Everyone is vulnerable to the mesmerising charm of Vietnam. Some people fall victim to its beauty during a gap year, others while volunteering. American film and television director Jordan Vogt-Roberts came under the spell while he was filming Kong: Skull Island.
Now in the process of packing up his Los Angeles home to move to Vietnam, even he doesn’t seem sure of how it happened.
“The way I fell in love with this place was an intense experience,” says Jordan, fresh from giving a talk at the latest TEDxBadinh event. “It wasn’t planned. I came here and was just blown away.”
Once we stop laughing over a shared love of the local goat-penis wine, Jordan is quick to dive into the complex web of reasons of why he loves Vietnam.
“I love the quirky stuff,” he explains. “People here have an appreciation for the small things, which makes me feel so alive and inspired.”
Despite devoting two-and-a-half years to create a movie that would go on to gross more than $550 million worldwide, he still finds time to enjoy the little treats any visitor to Vietnam can relate to.
“My favourite thing is to go with my Vietnamese friends, sit on a little plastic stool in an alley, and let them order food for me,” says Jordan, 32.
The physical beauty of Vietnam had a role not only in attracting Jordan to move here, but also in the conception of Skull Island’s inhabitants.
“It’s serene and picturesque, but there’s a ruggedness and a hard edge,” says Jordan. “Skull Island and its creatures are beautiful, but also dangerous; that’s the impact of Vietnam’s mythic quality.”
The impact of Kong on national pride and awareness is not something Jordan predicted.
“The amount of locals coming up to me, who said, ‘I didn’t know how beautiful my country was,’ caught me off-guard in the most positive way,” says Jordan.
Of course, the movie goes deeper than just showing off Vietnam’s natural beauty.
“Absolutely it’s an allegory for the war, and for being places we don’t belong,” Jordan explains. “The fact we have an anti-war message in a giant studio film is remarkable to me.”
Jordan acknowledges that for many Americans, everything they know about this country relates to the war. This has made him keen to avoid perpetuating stereotypes about Vietnam.
“Go to any city here, and there are different things about every single one,” says Jordan. “I want to support the people here, the voice they have, so they can represent themselves how they want to be represented.”
This theme of being misrepresented and misunderstood as a nation, is one of the profounder aspects of Kong as a character.
“Kong is a lonely guy, a morose god, someone who is of a different era,” Jordan explains. “The pain we feel when we are misunderstood can be heartbreaking.”
Jordan Vogt-Roberts talking at TedX Badinh
The vulnerability of putting yourself out there, of being misunderstood, was a central idea of Jordan’s TEDx talk, the organisers of which helped to set up our meeting.
“Creative people have an instinct, a gut drive,” he says. “You put your blinders on, follow your gut and stick with it. You need to be able to wake up in the middle of your lowest low, and say, ‘I know why I’m doing this’.”
It was the same with moving to Vietnam.
“I had to follow my instinct,” he explains. “I had to be vulnerable, and put myself in this new place.”
One unforeseen result of putting himself in that new place, was becoming the first American to hold the title of Ambassador of Tourism to Vietnam.
“I feel a great responsibility, as I’ve shown Vietnam to a lot of people,” Jordan says proudly. “What’s important to me now, is that as tourism grows, it grows properly.”
Jordan is quick to identify examples of where people have sold out their culture for a quick dollar, and is enthusiastic to help prevent Vietnam from going down the same path.
“The change is inevitable, and it’s a good thing,” Jordan says. “But it would be a shame if the stuff that made me fall in love with this country is not here in 40 years.”
If the sustainability of Vietnam is threatened, and tourism is allowed to take away from the majesty of its natural beauty, Jordan describes a sense of foreboding at the thought of what might be inherited by future generations of Vietnamese.
Looking to his own future, however, he is juggling several plans, many of which are directly related to his new role and position in Vietnam.
“I’m trying to bring a full season of a TV show here,” Jordan says, “with a couple of American actors, but primarily a Vietnamese cast. That’s never happened before.”
Breaking down barriers is a theme across a lot of his work, and shooting an American TV show in Vietnam is just the start. What film would he like to see about Vietnam that doesn’t touch on the war?
“I’d love to give Vietnamese audiences a hero, someone people can say he’s ours, that movie’s ours,” he says. “Someone kids can pretend to be on a playground!”
Already at the helm of a movie adaptation of Hideo Kojima’s mega gaming franchise Metal Gear Solid, he still thinks he’ll probably make another indie movie next.
“Smaller movies touch on the kind of stories I want to tell, and you get more freedom and experimentation in that form,” says Jordan.
Portrait photo by Julie Vola