The Sympathizer: Where is the Show Filmed?

‘The Sympathizer’ is a genre-bending spy thriller that follows The Captain, a Vietnamese double agent working for the Viet Cong in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Embedded in the South Vietnamese military, The Captain joins a refugee camp in the US after the war ends and spies on his community, reporting back to the Viet Cong. In a twist of fate, he is hired by the CIA to spy on the Vietnamese as a double agent for them.

Created by Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, the HBO Max show is based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The episodes transport us between the U.S. and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1970s. By convincingly recreating Vietnam War environments and featuring a compelling conflict of identity as The Captain makes a new home in America, the show draws us into its satirical narrative.

The Sympathizer Filming Locations

‘The Sympathizer’ is filmed in 15 cities around California, Vietnam, and Thailand. The recreation of the Vietnamese environments seen in the series was initially set to be done in Vietnam. However, because the Vietnamese government wanted to enforce censorship, production of these segments was shifted to Thailand.

To direct the film, acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook was brought on board. Park relied on a translator to convey his direction but soon developed an understanding with Robert Downey Jr., effectively communicating with facial expressions and gestures. After reading Nguyen’s novel, Park found a common history of imperialist occupation and north-south division between Vietnam and South Korea. Adding to that, South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War made Park confident about understanding the novel’s vision and doing justice to the show.

Principal photography on the series began in November 2022 and was wrapped up for the first season by late April 2023 in Thailand. Most of the central cast is comprised of ethnically Vietnamese actors, who took to social media to express their delight at filming in Los Angeles. However, lead actor Hoa Xuande underwent the trial of his life in shooting the movie for half a year. “By the end, when we were shooting in Thailand, I could see the toll it had taken on his (Xuande) body and spirit,” revealed creator Don McKellar. “He floated through the reeducation camp set like a wandering ghost… But I remember thinking that if the shoot was one week longer, we would have a real ghost on our hands.”

Los Angeles County, California

Filming for the majority of the scenes in ‘The Sympathizer’ takes place in and around Los Angeles. Besides shooting on location around the City of Angels and creating elaborate sets in its studios, the series also features parts of Santa Clarita as a backdrop. It wouldn’t be too much of a challenge for the production team to choose locations around Los Angeles County that can recreate the 1970s atmosphere, as many of its neighborhoods still retain their nostalgic charm.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is a filming location for a few of the scenes of ‘The Sympathizer.’ The film crew planned to shoot all of the show’s sequences set in Vietnam within Saigon but were refused permission by the Vietnam government. “We tried really hard to shoot in Vietnam, of course. I wrote many letters to the censor board,” explained Don McKellar in an interview. “But the book is banned for reasons that become clear when you get to the end of the story. Ultimately, the government turned us down. It was going to be impossible to shoot the show with the censorship, so we decided to go to Thailand.”

Bangkok, Thailand

Filming for most of the show’s scenes with Vietnam as a background actually takes place in Thailand. The capital city of Thailand, Bangkok, is known for being a cosmopolitan tourist hotspot, with gilded temples and stunning natural landscapes contrasted by its bustling metropolis dotted with skyscrapers. Filming in the city was largely carried out in studios, and the production team went into overdrive to depict a wartime Vietnam atmosphere through the sets. The scenes of the first episode of the series, which show The Captain and his friends drinking beers in a carinderia (restaurant) before the fall of Saigon, were shot on set in Bangkok.

Other Locations in Thailand

To depict the various forested and war-torn landscapes of Vietnam seen in the show, the production crew employs a number of locations around Thailand. In an interview, executive producer Niv Fichman confessed that the team faced challenges because Thailand does not look like Vietnam, but maintained authenticity by employing a Vietnamese cast and a number of Vietnamese consultants on the sets. They partnered with Bangkok-based Indochina Productions as their services-providing company, utilizing the city’s filming infrastructure and facilities through their network.

Thailand has been known for on-location shooting, especially for depicting jungles, beaches, and any Southeast Asian cityscape. However, the demands of international productions have extended to studio spaces and more advanced soundstages, prompting the domestic development of such facilities. Thailand’s status as a burgeoning filmmaking hub with generous tax incentives has made it a home for movies like ‘The Greatest Beer Run Ever,’ ‘Thirteen Lives,’ ‘Extraction,’ and ‘Fistful Of Vengeance.’

Read More: The Sympathizer: The Real Life Viet Cong Spy Who Inspired the Captain