Yes, I lied, but not really

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Nguyen Thi Khanh Huyen (R), who goes by pen name Huyen Chip, speaks at the launch of the second book of her Xach ba lo len va di (Pick up your backpack and go) series in Hanoi last month. Photo by Ngoc Thang

Vietnam's latest author sensation has confessed, with a mixture of arrogance and defiance, that her controversial travelogue contains sensationalized information.

The National Publication Department on Sunday announced it has received a 30-page letter from Nguyen Thi Khanh Huyen, who goes by pen name Huyen Chip, saying that some of the details in her travel series were exaggerated.

The announcement has expectedly raised the hackles of many readers, but the department has said the fictionalization remains within limits and that it will dismiss a reader's demand that concerned people are punished for publishing falsehoods as truth. 

No travel journal in Vietnam has drawn so much attention as Huyen's.

Her claim of traveling to 25 countries and territories in two years with just US$700 attracted skeptics.

Supporters as well as the publication department have said the book carries the spirit of adventure that deserves appreciation.

Detractors, on the other hand, have slammed her as a liar and said the book should be called a novel or a fairytale, given that it carries stories about all men she met admiring her, that she seems to have the knack of being in places just when there are big local holidays, that she ends up being treated like a VIP all the time, not to mention being offered high paying jobs despite her lack of experience, college diploma or local language competence.

Xach ba lo len va di (Pick up your backpack and go) series was first published in December last year by Hanoi-based communications company Quang Van and the Literature Publishing House.

The first book covered Huyen's days in Asia, starting with a visit to Brunei from Malaysia, where she had been working right after finishing high school in Vietnam. The second book, featuring her time in Africa, was released last month.

Huyen's letter came in response to a petition to the publications department by Tran Ngoc Thinh, which said the books should be recalled unless Huyen could plausibly explain several details including how she traveled between Israel and Palestine despite their ongoing conflict, if she really had only $700 for the trip as stated in her first book and media reports, for the past year, and if she traveled by herself or was sponsored.

Thinh also asked Huyen to explain "unethical" acts like trespassing through some countries, evading tickets to museums in Myanmar because she "did not want to give money to the Myanmar government," and forging a reporter's badge to attend a Dalai Lama talk in India.

He said Huyen had earned Vietnamese people a bad name and possibly disadvantaged them during travels abroad.

Huyen said in her letter that she agreed her actions were wrong and she would take full responsibility.

The 23-year-old from Hanoi said most of the places she visited had easy visa policies, but she could not explain how she got a pass into Israel. She said she took a bus from Israel to Palestine and back, describing the routine as "easy."

Her letter to the department was attached with photos of her visas for Myanmar, India, Nepal, Egypt, Israel, Sinai, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

She said $700 was only the initial budget, and that she had earned more money by working during the journey.

Huyen said she had been paid by computer provider Asus Vietnam but only for her trip to Latin America, which is expected to be the topic of her upcoming book.

She admitted bragging when writing that she climbed a mountain just three weeks after her tibia broke after being hit by a motorbike running at 100 kph in India. Doctors said the condition needs at least eight months to heal.

She said 100 kph was just a way of saying as she actually did not know how fast the motorbike was, and that her tibia had only cracked.

Thinh, an independent consultant for development programs in Vietnam, told news website VnExpress on Monday he "was not satisfied."

He said Huyen had not really answered his questions and that she owed an apology to the public, especially those who had paid for her books.

Many online forums have carried coments highlighting "contradictory" elements in her books. Some noted that there was virtually no information about her work experience, although she was supposed to have worked her way through her trips.

Her second book mentions that she talked to locals mostly using body language, but then carries dialogues without explanation as to whether they were actual conversations or interpreted from signs.

Earlier, Huyen had promised to defend her credibility by answering questions regarding her first book during press briefings for the second book in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

But she seemed not to remember some details, refused to answer some questions or show people her passport as evidence she had actually traveled to the destinations mentioned in her books.

Thinh, who attended the briefing in Hanoi, said in an interview with Lao Dong that "Huyen answered (questions) with disrespect, ambiguity, and sometimes, arrogantly."

When Huyen was questioned upon the tibia fracture/cracking at a briefing, she immediately denied writing it. Then she agreed that it had happened and explained quick recovery saying each person heals differently.

"Anyone supporting Huyen's books have placed their faith in the wrong place," Thinh said.

Among her supporters is respected professor Nguyen Lan Dung, one of the leading biology researchers in Vietnam. 

He has been acting as Huyen's spokesman, sitting next to her at press briefings and was the only one who got hold of her passport.

"I admire Huyen and believe that her emotional diary is true," he told Giao Duc Viet Nam.

He described those objecting to Huyen's books as "having lazy and cowardly minds."

Professional writers who have not condemned or complimented Huyen have called her an amateur who does not really know what she is writing, and that her books should not be caught in so much publicity.

Critic Pham Xuan Nguyen said travelogues need to respect the truth and carry precise, accurate information.

Dr. Nguyen Huu Son, deputy head of the Institute of Literature at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, told The Thao & Van Hoa that Huyen's series has nothing that stands out from many travelogues Vietnam has published.

"I don't think it would leave any impact."

Son said the ongoing debates would do one good thing for Huyen, helping her get back on track-writing truthfully.

Nguyen Ngoc Bao Tram, literature and linguistics lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said Huyen is young both in her writing and her cultural perceptions, which made her books easy to question.

Tram blamed the books' editors for missing "poor quality" details.

She also said bad travel journals are everywhere, but do not receive negative publicity as they are not promoted too much in the first place.

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