The Globe and Mail (Canada)
October 17, 2007 Wednesday

Blogger finds fame, and the good life, in Vietnam

BYLINE: AVIA WEST

HANOI -- Joe Ruelle bounds from table to table at a trendy art café in Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi. Tall, pale and slim with piercing blue eyes, the 28-year-old Canadian stands out among the dark-eyed, dark-haired Vietnamese. But once he opens his mouth, he fits right in, flirting effortlessly in Vietnamese with two young reporters from a local magazine.

Unknown outside Vietnam, Mr. Ruelle is a major celebrity in this Southeast Asian nation, parlaying an innocuous blog into a career in film, television and publishing. These days Mr. Ruelle, who has mastered the difficult language since arriving four years ago, can't leave his home in Hanoi now without being hounded for autographs or pictures.

The road to local fame began in 2005 when he appeared on a local version of Wheel Of Fortune featuring foreign contestants. The Vancouver native wowed the audience by cracking jokes in flawless Vietnamese.

But things really exploded when he began a blog, quietly in April, 2006, "just saying who I was and what I planned to do."

In July of that year, while visiting Canada, he opened his inbox to find thousands of unread messages.

"I thought, 'Great, I've been spammed.' Instead, they were from Vietnamese people wanting to add my blog. That's when I knew something was up. Since then it's climbed to three million hits."

Mr. Ruelle's light-hearted, gentle observations of the country have passed muster with government censors, who routinely block access to any sites with sensitive political or religious material.

The blog entries are so inoffensive that government-owned Lao Dong newspaper has begun publishing them in column form. They've even been compiled into a bestselling book.

And Mr. Ruelle has branched off into other media, co-hosting a weekly teen talk show called Ket Noi Tre, or Youth Connect, and taking on film and TV roles. He often portrays a foreign soldier in Vietnam's countless domestic war epics.

He has been linked to some of the country's hottest stars, including a former Miss Vietnam.

But Mr. Ruelle also has his critics.

"Anywhere you go, if you're successful, there's a desire to knock you down. In this culture, if you start rising too high above the community, that's not good. A lot of people say 'Why are you writing all these quirky stories? You're showing Vietnam in a quirky light, not a good light.' I try to explain that this is just me writing stories."

By remaining in the safe waters of gentle observations, Mr. Ruelle has managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of life in a socialist country. Firmly apolitical, he doesn't pay much attention to stories of human-rights violations, instead preferring to focus on the positive developments taking place.

"The backbone of what's going on in Vietnam right now is overwhelmingly positive, particularly with the media opening up and the economy. Of course there are problems, but if you ignore the backbone, you're not getting reality," he insisted.

His genuine affection for the country shines through, an attitude not lost on his fan base.

"Joe's blog gives Vietnamese a chance to see their country from an outsider's perspective, in their own language," says Nguyen My Hoa, a regular reader from northern Thanh Hoa province and a budding blogger herself. "Everyone knows Joe."

Mr. Ruelle's initial visit to Hanoi was supposed to be brief: a month-long course in English-language instruction and a break from his job on a remote Korean island. Five years later, he still hasn't left.

So what's it like being a national celebrity in a foreign country?

"One hardship, if you can call it that, is being a novelty. Most Vietnamese aren't shy about speaking about strangers in earshot. If you speak fluent Vietnamese, you'll hear a running commentary on yourself. If you're a celebrity, it's intensely magnified. It can all be a source of amusement, pride or irritation, depending on your mood," he says.

So what's next? Will he ever return to Canada?