Monday, December 30, 2013

A Beautiful Wedding experience and more on Cu Chi Tunnels

A smiling group of happy guests sharing a wedding photo with the
Bride and Groom with Leanna in her new purple and flowered ao dai.
Yesterday we published our blog story on the Cu Chi tunnels where we went a week ago.  Today an amazing and astounding thing happened when we were honored to attend the wedding Reception/Party of a friend and TDT colleague's niece in HCMC (we were the only non-Vietnamese in attendance).  
        At the wedding we were introduced to and then seated next to a Cu Chi patriot by a Vietnamese friend who is also patriot from Cu Chi.  This Vietnamese woman from Cu Chi (who is probably around Hollis' age, maybe a bit older) lived in the Cu Chi village and went underground repeatedly to survive in the tunnels when the village came under attack by the USA military and South Vietnamese Army in the 1960s-1970s.  During one attack she spent 10 days probably 18 foot underground with only three days food so she went hungry for 7 days with others waiting for the American attacks to stop.

Folks who know us both know we often talk a lot, but we were frankly over whelmed by this very strong woman who before her retirement served as a member of the People's Committee in Cu Chi and later in HCMC (People's Committee is similar to our City Council) as a social and political leader.  We asked a few respectful questions, but mostly just listened and tried to fathom what it must have been like living for those ten days underground with no way of knowing the outcome and whether you would live to fight another day.  What it must have been like in Cu Chi for both the political leaders, guerrilla fighters and residents during and immediately after the American War.  What is means to have lived through all the changes in Cu Chi up to the present.
When this woman spoke at the table of nine people, every one hushed and listened -- not just us older folks but the young and middle aged women, too.  Our eating, talking, sharing toasts with this woman will be a cherished life long memory -- she is an inspiration!  And from after the war to the present she has been a leader of People's Committees in more than one location, an educator and a champion helping build the new Vietnam that honors both its thousands of years history and its present growing place in the world.

While we were in Cu Chi visiting the historical and political sites, we also got to visit our friend's family home in Cu Chi.  The property included three typical design and size rural houses -- the original was built by our friend's grandparents and parents.  Later she and her younger brother each built smaller houses very close by, all sharing a patio area.  Over the years a couple of small fish ponds were added.  There was enough space for at least 100 chickens (who literally had the run of the place), several active dogs and a cat or two.  There were many stands of bamboo trees (which are harvested each year), peanut trees, plenty of vegetable gardens, fruit trees, several types of chili plants.  We enjoyed a great dinner of special Cu Chi food on the patio. The pace and feel of the countryside is truly different from HCMC!

The wedding reception we attended was the final event of the two days of a typical Vietnamese weeding.  The day before, Friday, in Cu Chi had been the traditional visit of the groom and his family to the bride's family home with a special meal (perhaps with a traditional ao dai for the bride).  That was followed by everyone visiting the groom's family home for another special meal and ceremony. Early on Saturday there was a more modern marriage ceremony in Cu Chi when the bride wore a Western style wedding dress and probably Cu Chi friends joined with family in celebrating the wedding.  Then folks traveled in decorated cars to HCMC city for the more modern wedding reception/lunch we attended along with HCMC friends as well as Cu Chi family and friends.

We were made to feel so welcome as we met the bride and groom (who both teach at TDT Vocational College in HCMC), family, friends of the family and couple, many union and political leaders (since our TDT colleague and friend is a long time union leader).  There was great food as always, lots of toasting for the happiness and well being of the couple, live music, a magic performance, kareoke, many happy children running around -- quite an event.

Picking up our Wedding gift on the way to the Reception.
The young woman made the gift of pillows --
a popular wedding gift here.  The beautiful purple ao dai
is on of Leanna's favorites now.
While we were in the midst of the warm, relaxed celebration and later, we both repeatedly were struck by the deep sense of how much Vietnam means to each of these generations, how much each generation has sacrificed to be able to celebrate a joyous wedding in a union hotel/restaurant, how the stories of sacrifice and horror are shared in such a way that individuals are inspired to continue to contribute to the building of not just their daily lives but also in a connected way to the building of their country.  When the groom and his buddies got up to sign together they sang a revolutionary song.  Leanna compared ao dais with these strong women of Cu Chi who take great pride not just in their political history but their culture of beauty, music and artistry which includes outrageous embroidery.

