Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen built the Lonely Planet empire on the back of their 1973 guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap, the story of their trip from London to Australia.
For nearly 40 years, the couple and their children traveled the world and grew their Australian-based business into the world’s largest independent guidebook publisher. In 2011, they completed the sale of Lonely Planet.
Tony, who turns 71 next month, is still traveling. He’s just finished his latest big trip, driving a vintage MG along the old Silk Road route from Bangkok to London, through Cambodia, Laos, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and then Turkey.
Despite his years of globetrotting, Tony has visited Vietnam only four times, in 1991, 1997, 1999 and 2005. He talks to AsiaLIFE’s Barbara Adam about his memories of Vietnam and his life of travel.
What do you remember about your first visit to Vietnam?
There was a big difference between Saigon and Hanoi. Saigon had hotels, cafes, restaurants, presumably hangovers from the American era. If there was a hangover in Hanoi it was from the Soviets. I think you could have counted the hotels on the fingers of one hand and I remember walking along a tree-lined street and thinking ‘wouldn’t a French-style street café be nice here?’
The other thing I remember clearly about the whole trip was how difficult everything was (a bit like China in the early days). You could fly places, if you could get a seat, but they didn’t want you travelling by bus and you needed a permit to go almost anywhere. Maureen and I eventually travelled north from Saigon to Hue with a very capable, friendly and well-informed driver-guide in a wonderful old Citroën and then flew from there to Hanoi.
Daniel Robinson, who researched Vietnam in that first Lonely Planet Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia guide (researched in 1990) ended up being arrested and deported to Bangkok towards the end of his research. He’d gotten a permit in Saigon to go somewhere in the north which the Hanoi authorities refused to recognise.
What are the most significant changes you’ve noticed since your first trip?
Just like China it’s gone from bureaucratic and difficult to straightforward and easy. You don’t need permits to go places, you can hop on any bus, train, or flight you want. There are hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes, everywhere. Easy.
PS – I’m amazed that Ho Chi Minh City-Hanoi is the sixth busiest air route in the world, Melbourne-Sydney at number three is the only route outside of Asia in the top 20. Nothing in the US or Europe rates at all.
The 1997 and 1999 visits were for very specific purposes. In 1997 I was working on a coffee table book titled Chasing Rickshaws with photographer Richard I’Anson and we went to Hanoi to tell the cyclo story, did a lot of riding around in cyclos, looking at the economics of riding or owning them, we even tracked down a cyclo manufacturer. Then in 1999 we did Rice Trails and looked at the rice business in the Mekong Delta area from Saigon, so a lot of talking with rice farmers, and looking at the rice business.
If you and your wife Maureen hadn’t found success with your early books, and you didn’t go on to found the world’s largest independent guide book publishing company, what job or jobs do you think you would have ended up doing? Is there a Tony Wheeler who is a nine-to-five accountant in an alternate universe?
I was an engineer in a previous lifetime, and worked as a car design engineer for two years. Then I went back to university, went travelling, started Lonley Planet and my life went off on a different tangent. But during my two engineering years I shared a flat in the British Midlands with another young engineer and he stayed in the car industry, went from Chrysler UK where we both worked, to Ford Europe, to Citroën in Paris, to BMW in Munich, to BMW Mini and Rolls-Royce in England. And then retired.
On the trip I’ve just done, driving from Bangkok to London in an old car, he joined me in Eastern Turkey and drove with me for the next three weeks through to England. So perhaps he’s my alternative life … if I hadn’t encountered my sliding door I might have done something similar?
Can you tell us a little about Planet Wheeler, and if there’s any plan to extend the foundation’s work into Vietnam?
The Planet Wheeler Foundation came out of the Lonely Planet Foundation, a percentage of LP’s profits went into that foundation, but when we sold LP we couldn’t say ‘oh you’ve bought a charitable foundation as well,’ so part of the money we got from the sale we put into funding PWF. We don’t seem to be doing a lot in Vietnam, we’re much more active in Cambodia, apart from Blue Dragon which we put a fair amount of money into last year.
Can you describe a typical backpacker from the 70s, when you and your wife were adventuring through Southeast Asia on a shoestring? How has the “typical backpacker” changed since then?
In some ways I think they haven’t changed at all, it seemed to me in Bangkok or Bali in 1972 or all through South-East Asia in 1974 that there were actually a lot of backpackers kicking around, although in fact the numbers were minuscule compared to the story today.
There wasn’t the same gap year or just ‘it’s vacation, let’s go somewhere’ element to it. Back then it seemed to us that everybody was on some great journey, on the Asia trail London-Kathmandu-Sydney or whatever. And, of course, the communication and information story is totally different, the fact that you can be in touch with anybody instantly and can find information and book things equally instantly makes modern travel very different.