Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Nature of Blogs: Some Parting Thoughts

It's time to put this beast to sleep. I've called my blog Six Months, but in fact I think I'm into my eleventh month if you include my first post last July before I left.

It's not like there isn't still material - I've still got piles of stories and experiences - but my writing has become more introspective since obviously Hanoi is inside my head no longer around me. More importantly though, my muse has fled. While in Hanoi I often had the odd experience of having my postings writing themselves in my head as if someone were feeding them to me. I don't feel that anymore, although I'm listening carefully; maybe I can find the muse hiding in some other corner of life here.

And so although I'm winding this blog down, who knows? Maybe I'll come out with another blog. If so, I'll be sure to post a quick note here with the referring address.

The truth is, the blog bug has bit me. Writing became a way for me to process what I was experiencing in Vietnam, but it was also an experience in itself. I discovered a virtual community of people engaged with trying to understand Vietnam. I continue to be an avid reader of Vietnam blogs. Although I never got around to creating a blogroll, I would have included Virtual Doug, Sticky Rice, Our Man in Hanoi, Noodlepie, and Xe Maybe. HanoiMark will continue to live in the comments sections of these and other Vietnam blogs.

Now that I am sitting at my desk back home, it's easy for me to wonder if I made a mistake in keeping my blog under wraps for so long. On the surface a blog may seem like an online journal - except for one major difference: a journal is personal and rarely has an audience, while a blog is a public medium and the idea of audience enters into its writing. I think the failure of so many blogs is that they are written as if they were mere personal diaries; they end up being impressionistic scrapbooks, like collections of notes to self.

Other blogs are have more in common with email; the readership in envisioned, but it's a specific audience. Early on I thought my blog would be an efficient substitute for broadcast emails keeping friends and family informed. This I think is the limited goal of so many travel (and family) blogs. There is an intended audience, but it reads as if the author were still filling in addresses in the TO: field. These blogs have little significance beyond those who personally know the author.

When I began writing I was very conscious of those I knew were reading my blog: friends, family and some coworkers back home. Early on I was concerned about how I could balance the demands of such different groups of people. At the same time I tried to keep the existence of my blog relatively quiet and limit my audience. For one thing, I still hadn't figured out how personal I wanted to get.

This strategy proved in vain as readers I didn't even know began to tune in. I think this is because somewhere along the line I had already abandoned the email analogy and started writing as if it mattered. I decided I would only write something when I felt I had a point. I was not travel blogging, and was not interested in posting mere descriptions or lists of places. Those things I would save for private emails when I felt the need. Instead I decided to post observations, reflections, a good story, anything I thought was a window into the culture. Once I began to write for a more general audience I became much more disciplined - not just in the writing process but in the choice of topics.

I don't know if I succeeded, but this is the peculiar potential of the blog, to become a kind of grassroots journalism, personal, engaged and yet disciplined. This is what Global Voices calls the "bridge blog", blogs that are rooted in personal experience and yet can speak to a much broader audience beyond its local context.

Although I wish I had done it earlier, opening up my audience came with certain risks. For one thing, although I adopted pseudonyms, I was still writing about people I knew and I feared them finding out. In any circumstance this would be awkward, but anyone who has read my entries about the dynamics of Vietnamese social groups (The Group, for instance) will know the value placed on confidence amongst friends in a society given to so much gossip, even when it comes to things we wouldn't consider particularly personal in the West. Furthermore, I was often writing about gay men who have more urgent reasons to keep their worlds separate. Consequently I tried not to write too personally about people I knew, even though there were some fascinating stories that were just begging to be told. Same things with pictures of people.

There were other constraints. I think anyone blogging in that part of the world probably has a nagging question about who out there is actually reading your stuff - and I don't just mean personal friends. Let's just say a little bit of self-censorship probably occurs. I'm not even talking about overtly political issues necessarily. It would have been a disaster on so many levels if my workplace had discovered me writing on workplace experiences. It would have entailed a loss of face and trust among other things.

Actually I suspect all serious bloggers probably face at least some of these constraints just by virtue of the fact that blogs are public. The freedom of the diary (even the email) is lost; what is gained is the potential to make your experiences speak to others. And to participate in virtual communities.

