Brian Letwin (right) and Alberto Prieto (left), the brains behind Saigoneer, a website focussing on all things Saigon, discuss how their six-month-old site started from a coincidence and has steadily grown to become a local source to be reckoned with. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Lee Starnes.
How did Saigoneer start?
Letwin: It started because I had way too much free time on my hands. I’m from New York, where there are a lot of locally focused news aggregators, and I saw a need for that here. Originally I was going to start it as a blog, but as I started talking to people it became apparent that it could be something bigger. I had known Alberto for about a year at that point and unbeknownst to myself, he had registered a website called Saigoneers. So independently I had Saigoneer and he had Saigoneers and we melded the two together. Our skills complemented each other perfectly, because he’s a tech guy and I’m a content guy. Basically, every point where I was weak, he was strong, and vice versa.
Who is a Saigoneer?
Prieto: Everyone who lives in this city and is interested in the background and the culture is a Saigoneer. We are just two more [Saigoneers] who are trying to shed some light on Saigon
What is your goal with Saigoneer?
Prieto: To tell cool and interesting stories about Saigon. For me it’s also about telling people what is going on, where to go, and interesting events. With our original content, what makes us different than others is that we try to have a voice in the articles. We try to keep the authors’ opinions.
Letwin: We really wanted to position ourselves not as an expat website — it is by default because it’s in English and a lot of the content is going to be interesting to expats — but it’s more about exploring the city. In Saigon, there is so little information, especially in English. What does exist is in Vietnamese and French, and even then it’s hardly comprehensive. So that’s part of it, too. It’s telling these stories that you have to dig for, to get a better context for the city that we live in
Prieto: We get a lot of feedback from readers, even from local people, who say we are talking about things they didn’t know. That is great motivation for us going forward. Right now we are digging through history and telling stories. In the future, we want to promote the culture scene and events too.
Letwin: It’s not about making a profit-generating thing. It is important that it makes money so we can make it better, but the goal here is not to make a lot of money.
Prieto: It’s more romantic. It’s about the love of Saigon.
Right now you are relying on unpaid contributions, who is submitting articles?
Letwin: He’s Spanish and I’m American, so we can write about cool things, but at the same time we’re limited in scope. We don’t want to write stuff that we’re not comfortable writing about, so we rely on other contributors and friends and connections to write about their expertise. The contributions are getting stronger and stronger. We’re happy to be getting a lot of Vietnamese authors and I’m surprised by how solid their writing is. The ideas are really strong.
Doesn’t the name Saigoneer limit you to Ho Chi Minh City?
Letwin: The scale of the site is Asia. That’s as macro as it goes. It goes Saigon, Vietnam, Asia. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of hilarious shit that comes out of North Korea and China and Japan. So I want to be able to cover that stuff. Asian culture hops from country to country. Something may be hot right now in Japan, and it might be here in two months or two years. Plus, with Vietnam in general there is so much connectivity to other countries. Here the connectivity between all the countries and cultures is so intertwined, and it’s fun to look at that.
Right now you are mainly doing news aggregation?
Letwin: The news is about 30 percent, history and in-depth articles are about 30 or 40 percent and the rest comes from our arts and culture editor and food and beverage editor. News aggregation is definitely going to stay part of the mix, but we’re trying to make it less as time goes on.
Some argue aggregators piggyback off of traditional news sites or even steal their web traffic. How do you see it?
Letwin: As long as you backlink to the source and make it really clear that you didn’t write this on your own, internet people are really happy to get the traffic from our site. Initially I reached out to a lot of local sites to let them know we are using their stuff. If we had a full-time staff, then we would do more original content.
How can Saigoneer succeed where local and expat print publications have not?
Letwin: The first thing is timeliness. We don’t rely on a monthly schedule. If something happens an hour before, we can write about it right after and not wait to print. Two, it’s open. We want to have a lot of different voices. We want Vietnamese writers, we want people to write in their own style. We don’t give directions, we tell people to do it the way they want to do it. The value is in the multitude of voices. That’s something that’s special. We’re not limited by space as well. We have complete flexibility.