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My Secret Mission: Why I Left Saigon to Write About Saigon

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

I went on a secret mission last month. I put all non-essential freelance work on hold, traveled to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, and rented an apartment in a city where I don’t know anybody. I did this because I needed to work on my book about … Saigon, where I live.

A fisherman's shack in Hanoi's Tây Hồ neighborhood.

A fisherman’s shack in Hanoi’s Tây Hồ neighborhood.

But Dave! Why would you go to Hanoi to write about Saigon?

Excellent question! Thank you for asking!

I started working on my book, about Saigon’s backpacker quarter and realities about the neighborhood that most tourists never notice, three years ago. I’ve had conversations with everyone from streetside noodle vendors and fortune tellers to heroin dealers and children who earn money by performing fire-swallowing acts. I’ve prowled through back alleys late at night, and uncovered the story of a grisly murder at a hotel where I used to sleep (which is now a bar that’s rumored to be haunted).

The research and interviewing phase was the fun part of writing this book. The hard part has been writing it. I’ve wrangled with the structure, questioned and re-questioned how much of my personal journey to include in the story, and even second-guessed my own credibility in spite of intensive research.

Snacks for sale on Bùi Viện Street.

Snacks for sale on Bùi Viện Street.

When I moved from Singapore to Vietnam a year ago, I thought, “Great. Now that I live in Saigon, I can really focus on the book. I can go back to Bùi Viện Street anytime I want, to fill in the gaps.”

But I didn’t do that.

Instead, I took on new work projects to distract me from the hard work I needed to do on my book. I justified these projects because they came with immediate profits – but I began to neglect a story I am passionate about telling.

My unfinished snarl of a manuscript nagged at me on a daily basis and I was doing all I could to put it off.

Writer’s block afflicts all writers from time to time. The larger the project, the more intimidating it can feel. (Ironically, I even procrastinated on my book by creating two online courses on how to overcome writer’s block and writer’s procrastination – yet I wasn’t following my own advice.)

Eventually, it dawned on me: When we are terribly ill, we must cancel everything and check into a hospital. Things we thought were important no longer are.

With my book at risk of dying, I needed to go away, sequester myself from distractions, and perform literary resuscitation.

I bought a plane ticket to Hanoi, rented an apartment, and told myself that for the next month, writing my book would be my primary job.

Laptop at Tay Ho, Hanoi, Vietnam

When a project stalls, a change of scenery can help you get it back on track.

Settling in and locating productive places to write took a few days. Then came more second-guessing of the outline and structure. But once I got rolling, I really got rolling.

In my two most productive weeks, I cranked out more than 21,000 words – not bad when I’m shooting for a final product of 60,000 to 80,000 words (and already had around 30,000 written).

Those are gangly words, mind you. My rough draft will be in excess of 100,000. Then comes the equally challenging (but, for me, more fun) cutting and editing process, along with some fill-in-the-gaps research.

So I have more hard work ahead, but finishing a rough draft by December is now an attainable goal. After a long stall, I’ve got my momentum back.

We’ve all got things we dream of doing. Sometimes we need to take drastic steps to make those dreams happen.

If we don’t have time or space, we must make time or space. That might mean sacrificing other activities or income. It might mean asking the people in our lives to pick up some of our slack or give us some space for a short period of time. Doing this can feel hard. But the alternative could be never accomplishing our dreams.

Next month is NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. Participants have from November 1 to November 30 to try to write a 50,000-word novel. Last year, more than 400,000 aspiring novelists took part.

Is it possible to write a novel that fast? Yes and no. Cranking out a well-polished, final product takes more time. To write that many words requires hours of work on most days, just to create a very rough draft. It’s exhausting.

(I would never attempt to write my entire non-fiction book that fast because it requires a lot of research and fact-checking, which I find more efficient to do as I write.)

But the annual event serves as a springboard that gets people started. It’s a matter of carving out the time and making it a primary priority for one month.

We all have other commitments and responsibilities, but for most of us 30 days is a manageable period to put some of those things on hold.

Writing a book doesn’t have to be your dream project, and you don’t have to do it in November. If you’ve been talking about doing something REALLY BIG for a really long time, and you’re having trouble getting it done, you might take a look at your calendar for the coming year.

Figure out a 30-day period (or whatever works for you) in which you’ll pour your energy into that project. Depending on the project, you might also consider a change of scenery, like I did.

Getting away from your daily distractions, and your daily cues that there are other things you “should be doing” can make a big difference in your success.

Then, except in the event of a major life crisis, resist the urge – which will come up once the date approaches – to tell yourself you just don’t have time. Get it done or at least get rolling. Once you harness your initial inertia, continuing beyond 30 days on a smaller scale will feel more doable.

We all have projects we dream of doing, talk about doing, never get around to doing. What’s your project and what’s holding you back? Tell me about it in the comments area below and let’s see if I can help motivate you to get it done.


Need more motivation? I’ve got two fun and effective online courses on how to overcome writer’s block and how to overcome procrastination and find time to write. And my students tell me they really work!

I know, I know… then why did my own project stall? It’s simple: I wasn’t following my own advice. On my trip to Hanoi, I turned to the tips in my own courses and realized I should listen to myself more often.

But hey, if you’re skeptical, both courses come with a 30-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee. The above links will take you to some free sample lessons and special discount prices.

If you’ve got a specific project you’re feeling stalled on, let me know about it, and let’s see if I can help you make it happen.

Published on Monday, October 24, 2016

2 Responses to “My Secret Mission: Why I Left Saigon to Write About Saigon”

  1. October 24, 2016 at 8:04 PM

    Well said, Dave! I think a change of scenery and a reasonable deadline are good ideas for jumpstarting projects that never quite seem to get finished. (Wasn’t I supposed to be marketing my business, for instance?) I look forward to reading your new book and am happy to hear it’s taking shape!

  2. Evon
    October 24, 2016 at 8:40 PM

    I’ve been wanting to start a freelance business for the longest time. I want to use my writing skills to fund my wanderlust but I’m too scared to even start. I’ve gone as far as setting up accounts on Elance/Upwork, People Per Hour and even bidding on jobs (half-heartedly, I have to admit) but that’s about it. I think the reason is that I’m deathly afraid of criticism – what if my client turns around and tells me that what I’ve written for them is absolute cr*p and refuses to pay me? I’d be devastated.

    I’m now stuck in a dead-end job (but it pays well) and I have more reason than ever to make my freelance project a reality but I still can’t seem to get started.

    My dearest wish is to visit every country in Europe by train and take photos of every UNESCO World Heritage Site in Europe with my iPhone before I die. And I know I can’t do that while holding down a full-time job, so that’s why I want to be a freelancer.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings, Dave.

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