The past decade has seen Vietnam’s international profile elevate right along with its economy and the number of people who visit each year. Among those taking notice are the myriad of TV shows in western countries who covet shooting in Vietnam for an array of subject matter ranging from cuisine to travel to motor vehicles. While these shows are eager to film here they are often unable to navigate the paperwork and logistics necessary to do so on their own.
Cue Trinh Tien Trung. Known as a local fixer, Trung helps foreign production companies traverse the obstacle course. Born in Halong City, Trung attended Hanoi Open University and studied to be a professional tour leader. He spent five years studying and working in Hanoi for various travel companies specialising in adventure tours that included activities like cycling, kayaking and hiking.
Trung moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 2006 and opened up Le Pub, a popular watering hole in the Pham Ngu Lao area with two other partners: one Australian and one British. It was with that same organisation, who at the time was also involved in a media production company, that he cut his teeth working as a local fixer. After learning the ropes he struck out on his own and started his own company called Sen Travel. Sen Travel works with foreign production companies to arrange working permits, visas, location scouting, logistics and travel.
“This business can be a bit like fishing,” explains Trung. “Sometimes you just sit there with nothing going on and then all of a sudden you have work lined up for months with no breaks.” Stacking up the chores of procuring visas and permits while also trying to scout locations and arrange travel is a time consuming process that often requires Trung to delegate some of the work. It also requires integrity — when the stars come to Vietnam there is often immense local interest. One of Trung’s jobs is to prevent information from leaking on where celebrities are staying, what their filming schedule is and what locations are being used. Failure to keep the information under wraps can cause problems.
Sen Travel has some clients who are interested in making corporate and commercial videos, but the bulk of his clientele are western TV shows. Among them are Top Gear, BBC World News, Man vs Wild and many of Samantha Brown’s spots on the Travel Channel in the US as well as Dutch and Australian shows. Depending on which story Trung recounts, he will drift from a slight chuckle to head shaking frustration. Among his favourite recollections is an Australian production team who requested a helicopter for use the following day. It fell to Trung to explain that there was no earthly way to pull that off and that the complications of arranging permits would mean that inside of a week was the best for which they could hope.
The Bear Minimum
Sometimes, however, the fault is not with the lofty expectations of foreign production companies used to working under more film-friendly conditions, but with his preparations. The first time Trung was contracted to work with Man vs Wild he thought he was asked to make sure that there would be suitable food and water available in the jungle for a bear to survive on its own. Thinking that a bear was fully capable of finding suitable food he didn’t need to prepare much. Or so he thought. It wasn’t until the team arrived that he realised his mistake. The show’s star, Edward Michael Grylis, goes by the nickname Bear. “With such a busy schedule I don’t always get to research a show as much as I would like to.”
For those who harbour dreams of breaking into the business and starting their own venture Trung offers some advice. “Grow your list of contacts and travel extensively to get to know the country well.” He also encourages aspiring fixers to carry a camera and take a photo of anything that might be useful for a TV show, even if it’s years down the road.
“Being a local fixer can be quite frustrating at times,” says Trung. “I’m always under tremendous pressure to help these productions meet their schedules while dealing with the bureaucracy of getting things done in Vietnam.”
Despite the frustrations Trung enjoys what he does. He gets to work with interesting people like Brown, Grylis and Gordon Ramsey. He was also involved in one of the most lauded programmes to come out of Vietnam in the past few years — the Top Gear Vietnam Special. Presented by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, the three hosts drove from Saigon to Hanoi and then onto Halong Bay on a Minsk, a Honda Cub and a Piaggio Vespa. While the footage and the final edit provided viewers with a unique insight into this country, by all accounts, putting the show together was a nightmare.
But this is all part of the job, and as Trung says, “What I love most about what I do is that I get to show Vietnam to the world.”