20,000 of those in Hanoi. And then there are about 15,000 Japanese (in all Vietnam). So just a much bigger market. There was no question.
Granger Whitelaw: I think the Korean market It’s a great market. So I think you’re spot on there. Everybody listening out there. There’s also a podcast, the Saigoneer does. So you can go to dot com you can read about arts and culture or you can explore what’s going on in the city, food and beverage or learn about the society and heritage and listen to their podcast. It’s a really cool podcast. I listened to it. I think it’s rated one of the top five or 10 or something in the country. Maybe it’s number one, I don’t know. But, but it’s really cool and congratulations on that also.
Brian Letwin: Thanks. Yeah, you can find it on all the major podcast, Spotify and Apple music and all that kind of stuff as well.
Granger Whitelaw: So listen to Saigoneer
Brian Letwin: Yeah, you won’t hear my voice on it. Luckily.
Granger Whitelaw: Brian, thanks so much. We’ll wrap it up for today. I really appreciate you coming in and, and hopefully we’ll have you back.
Brian Letwin: Yeah, my pleasure.
Granger Whitelaw: Thank you out there for listening today. It’s Granger whitelaw with Lotus talks. Monday we will be talking about business lunch – Monday morning coffee, some ideas for how, why, where to go for business lunches. And, I think it’s a good subject for any business person out there. We’ll talk to you then. Until then, stay safe, stay clean, wash your hands and have a fabulous weekend! Granger Whitelaw: good – bye – talk soon.
The Lotus Talks is produced by The Vietnam Group and Hosted by Granger Whitelaw.
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