In a Highland Coffee shop near Ben Thanh Market, Sonny Side, internet personality and host of YouTube’s enormously popular Best Ever Food Review Show, recalls some recent experiences. His eyes light up as he describes an afternoon with a member of the Red Dao ethnic minority in the northern hills of Sapa, a secluded community that still lives very much in a traditional way.
“She’s never had any kind of Western food,” Sonny said. “Probably the funniest part was showing her a picture of a taco. I was like, ‘You’ve never had one of these?’ […] What I love is, in the video I ask her if she’s ever had McDonalds, and she’s like, ‘No’. And I gasp. I know so many people are going to hate me for that!”
The people he’s referring to are his legions of internet fans. As of October, Best Ever Food Review Show boasted over 300,000 Facebook followers and over 150,000 YouTube subscribers, and these numbers increase every day. Sonny’s bi-weekly videos charting the strange, wonderful, delicious and occasionally unsavoury culinary options found all over Asia fit with a growing group of vloggers who have achieved internet stardom through travel adventures and a lot of street food.
Cooking Up Competition
Anyone who has seen Best Ever Food Review Show, which is shared widely all over social media platforms in Vietnam and especially in the Philippines, probably tunes in for Sonny Side as much as for the food itself. Irreverent, casual, quick and exuberant, and almost always hosting with a red bandana wrapped around his forehead (“It’s a symbol of adventure… of vagabond-manship… and because I’m going a little bit bald,” he quipped with a laugh), Sonny asserts that his goal is to focus on the people and the food, rather than himself.
“I try not to make the show me-centric. Starting out, I was like, ‘What can I create that’s of value for the person watching it?’ It was basically two things: showing something that’s interesting, and just entertainment.”
Entertainment is key, and, judging by the hundreds of comments left on his posts, people are tuning in because of his friendly humour just as much as the food. Amongst the ubiquitous viewers who laud Sonny’s jokes, you can also find some other users who opine that “this is way better [sic] than mark wiens [sic].” Mark Wiens, another prominent YouTube personality and perhaps the granddaddy of online food vlogging, has been generating views and likes since 2009—he currently has well over a million YouTube subscribers. Other heavy hitters in the industry include Trevor James, aka The Food Ranger, and Mike Chen, aka Strictly Dumpling.
Watch enough of the videos, and it’s easy to spot a pattern. Each begins with some scenery shots of the locale with a brief monolog by the presenter about where he is and what’s on today’s menu. Cut to the hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where a bemused local cook serves up the special that the host enjoys with a bit of food commentary and plenty of exaggerated “yummy” expressions.
The Best Ever Food Review Show follows this general narrative, but Sonny gives it a twist through higher production quality and more energetic editing and background music. “I saw there was a need for higher-quality food videos in this country,” he said. “Tourism is booming here.” By joining forces with the local tour operating company OneTrip, Sonny has been able to produce more videos of better quality to a wider audience. The next step? Making them self-sustaining, a goal that Sonny predicts will happen with the help of YouTube ad revenue and merchandising diversification.
Food Tourism, Revamped
Although Sonny’s on-screen personality relies on comedy, when it comes to strategy, he’s all business. A self-taught video director and editor, the genesis for the project came as he worked with companies in South Korea. “One thing that was always really hard was making content for clients that no one was going to care about it, because clients always had really terrible ideas,” he said.
“The idea of shareable didn’t enter their mind.”
To make a video viral, Sonny was convinced that making it interesting and engaging was the way to go, rather than a traditional company profile (“Nobody wants to watch those,” he groaned). Making videos with the audience in mind is Sonny’s first priority, with the ever-important title and thumbnail providing a hook to lure potential viewers to click. So far, some of his most popular videos have been attention-grabbers like “The Penis Soup Scam!” (266,000 views) and “Eating Rat in Vietnam” (518,000 views), with blocked text sent aslant like supermarket tabloid headlines advertising Elvis Presley’s supernatural return to Vegas.
Although marketing tricks are important, Sonny is adamant that, first and foremost, his mission is “to find the stories around food”.
“That’s why I don’t just like walking down the street, eating a bunch of food, talking about it. If I can actually meet a family, hang out with a family member, ask questions about their culture, find out how they live, that’s really interesting to me. And then the food is just a really great bonus to all of that.”
Sonny says that viewers have written to him, telling him that they’ve gone to Vietnam inspired by his shows. As the concept of food tourism gains more ground, eating a homecooked field rat in the Mekong Delta might just start to promote tourism more than cold and professional tourism campaigns.
Banner image source: Tani Nguyen