Welcome to another installment of Wanderlust Fridays, meant to inspire more journeys and adventure all around (even if its just armchair travel). I am so excited to feature an interview with James Pham of Fly Icarus Fly – a travel blog which I stumbled upon in my quest for neat things to do in Vietnam. I had the tab for Fly Icarus Fly open for weeks as I made my way from one article to the next, admiring James’ thoughtful articles and beautiful photography. So, here we go!
HTL: Greetings, fellow traveler, explorer, seeker of adventures! Tell us a little about yourself –
I’m a travel writer and lifestyle magazine editor based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I grew up in Virginia, USA but have been living in SE Asia (Cambodia, Thailand and now Vietnam) for the past 13 years. I also do editing work for a luxury hotel chain. Both of my part-time jobs allow me to work from home, so I have the flexibility to drop everything and go, which is really why I moved back to Vietnam and took a less conventional job. My work with the magazine (www.oivietnam.com) allows me access to people and places I normally wouldn’t have. I’ve interviewed artists and celebrities, stayed at amazing hotels and eaten slap-me-into-next-Tuesday good food. For example, this month, I had to eat and write about four different desserts (including a to-die-for raspberry chocolate mousse overlooking the 1897 Saigon Opera House and a Vietnamese espresso served inside an almond cookie cup) and then head to the Mekong Delta to stay at a newly opened Indochine-themed resort right on the banks of the Mekong River. I know. Life is hard! After I file the articles for the magazine, I’ll put a more personal spin on my experiences at my blog, www.flyicarusfly.com
HTL: And how about your most recent adventure?
One of my favorite recent trips was tracing the Cham culture throughout Vietnam. I had seen the Cham towers just outside of Nha Trang many years before, but dismissed them as being a long-gone civilization, not unlike the Angkorians who built Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But I came to find out that the descendants of the Cham people (who ruled parts of Vietnam between the 2nd – 19th centuries AD) are still scattered in communities along coastal Vietnam. So I set out to visit the amazing Cham Sculpture Museum in Danang, the UNESCO-listed My Son Temple Complex outside of Hoi An and then attended the Kate Festival in Phan Rang. I had been to most of these places before, but this trip was simply mesmerizing because I was able to learn more about these people who are my countrymen but who look nothing like me and who speak a different language. Most of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities live in the highlands, but the Cham are unique in that their villages are side-by-side with the Vietnamese. I was also able to speak to researchers and Cham leaders about the cultural threats the Cham are facing as they’re becoming increasingly integrated into Vietnamese society.
HTL: Define: expat
Scary. I just had a conversation with another journalist last week about why it is White people are called “expats” when they settle in another country while everyone else is usually called an immigrant. Is an expat simply a “better class” of immigrant? For my job, I experience and write about the luxury lifestyle available here in vibrant Saigon. But as an expat / immigrant, I love wandering through the many alleyways in Saigon, eating street food, learning the textures and meaning behind the Vietnamese language and getting out to the countryside with my camera. My blog is a schizophrenic mix of luxury and quotidian life in Vietnam.
HTL: Are you the type of traveler who likes to get up and go at a moments notice, or do you prefer to daydream, plan, and prepare for your trips?
I think both. When I’m writing a travel article, I need to be ultra prepared – contacting sponsors, planning tours, doing interviews, brainstorming a theme to my trip… On a recent trip to Bangkok (known for its many “adult” pleasures), I decided to focus on the lighter side – fun things to do based on the child in all of us. Since I only had a few days, I needed to plan it all out but it turned out to be a blast. I stayed in a chic treehouse, had tea with about a hundred teddy bears, went to an art gallery dedicated to the selfie, got served dinner by a robot and went firefly hunting. But when I’m traveling for myself, I tend to wing it more. I’ll always have my first night’s accommodation booked and maybe a general idea of what I’d like to see, but if something serendipitous comes up, I’m all for that. That’s the concept behind my website, actually. In mythology, Icarus was a traveler who got off the “beaten path” and enjoyed moments of giddiness in the sun. (Yes, he plummeted to his death, but we’ll just leave that part out…)
HTL: Tell us about the time you laughed, and laughed, and laughed on one of your travel adventures…
I love to laugh. A lot. Whether it’s out of surprise, wonder or just weirdness. I was in Nairobi a few years ago, at the Giraffe Center. We were on the observation platform feeding the giraffes little food pellets when I decided to put a few on my lips as a joke. I think you can see by the photo that I was clearly not expecting what came next. (Fun fact: Giraffes have 20 inch [50 cm] long tongues. Sadly, something I now know by experience.)
HTL: Quick – one destination that you would go back to in a heartbeat, and one that you hope never to return to
Istanbul for its sheer, fairytale-like beauty or Barcelona for its laid back vibe (city beach! tapas! beautiful people! What’s not to love?). And never go back to? That’s so much harder. I’m going to say Seoul because when I was there, it was cold and I had a cold and that probably unfairly colored my view of the city. But it’s been more than 10 years now, so I may need to give it another chance. Besides, I loves me some Korean food.
HTL: What is one thing that you absolutely must pack?
I love my NomadPlus. It houses a regular Apple wall charger but adds an internal battery so it’s basically a space saving miracle. I use it to charge my iphone and ipad and then have a spare battery for the road, all-in-one. Can’t remember how many times I wasn’t able to take a picture towards the end of the day because my phone was out of juice. As a travel writer, I’ll always have to bring my camera, iPad with keyboard and laptop, so any possible way to cut down on what I have to bring with me is a definite plus.
HTL: How do you record your trip memories?
First of all, I take a ton of photos, most of which never see the light of day. But better a photo than to have to notate hours of operation, prices and names of places. Then I’m always on my iPad or phone taking notes and doing interviews with a Bluetooth keyboard for speed. But whenever I can, I love old school notebooks. I’m currently in love with Bull & Stash notebooks: thick oil-leather covers, sturdy metal hardware that holds in the refillable art-quality paper ― it transports me back to simpler times, when travel equated to romance and people took the time to handwrite a journal or stop and sketch a scene.
HTL: Camera of choice, and one piece of advice on capturing the perfect travel photograph
Ugh. I seriously do not know. It’s a Canon DSLR something. That’s seriously all I know. People see my photographs and assume I’m a photo geek, but nothing could be further from the truth. A friend got it for $800 from Costco (including two kit lenses!) a few years ago and I bought it from him for half that. I went on a two-month African safari that featured photography lessons and also did a course with a Bangkok documentary photographer which completely encouraged me to use all manual settings. I have an eye for composition, but I’m lost when it comes to technical matters. The flash doesn’t even work on my camera but somehow I manage to get good shots. (Insert link to Lightroom here, haha!)
HTL: Your next travel destination
Other than Chiang Mai in November, I have nothing planned. It’s surreal. I’m sure I’ll do small trips within Vietnam for work writing travel articles or resort reviews. But I love the anticipation of being able to purchase plane tickets on a whim and going wherever my heart (and cheap flights) lead me.