My Debut On Vietnamese Television
“Lights! Camera! Action!” That may well be what the director said to us but since she spoke only in Vietnamese, I can’t be sure. We stood in front of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, awaiting our cue. To my right was our charming host, Tuyet Vinh, dressed beautifully in a bright red Áo Dài. To her right was Victor, a Russian “actor” dressed in casual summer clothes. On cue, we began our deliberately slow walk in front of the church. Tuyet Vinh spoke to the camera and I concentrated, perhaps too intently, on my feet. Walk slowly, I told myself. Look interested. Should I look at the camera? Should I look at Tuyet Vinh? Should I look at the church? I should really phone my agent. I should really HAVE an agent. Shouldn’t I? So began my career in Vietnamese Television.
I hate being in front of the camera. I always have. Anytime there’s a camera on the street and a guy with a microphone trying to interview random strangers, I turn my head and walk quickly by. Just a month ago when I was leaving Tokyo, in the airport in Narita, I saw a film crew eyeing my up with the intent of asking me questions in front of the camera. I pretended I was in a hurry (even though I was 3 hours early for my flight, as usual) and they left me alone. Bullet dodged.
So when I was asked to appear in a Vietnamese television show, my instinctive reply was, “No!” Or more accurately, “Oh hell no!” But then I thought about it for a few minutes. What’s the point of all this traveling if not to try new things? To push myself a bit? I read all these travel blogs where the author is living with a clan of pygmies in Papua New Guinea or trekking through the Himalayan Mountains with the aid of well-trained Sherpas — my travels seem timid by comparison. I decided it was time to throw caution to the wind, get over my fear of public speaking and just do this thing. And hey, it’s Vietnamese Television — if I mess up, no one I know will even watch it.
I wasn’t really sure what was expected of me. I was told I would be “playing” a tourist (well within my dynamic range as an actor) and would be shown around various attractions in the city, then asked to comment on them. It sounded easy enough. And the scheduled filming date was only a few days away so I didn’t have too much time to worry or back out.
The day of the shoot was a typically hot and sunny Saigon day, even at 8:30 in the morning. We met in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in the city center. I had seen the church from the outside but on the days I had visited the building was closed to the public. So I was looking forward to seeing it.
The camera crew pulled up in a van and everyone got out. We all greeted each other and then the crew unpacked the equipment. The host, Tuyet Vinh, was wearing the traditional Vietnamese dress, the Áo Dài, which you’ll see around the city here and there, mostly this time of year, Tet, the new year holiday. I met the other tourist, Victor, a Russian guy who had been in Vietnam for 9 years and spoke the language quite well. That turned out to be a useful skill, as no one but the host spoke any English at all.
We filmed a bit outside of the church, Victor and I walking with the host as we approached the church, introducing what it was we were about to see. The church was beautiful and we were given a private tour by the head priest, though all in Vietnamese. Still, we were able to explore the whole church, a luxury not afforded other tourists.
There’s a real power to being in front of the camera. Everyone around you looks on with curiosity and wonder, even awe. I’ll admit it went to my head a little. I developed an attitude, like “Hey, get out of the way, tourists! We’re filming here!”
Flashbacks of childhood came to me. Christmas, birthdays, and summer vacations with my father and his 8mm “movie camera.” He would film some historic site like the Grand Canyon, and then pan to us, the family, and we would smile awkwardly and wave.
Inside the church, the camera crew put a microphone on the head priest and we all walked around the church as he spoke. It is a truly magnificent structure and I wish I had been able to understand what the priest was saying about it. Then it was time for my first question. This was it, the moment of truth. Would I choke? Tuyet Vinh and I walked (slowly) in front of the camera then she turned to me and said, “So, how does this compare to churches in your own country?” I was petrified. I tried to think about churches in America and I believe I managed to say something reasonably coherent, perhaps even insightful, comparing it to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
The younger of the two priests spoke English well, having studied in Boston. We chatted for a bit about the church, religion and life in general. He then showed us the church’s organ, which he was very excited about. It didn’t take much convincing for him to remove the dust covers, take a seat and play some music for us. Beethoven’s Ode To Joy sounded wonderful.
Outside during a break, I had a chat with Tuyet Vinh. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” I confided in her. “So please feel free to give me advice.”
“Oh, you’re doing great,” she replied. “Most people can’t say two words in front of the camera, they’re so scared.” Okay. I started to calm down a little, to feel a bit more confident.
