For Youtuber stars, adulation and hatred go hand in hand

By Ngoc Dinh, Trong Nghia June 6, 2019 | 10:44 pm PT
When Le Hoang Nam quit his job to start filming his adventures, he never dreamed one million people would follow him on Youtube.
Hoang Nam (L), explores dangerous destinations and films his travels to upload on his channel. Photo courtesy of Hoang Nam

Hoang Nam (L), explores dangerous destinations and films his travels to upload on his channel. Photo courtesy of Hoang Nam

But it happened, and he received the gold play button from the video platform in February certifying his channel had got a million subscribers.

Five years ago Nam, 35, began exploring mysterious destinations and religious places that most people did not dare visit.

He used to work for a radio station and became known to the public in 2014 when he took part in a television game show that involved bike racing and carrying out missions around Vietnam.

But Nam wanted to seek answers to questions and mysteries that no book described. With his camera he started to film and narrate his experiences and upload the videos on Youtube.

Over the years his energy and determination in decoding mysteries have been inspiring many people.

Once he climbed up a mountain to search for a 1,000-year-old coffin of a Chinese official left in a cave in northern Vietnam.

He had to use a rope to slide down to the cave, but was enthralled to see the ancient writings intact on the coffin. He went on to lie inside the coffin and ask local people to close the lid.

This was just one of the many daredevil experiences Nam has been through. One day he would sleep in a haunted house to unravel its mystery, another day he would be climbing a cliff or filming an unusual religious ritual in a remote village.

His viewers would leave comments praising his efforts and requesting him to look for certain places.

Little did anyone know what hazards and financial pressures Nam had to face to do what he did.

Physical challenges

Before subscribers began to flock to his channel, Nam went through four years with barely any income from it. Sometimes he would get VND1 million ($42.67) for a month.

"Without passion, I could not have survived that period," Nam said in a video celebrating his millionth subscription.

Besides, the stuff he did for his videos was often very risky. He has put himself in danger many times while exploring a new place or taking up a challenge.

He once climbed a tower on the Thuan Phuoc Bridge in Da Nang city. He and his partners chose to start the challenge one night in 2016 when they used nothing but their bare hands to climb up the 80-meter structure, using a camera to film themselves.

Many people acclaimed his bravery, but some warned it was unwise to take such risks. "This man is crazy," one person wrote under the video. Another said: "You will be punished by the authorities."

Another memorable trip for Nam was when he explored the divine-fish spring in northern Thanh Hoa Province in which the fish living there is believed to be sacred. Local legends said people who harmed the fish would face bad luck.

Nam tried to follow the fish and ended up exploring a cave. Without a local to guide them, Nam and his companion were lost for many hours in the cave, until they found a path they had crossed before. They eventually traced back the right path when they noticed the trash someone had left on the way, and eventually found the way back to the cave mouth.

These physical challenges are not always understood by viewers.

"People think online videos are full of trivial content," Nam said. Even his family used to think what he did was ridiculous.

"In fact people who are serious about this career will invest not only money but also knowledge and content."

Other professional online content creators in Vietnam echo his words. Many channels have been created by both teams and individuals with high image quality and editing dexterity.

For Pham Cong Thanh, 26, whose channel deals with everyday issues like bad habits and college life, making video blogs, or vlogs, is a serious task. 

He shares a young person’s viewpoints on basic issues such as friendship, his bonds with his sibling and daily occurrences.

After posting his first vlog in 2012, he became one of the first popular vloggers in Vietnam, with many videos garnering hundreds of thousands to millions of views.

He spends a lot of time polishing his videos. Some days he spends up to 12 hours straight to edit a video that simply has him talking about a close friend.

But he too was discouraged in the beginning when people called his videos nonsensical or ridiculous because he was talking about mundane things. He thought of quitting many times.  

There are now over 200 channels with more than one million subscribers in Vietnam with films, educational programs for kids, travel journals, cooking tips, and others according to statistics website Social Blade.

"With 10 million views, a [channel owner] can earn at least VND30 million ($1279) a month from advertisements," Nam said.

There is a growing community of users who consume the content. Vietnam is among the top five global markets for Youtube and growth is very high, a Youtube Asia Pacific spokesperson said in April.

YouTube is the second-most accessed site in Vietnam with a user ratio of 59 percent, according to a 2018 report by We Are Social.

Social pressure

People like Nam who publish content are under scrutiny by a large number of people and the pressure of opinion on them is enormous.

In the early days sometimes nearly 70 percent of the comments would be scathing or hateful, he said.

"In the beginning they were cursing, insulting, saying I did a foolish thing to achieve fame," he said, recalling the stress he had to cope with.

The more the hate in the comments section, the more frustrated he became. In the first year he would often lock himself up in his room, not meeting friends or eating or drinking anything. He would keep thinking about how to make people understand, but the more he explained the more he was reproached.

As his channel expanded positive comments began to dominate though criticism did not go away completely.

"When I went to sacred places, people said doing that would have grave consequences for my family," Nam recalled. "It made me think a lot about giving up."

Nam was not the first or only Youtuber in Vietnam the haters targeted.

Thu Giang, 27, who uploads less fraught content than Nam, has been sharing daily life tips on her channel since 2016 and has over 800,000 subscribers. Though her videos discuss simple daily issues, she still receives occasional criticism.

She too recalled a time she was hurt by nasty comments.

She mentioned the example of a video on sustaining a long and happy relationship in which she speaks about her five-year relationship with her boyfriend. While it was generally praised she still got some hurtful comments.

Some said having such a long relationship meant she was a failure.

"Since I described some intimate moments with my boyfriend, there was much criticism. Some even called me a pervert."

For Thanh the vlogger, whose videos are on daily issues, criticism and body shaming comments are common. Some completely ignore what he says and instead focus on shaming him for his hair or body.

What is more hurtful for him is abuse based on discrimination against people in different regions. When he became popular, he got invitations to feature in a film and some videos. Since he is well known, he is sometimes insulted even on the street by people saying he is useless or has no talent.

"I was very frustrated but had to accept it (insult)," Giang said. "It’s part of the job."

Thu Giang, 27, has been sharing daily life tips on her channel Giang Oi since 2016 and garners over 800,000 subscribers. Photo courtesy of Thu Giang 

Thu Giang, 27, has been sharing daily life tips on her channel Giang Oi since 2016 and garners over 800,000 subscribers. Photo courtesy of Thu Giang 

Challenge to keep up

The constant evolution in people’s interests is another big challenge for Youtubers.

Giang is currently working freelance, and has to spend a lot of time on her video making. A lot of effort, ideas and time are invested in making two videos a week, meaning she spends less and less time with family and friends. She gradually receives complaints from her family more often, and tries hard to maintain a balance in life.

Thanh has slowed down and has been putting up fewer and fewer videos. As the audience’s tastes keep changing quickly, so does his viewer demographic.

"Viewers always need something better, but I cannot always cater to [that need]," he said.

After a while in fact he began to feel strange sitting in front of a camera to film himself. Now while still makes videos, he does it out of personal interest rather for an audience.

Nam said the most difficult thing is not thinking up content but to not be obsessed with views and likes and not create content disregarding ethics.

Despite the challenges, Nam remained appreciative of the journeys he has been through.

"I was able to express my soul in the videos. Even when I go abroad, people recognize me and offer to help.

"I realized that everywhere in this world is home."

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