Speaking of communities, I'm very curious to know who my readers are. So I'll end off by inviting those of you who have been followed my blog (even just a little bit) to sign in the Comments field like a Guest Book. Or if you don't want to identify yourself, just sign it anonymously but with your whereabouts.

Since I can't guarantee I won't return with another blog, for now I'll say only Hen gap lai!

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Anonymous Jon said...

Well as someone who figured in a number of your postings, let me be the first to sign your "guest book".
You have enlightened us with your observations and your thoughts.
I look forward to your next venture in blogging ... hmmm ... something to do with finding and making authentic Viet cuisine perhaps?

4:27 PM

Blogger T said...

That's why I sometimes prefer blogging at Yahoo 360 (, for I can set restriction on the reader groups. As a matter of fact, it's the latest fad in Vietnamese online community, given there are far more Yahoo users than hotmail, blogspot, or so.

4:56 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mark:

And of course you know that I've been following your blog since day one - no matter what you find writing a blog has given you - it has certainly keep us connected while you were away and through your genuine writing style shows us what vietnam is like today.

Your friend,

11:01 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am also a fan in Texas, USA

2:50 PM

Anonymous S in TO said...

Dear Mark,
A little late since I can't be the first or fourth to respond to your request but here's my 2 cents worth. This is actually my first comment left for anyone in cyberspace. I must hate my kind of reader....never leaving a comment. But to my defense, I didn't know (until recently) that I can input a comment without having a blog account. Almost every service on the net forces you to register in order to participate.

I enjoyed reading your blog. It is a special gift in you sharing your experiences and insights in things that most of us might never get exposed to. I can certainly understand your dilema in what you can share and your own personal space and of course, respect your personal rights to choose not to share things that are just too personal. One can only hope and appreciate what you do choose to share and I, for one, do hope that you would post another type of blog in the near future.

Your friend,

12:40 PM

Anonymous Julie said...

hey there,

i came upon your blog probably weeks before you were set to leave HN, and enjoyed your unique insights and observations. writing is a powerful means of not only self-reflection but also allowing others into your experiences...thank you for sharing.

10:36 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:49 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ex-Hanoi-expat now in sydney

11:45 AM

Anonymous Virginia said...

Wow, I can't believe I just read your whole blog in the span of a work day morning. I should be ashamed of myself, especially since I work for the government. I was actually looking for some blogs to give me insight into what I will be expecting in Jan '07. My husband was offered a job by his brother, who's in Hanoi, and I was pretty much willing but not ecstatic from the beginning to have both of us move there for atleast two years. I did visit a month ago and didn't exactly fall in love w/Hanoi but wasn't offended by the idea either (except for the cockroach which crawled on my face the first night). This past week I've been thinking of all the things I'll miss about living in the States (DC to be exact) and all that I'll have to do before moving and in turn started to dread leaving. So this morning I looked for blogs about the expat experience to hopefully find some comfort and came upon yours. Thank you for providing a source of comfort and confidence for me. I'm determined to not be like those Austrailian Youth Ambassadors and move to Hanoi with an open-mind. Wish me luck!

2:03 PM

Anonymous Joe said...

Hi Mark!

I attended the Pot Luck gathering of the Toronto Long Yang Club where you offered a slide presentation and commentary about your time in Vietnam. The time went too quickly and I have just enjoyed reading your blog entries. One comment that stands out was your observation that most of the population have no first hand memory of the war and seemed to harbour no hostility towards the American people. The world has something to learn from these people. Growing up in the 50's and 60's the vietnamese people were "demonized" in every news account I can recall. Thank you!

1:38 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a Vietnamese living abroad and just found out about this blog a couple of hours ago and have managed to finish it thoroughly. I'm glad you loved Hanoi and the Vietnamese way of living and can really relate to your observations, especially the one about groups of friends. Very, very accurate. It was a good read Mark. Cheers!

7:06 PM

Anonymous r. streitmatter-tran said...

Thanks for your frank comment yesterday on my blog and i'm please to have discovered yours. If you find yourself in Saigon, please do let me know! The image of the motorbike seat math is so telling! Best, Rich

3:25 AM


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