Our next location was just across the street to an open plaza with a large water trough and a woman selling bird seed. Looking up, I noticed a flock of pigeons in a nearby tree. Apparently they wait there for tourists. Once we spread some bird seed around, they came down in a swoop and landed all around us. Tuyet Vinh showed us how they will eat out of your hand. If you raise your hands up, they will sit on your fingers or wrist and peck at the seeds in your hand. I’ll admit I was not as comfortable as the other two. They’re just pigeons, but they have sharp claws and beaks. I was also concerned for my wardrobe, especially when they flew overhead.
Acting notes: next time smile more, and stay closer to the group. I’m learning.
Next, we packed up the equipment and headed to Bến Thành Market, a huge tourist attraction nearby. Before entering the market, Tuyet Vinh stood on the island in the center of a giant traffic circle, surrounded by beautiful flowers and well-manicured shrubs, prepping the viewers for what we were about to experience. Then with cameras rolling again, Tuyet Vinh, Victor and I crossed the street to the market, trying to look casual and calm while wading through 6 lanes of quickly moving cars, trucks, busses and motorbikes.
The market was crowded and I was starting to feel a bit self-conscious with all the attention we were getting. We were filmed eying up souvenirs, brightly colored dolls and costume jewelry. Then Tuyet Vinh turned to the camera to explain about Tet traditions, how candy was a common gift. We stopped by a candy stall and sampled dried fruit. After that, I was given my only real prompt. I was told I would be asked what I thought of the market and there were certain highlights I was supposed to hit in my reply, mostly how everyone spoke English. I did my best but I was nervous with the crowds watching me.
The cameras were shut off and we took a break for lunch, a quick bowl of noodles and iced tea in the market before heading back to the van. We stopped a few times for Tuyet Vinh to speak to the camera about Tet, with flowers and handicrafts in the background. We also filmed Tuyet Vinh speaking in front of Diamond PLaza, an upscale shopping center with a large Tet display out front. The security guards gave us a hard time at first, since filming without permission is not allowed but in the end we were able to get the footage we needed. Then back in the van a long ride to Binh Quoi Village, a large multi-use park far from the city center.
At the park, there was a company “team building” event in progress, with the emcee speaking English. There are many multinational corporations doing business in Vietnam, most expats I’ve met working in them are Russian. But there are lots of Japanese workers as well, enough for a lively Japanese neighborhood in the city. These team building events are the sort of thing I loathe when forced to participate, but somehow here it seemed okay. Maybe because of the international aspect to it. It seems more cultural than corporate. While we were waiting for the crew to set up, we watched one of the events. There was a shallow pond where different teams from the company raced in shallow, overloaded row boats, several of them capsizing.
We then met the two chefs who would be preparing our dinner. They’re both internationally renowned chefs apparently and well-known in Vietnam. With the meal preparations underway and the film crew in place, we waited for our cue. Victor, Tuyet Vinh and I walked down the brick path leading up to the gazebo where the food was being prepared, waved a friendly hello and then walked around for a closer look. Victor and I were told to stand to one side while the camera mostly focused on Tuyet Vinh, the chefs and the food. The camera focused on us briefly as we were asked a few questions about the food.
The food being prepared was especially for Tet, so we focused on that, on the meaning of the ingredients, their symbolism. It was an awkward moment when I was asked if I had any questions and couldn’t think of a single one. Hey, give me a little preparation next time. Who’s running this show, anyway?
The food was prepared on a bamboo table in the middle of a walkway, decorated with flowers and incense. We were shown the ritual of lighting the incense, holding three sticks between our fingers and bowing three times before placing the sticks in the urn.
The camera filmed us eating briefly, enjoying the delicious meal that had been prepared for us. Then the camera shut off and we all ate the rest of the meal together. I was hungry after all the work and stress. After the meal, it was back in the van to return to the city center. This time to an affluent, tourist area in District 1. Filming on the street was difficult due to the large crowds and again I found myself thinking, “Get out of the way, tourists! Don’t you know who I am?” To wrap things up, we stood in front of the camera and lights one last time. Tuyet Vinh asked us what we thought about everything she had shown us. Again, I felt lost without direction but I did my best. I said that Tet was my favorite time of year in Vietnam, with the lights, the flowers, the food and the good mood everyone was in. Victor focused more on the breadth of the experience, the exclusive access to the church and the food prepared by the master chefs.
At the end of the day, I grabbed a cold beer to relax and reflect. Overall, it was an immensely gratifying experience. But exhausting: twelve hours of work for a 30 minute television show. I gained an enormous respect for people who do this for a living, on both sides of the camera. Tuyet Vinh says she films seven days a week. I can’t imagine that, but such are the demands of show business, I guess.
I worried about my performance but I most have done okay since I’ve been asked to do it again, next time at a location far outside of the city. I don’t know if I’ll be in Vietnam then but if I am, sign me up! I wonder if I can take acting classes in Saigon. I’ll have to call my agent.