This investigation, published in a mainstream Vietnamese newspaper, revealed that Vietnam reports only a fraction of the sand it exports annually, exposed tax evasion strategies employed by illegal mining enterprises through original documents and interviews and quantified the land erosion, the houses lost and the number of people affected by the sand mining black market. Vietnam ranks 174 out of 180 countries, one of the lowest in the world, in the RSF press freedom ranking and this investigation represents a rare instance of an investigation that exposes widespread corruption published first in Vietnamese for a national audience.
Just one month after publication, our story prompted Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Le Van Thanh to call for increased oversight of sand mining [in an official letter](https://baochinhphu.vn/pho-thu-tuong-yeu-cau-tang-cuong-quan-ly-hoat-dong-khai-thac-cat-102220527191417888.htm) referencing our article and findings. This letter was addressed to nine ministries, management branches, and all local authorities in Vietnam’s provinces and cities, leading to tightened management of sand mining nationwide.
Our story contributed to promoting the development of a new policy for river sand as well as a draft amendment to the Law on Minerals of Vietnam, which is expected to be completed in 2024. All these efforts aim to redefine the value and role of river sand from common building material to strategic resource.
Our story spurred the media’s interest in sand mining as a number of well-known media organizations in Vietnam—including Tuoi Tre [Young People newspaper], Nong Nghiep [an agriculture newspaper], VnExpress, Vietnam Television (VTV)—have all reported on the issue after the publication of our story. Vietnam National Television even aired a special documentary on sand mining featuring an interview with Dinh Tuyen while investigative journalist Lam Le, writing for the Mekong Eye, [reported](https://www.mekongeye.com/2022/09/02/journalists-report-illegal-sand-mining-in-vietnam/) on our story’s impact in Vietnam.
Our story also received positive feedback from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Vietnam as well as other environmental experts and scientists.
A great deal of our data was locked away in non-machine readable PDFs, so we used **Tabula** to extract data from these documents. When we encountered limitations with Tabula due to character encoding problems, we used Google OCR engine to scrape the remaining data.
We mainly used **Google Sheets** to clean and validate the data, keeping a “data diary” of each step we took as well as backups of the original datasets for reproducibility. We also ran our analysis on Google Sheets, using pivot tables to combine results across different sources. In our original Vietnamese article, we share a public Google Sheets link to all the datasets we used in our investigation, including raw and cleaned spreadsheets.
We used **Tableau Public** and **Flourish** for data visualization depending on the interactive charts that we want to illustrate. The design team at Thanh Nien also crafted custom graphics for the story.
**Video and photography**, including drone footage, were key components to the story. As soon as Vietnam’s COVID-19 travel restrictions started to relax, Dinh Tuyen took numerous trips to communities impacted by sand mining to hear their stories as well as to capture documentary evidence.
Context about the project:
Vietnam’s position in the bottom 10 of the RSF press freedom index is due to the state’s almost complete control over the press environment. According to RSF, censored topics include “political dissidents, cases of corruption involving senior officials, the single party’s legitimacy, relations with China and, of course, human rights issues.” RSF also reports that there are currently 39 Vietnamese journalists in prison. Navigating the very limited press freedom space by leveraging the state’s own official statistics to expose the issue enabled the team to publish on a topic that would have been censored had it been reported without findings solidly rooted in official data. Nevertheless, sources took tremendous risks in turning over data and granting interviews on the issue.
The murky world of sand mining in the Mekong Delta is a risky subject even for international journalists to cover in Vietnam. Data collection in Vietnam is difficult as the government is not eager to fully recognize and disclose its own complicity in the system. Since there were no online sources for sand mining, Dinh Tuyen visited government offices one by one as each province collects their data differently.
Through interviews and investigations, Dinh Tuyen realized how licensed sand mines cheat when reporting their reserves by not issuing sales invoices to extract more than the allowed amount of sand. They also cheat by mining outside their licensed scope. In addition, theft of sand also occurs in many places.
Local authorities and the police are involved and in some cases have good intentions, but the cases they pursue are very few compared to the actual scale of the highly visible mining activities. Currently, local governments and state management agencies are stuck between the benefits and needs of construction and development and irreparable damages caused by landslides.
Reporting on illegal sand mining is a dangerous activity. Because journalists are viewed with hostility by sand miners, Dinh Tuyen had to maintain a very low profile to collect information on the sand market. Furthermore, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Dinh Tuyen had to quarantine every time he traveled within the country and even contracted COVID-19 himself during his travels. It was also risky for villagers impacted by the mines to speak on the record due to the potential for retaliation by mining companies.
With a widespread culture of impunity, nobody involved in the investigation expected any kind of legal protection for potential backlash.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Publishing impactful data journalism that successfully combines data investigations with traditional journalism can have a ripple effect in your own newsroom and beyond even under the most repressive regimes. The publication of our story was a new endeavor for Thanh Nien and it generated much interest in data journalism within the organization as well as a desire to produce more in-house data journalism in the future.
Though we were not the first to report on sand mining, we were the first to cover the problem as well as its causes and impacts comprehensively, drawing threads between sand mining, landslides, livelihoods, and government regulation.
Because the public seeks reliable reporting, storytelling with data as evidence helps build that trust. Though our story was much longer than the typical story published by Thanh Nien, we still received attention and a multitude of positive comments from our readers.
Data journalism is hard work requiring grit and passion of a dedicated team. You’ll have to explore and dig through countless datasets to find overlap between issues in the public interest and issues for which the data is available. You need people with complementary skill sets working together to produce the most comprehensive investigation possible.
This project was Dinh Tuyen’s first foray into data journalism. Previously, for a typical story, he would pick a topic, secure some interviews, and head straight to writing and publishing. The hypothesis-driven approach to data journalism presented Dinh Tuyen with a steep learning curve at first. As a result, he would like to advise journalists new to data journalism to follow through with perseverance and not give up on the investigative process.
Finally, even though data is foundational to a data story like ours, remember at the end of the day that you are covering a human story.