In this article, Eilis Williams explores the highlights and pitfalls of filming in Vietnam and suggests how enterprising groups in the tourism industry could offer their expertise. She talks to Trung Trinh of Local Fixer Vietnam to tap his knowledge and experience after a decade in the business.
Mountains that touch the heavens – check; coastline bejeweled with limestone rising from the water – check; abundant sites of untouched natural beauty – check; clear blue skies and warm weather – check. Most of the time.
Vietnam has so much to offer as a backdrop for filming awe-inspiring movies. Photo credit: Bien Nguyen
Vietnam has so much to offer as a backdrop for filming awe-inspiring movies that the audience will remember the scenery long after the plot. It also has a gap in the market for savvy travel and tourism companies to get involved as Hollywood starts to notice Vietnam.
So what does a film crew working on location need? First and foremost they need access: someone to show them the places only a knowledgeable local would know to set stunning scenes. They also need transportation, local know-how, and access to conveniently placed accommodation. Who better to help with all this than the tourism professionals working up and down the country?
Tour operators have the knowledge of the landscape to rival anyone, teamed with logistical skills, and contacts with access to transport and accommodation – throw in fluency of the native language and a proficiency in English and it’s a perfect package.
A golden opportunity is opening for tour operators and tour guides to double up as fixers.
As Kong: Skull Island projects the wonder of Vietnam onto the silver screen and exposes millions of people to new possibilities for travel and filmmaking, a golden opportunity is opening for tour operators and tour guides to double up as fixers to work alongside location scouts and provide the services a crew on location might need.
Many of the problems that arise when filming in Vietnam are below, as well as justifications as to why players in the industry are in the best position to organize and troubleshoot.
Using the internet to find a seemingly perfect backdrop for a story to unfold helps with the scouting process, but working in a country with unreliable weather could throw a spanner in the works. Trung Trinh of Local Fixer Vietnam said: “The location is the most important thing; many people would only research online before arriving and conditions on the day could be very different to the pictures they’ve seen. This would completely change the theme and mood for the scene. They need to find the right fixers to help.”
Weather is less predictable in Vietnam than it is in other countries. Photo credit: Bien Nguyen
Weather is less predictable in Vietnam than it is in other countries, such as Thailand, and the seasons vary from city to city. Planning based on the season helps, but last-minute weather related changes are sometimes necessary. Unpredictable weather has been plaguing tourism professionals for decades, and they have become adept at rearranging tours with only a moment’s notice. These same skills can be utilized for when a production team runs into trouble.
The bulk of filming for Kong: Skull Island took place in Quang Binh, the beauty of which speaks for itself. However, it wasn’t the easiest place to film because the infrastructure to support hundreds of extra visitors hasn’t yet been developed. There are no hotels in the national park and nowhere close by was big enough to accommodate the whole team so the crew was divided between around 30 small guesthouses.
The bulk of filming for Kong: Skull Island took place in Quang Binh. Photo credit: Bien Nguyen
A local fixer or tour operator would be able to advise large groups on where to find hotels to not only accommodate the whole crew, but also with the facilities needed for the team to work after the end of the filming day.
Another challenge is arranging transportation. In many parts of Vietnam, trucks, buses and even limousines can be hired, but options are limited in more remote parts of the country. Indeed in 2015 Good Morning America broadcast live from Son Doong Cave via satellite – an impressive feat that required a helicopter from Hanoi as nothing was available closer to the national park.
Players in the tourism industry have easy access to transportation companies, but they also have contacts with more unusual transportation that may be necessary for the project to be successful, such as the seaplane in Halong Bay or river cruise ships in the Mekong Delta.
Players in the tourism industry have contacts with more unusual transportation. Photo credit: Bien Nguyen
One of the main challenges to filming here is getting relevant permits to work. Not only does a crew need visas and a filming permit, it must also submit a filming schedule with dates, locations and accommodation, as well as permission from each province in which it wants to film. These permits can take between one and five months for a feature film or up to a month for a documentary after all the paperwork is submitted. Moreover, a crew must be accompanied by a press officer form the Ministry for Foreign Affairs for the entire duration.
Daunting to most, this form-filling is another task that a local fixer can handle. Trinh said: “Before coming to shoot here crews need a very clear plan and shooting schedule including everywhere they will film and everywhere they will stay in advance, which most foreigners don’t know about so aren’t prepared.”
Trinh added that the system has become stricter in recent years, though the process itself is more straightforward than it was 10 years ago.
Trinh warns that some people offering their services as fixers to work with filming crews lack the skills and knowledge to do the job efficiently. It’s obviously tempting to make money when the opportunity arises but a botched job could have serious implications while the industry is still so young.
Just as a bad experience as a tourist will put off return guests, an unprofessional approach to working as a fixer could damage not only an individual’s reputation but that of Vietnam as a filming destination. With many people getting involved in the tourism industry Trinh said that there are some short-sighted operators that could put some visitors off returning.
“It’s not good for tourism,” he said. “Many tour guides are only thinking short-term instead of what the market could do in 10 years and I think filming will go the same way. Locals should be helping tourists and film crews to have a good reputation so people will come back again. Foreigners are fishing in a massive pool: some guides are doing good but many aren’t.”
“Locals should be helping tourists and film crews to have a good reputation so people will come back again.”
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This content is also available in: Vietnamese