Entertaining and informative podcasts for bedtime, road trips and more
Maybe it’s a vestige from podcasting’s older, more mature uncle radio broadcast that a listener might imagine their favorite show being created in a studio with everyone wearing arbitrarily large headphones speaking into microphones connected to audio engineering machines with hospital-level quality complexity.
It might be (pleasantly?) surprising, then, to learn that Saigoneer recorded the 74th edition of their weekly podcast in a living room-like space in their Pasteur Street office. Holding handheld, wired mics and notes on paper or their phones, the publication’s editorial staff puts their feet up and records their sprawling, banter-laden conversation easy with the marginalia of Vietnamese current events, like the recent practice of “one-star bombing” or flooding a derided business’ page with bad reviews.
“I remember one resort in Da Nang or something—correct me if I’m wrong,” said Deputy Editor Khoi Pham. “They were the target of a YouTuber. He complained or something?”
“Oh yeah,” replied Content Director Paul Christiansen.
“There are actual services you can hire to destroy a page,” Pham said. “So when you have the desire to destroy Paul’s Facebook page…“
“I do have that desire,” writer Thi Nguyen responds to laughter from the other contributors.
It’s this, the meandering conversation with smart, witty people who know something that has popularized podcasts since they were debuted in 2004. The last couple of years have seen a wave of podcast emerge from creators in Saigon, which already has a nice array of personal blogs and publications that keeps people abreast of conversations happening within the city. There are around 10 currently active, with show durations of nearly an hour apiece, they are also a significant time commitment.
Where to start? Check out our selection of Saigon’s podcasts below.
The Bureau Asia
There’s certainly a lot of ink spilled in Saigon over who has the best cocktail and you’ll have to be pretty committed to that conversation to find this podcast enjoyable. This is a podcast mostly focused on food and beverage happenings while drawing in some noteworthy voices like heritage architect Dr. Hoanh Tran and former Shri manager-turned-cocktail guy and artist Richie Fawcett.
What Works: Dining and drinking have paramount importance for the relatively well-heeled and time-rich foreign population living in Saigon. It can be hard to keep up with what’s new on the scene if you’re just seeing pictures of new places. The Bureau Asia has value in bringing to light new venues and bringing some thoughtful food criticism.
What Doesn’t: It’s long. The episode I listened to came in at about 45 minutes and could have been half that with better interviewing and more control from the hosts. Also, the hosts have an odd sense of humor that borders on cringey. The seventh episode opens with a joke about one of the panelists paying for sex. Expect to hear people laugh at their own bad jokes as you might not.
Creators in Saigon
Dana Drahos is a US national living in Ho Chi Minh City who speaks with (mostly) female creatives living in the city. Guests have included Frances Fraser-Reid, the owner of easily one of the most interesting Saigon-based Instagram accounts @so_theadventurebegins, and Millette Stambaugh, a blogger and creative who found her creative purpose in Saigon. Creators in Saigon is show that deserves a listen if nothing else for its reminder that this is a special place where people are doing special things.
What Works: Drahos has an easy demeanor with people and doesn’t hurry them along. The last episode she produced was with a self-described “empath,” someone who has higher than normal empathy for others. It’s a topic that would wilt under the wrong circumstances but is explored with grace under Drahos’ care. There an unhurried naturalness to the conversations she has with her guests that shows her charm and skill as a podcast host.
What Don’t: Stambaugh apologizes for telling a long story that establishes her biography. It’s not her fault, she’s responding to a vaguely worded signal that it’s her turn to talk: “Jump on in,” the host asks leading to a minutes-long, meandering response from Stambaugh. Drahos has a network and talent for finding interesting guests. To bring the show up to the next level, she’ll need to figure out how to prompt her guests better and exercise more control of the audio product. Outlining the conversation beforehand, setting a firm time budget and studying other podcast hosts.
Seven Million Bikes
Host Niall Mackay’s Scottish accent produces some unusual sounding English (to my American ear), but it’s nothing you can’t get used to after a few minutes. There’s also plenty of runways to take off from: these podcasts are generally between 45 minutes to an hour-long. What’s Mackay doing with this time? Hm, it’s hard to tell at first. In the two-parter (an hour and a half total) he has with Genderfunk empress Ricardo “Esta Ricardo” Glencasa, they talk about accents and what time the drag queen woke up before getting into a discussion about the drag queen troupe itself about eight minutes in. Long time listeners of Mackay’s podcast will recognize that as his preferred manner of dialogue: a wandering, slow walk up to a topic of substance. After he gets warmed up, Mackay is good at digging into topics and asking important questions to get what he needs from his guests, like when he spoke to journalist Sen Nguyen about her coverage of sexual violence and the dearth of sex education in Vietnam.
What Works: When the show stagnates, Mackay is generally good about moving things along. He usually does one-on-one interviews and his questions are good at pacing things correctly, typically. Mackay has a clear understanding of how to interview and what to ask to get a worthwhile response.
What Doesn’t: The show is long, too long in my opinion (much too long in my honest opinion). Cut the small talk. Some of that length comes from Mackay “warming up” and easing his guests in. Do we need to hear comedian Vu Minh Tu explain that her name is a guy’s name? It’s cute and fine as an appetizer, but we certainly don’t need followup questions on it or attempts at jokes made on it. These are things done for the sake of small talk. In this and other podcasts, there is often quite a bit of small talk passing for listenable content that requires either a patient listener or stronger editing. I prefer the latter, personally.
This podcast isn’t quite a perfect compliment to their editorial product. Reporting at Saigoneer is smart and in-depth, but the podcast product is looser and laid back and showcases the personalities of the writers. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you’re after. There are interesting Vietnamese cultural insights occasionally revealed and some events hit, but the show is clearly about something else: at times, gentle ribbing between the contributors or, as in their pre-Tet episode, food criticism on Lunar New Year cuisine.
What Works: These are smart people who know their stuff. Certain moments do pop in the audio, moments that would only happy between intelligent friends who are very comfortable with one another. You’re never going more than a few minutes without some lol-worthy moments or some nugget of previously unknown info being fed to you.
What Doesn’t: It’s a podcast product that’s very comfortable with itself. Occasionally, they’ll offer a great interview, like music blogger Thuc Dang who spoke about his highly essential publication on local music of merit titled Vietnam’s Next Top Bitches. But outside of that, it’s just the Saigoneer staff generally talking in an unstructured way that friends do. You have to really like that itself to stay with the podcast as the conversation can sometimes be unfocused and will shift tone quickly from informational to comical and back again. It’s more relaxed than the median podcast product and perhaps more relaxed than it has to be.