The gift of sharing a special family moment with us, introducing us to a true woman patriot of Cu Chi, giving us the chance to glimpse the depth of the connection between the Vietnamese people's politics, economy, culture, history and day-to-day lives -- our TDT colleague is ever more dear to our hearts and minds as we appreciate the many insights and lessons of Vietnam.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Tunnels of Cu Chi - The Underground War to Freedom

Comfortable underground kitchen with easy access to a tunnel,
The opening with the fence around it to protect tourists.

Of the many myths and truths from the history of the 1950s-1970s, one at the top or damned close to the top of any list is the Vietnamese guerrilla war area called the Cu Chi tunnels.    Leanna and I got to visit the national military reservation or park that contains the tunnels and related historic displays. We have heard repeatedly since our arrival that the people of Cu Chi are a special source of pride and inspiration for all of Vietnam. We visited three different park areas and drove by several more. Following are our impressions and some of what we learned about this amazing history.
The town of Cu Chi lies north and west of Ho Chi Minh City but seems like a suburb because the spread of HCMC is so extensive. After about an hour's drive we turned off the main highway to follow a smaller highway for a few miles. We pulled into a military area and parked next door at a large restaurant – at the banks of the Saigon River. You pass through a large, modern tunnel to enter the actual Cu Chi preserved/restored park and tunnels. After emerging in the park area we joined with a group of Malaysians to make a tour group lead by a young man dressed in khaki green. The first tunnel we looked at was entered by a SMALL rectangular hole that a person could drop down into if the alarm were given. I dropped in to have a look-see but it was immediately evident that I couldn't go out into the tunnel that connected to the entrance, it was too small for someone my size (about 5'8 1/2 and 150 lbs – I have lost weight since coming to Vietnam) but our guide told us that there were tunnels enlarged so that tourists could share some of the experience of moving and “living” underground. Just a couple of awe inspiring facts: the Cu Chi underground was built by Vietnam patriots (regular working people men, women, children of all ages) from the Cu Chi area in the years from 1948 to 1965 although it was used right up to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The people of Cu Chi are proud of their ancestors and martyrs who died in the war of liberation as well of the tunnel network they built to help defeat the French and the US. Maintaining the Cu Chi area free of USA control was seen as vital to the liberation of Saigon. The underground tunnel network totaled 200 kilometers, or about 120 MILES! This matrix was built by human toil,sweat and blood without big fancy machinery but hand tools: picks, shovels, wheel barrows, a bamboo woven carrying device that looked like a cement hod and the like. The tunnels were constructed at 3 levels: the fighting level was at about 6 foot underground and was constructed so that Viet Cong in their “black pajamas” based on a traditional clothing style of the country folk called an ao baba, a cousin of the ao dao (ow zi, the i is pronounced like a long i and the d is pronounced as a z more or less) could fire on the enemy and when things got hot dive in the tunnel and crawl to another port hole where they could pop up and continue to fight or flee to fight another day. The tunnels were not constructed in straight lines but had twists and turns to stop the force of explosions and prevent the deaths of the soldiers and support personnel in a tunnel (the blast would run into the wall and be weakened but there were still casualties). The brave US troops would spray flaming petroleum fuel into the tunnels with flame throwers in their attempt to defeat the enemy. Of course they killed old people, women and children   burning them alive. And in the US we have heard about the tunnel rats of our US Military who would brave the tunnels seeking the enemy but the enemy had disappeared by the time the GIs went down into the tunnel and this saved many American lives. On the other hand there were many booby traps that injured our US troops. In one building we were given a lecture on several types of booby traps that were deployed against the invaders. The main thing that can be said is that traps were made from local materials such as bamboo, other forest products, and the technology the people had used for thousands of years to trap animals. [Now as the guide said they trapped the enemy]. The Viet Cong also re-manufactured captured French and American bombs, cannon shells, other weaponry, rockets, tires, blown-up tanks and other vehicle parts etc to make weapons in factories in the tunnel complex. Our guide stated that “We recycled everything”, it made you think of an ecology group getting a tour on recycling except in your eye you saw weapons being cut to pieces and then re-assembled into much less sophisticated but effective weapons. There were as we mentioned two more tunnel levels, one at about 10 foot and the other at about 18 foot depth. Parts of the “fighting level” could be destroyed with cannon fire or grenades so when under attack the Vietnamese could drop down slanted entries to the second level where they were safe from most weapons. The lowest level at about 18 foot were safe from the carpet bombing of the B52s with 500 kilogram bombs. At this level people could survive terrible weapons of mass destruction although casualties were enormous. There were 47,000 military deaths (does not count all the civilians) in this small area, almost equal to the total of all Americans killed during the war.

Trying out a tunnel entrance, not much room.

All of life was not spent underground. The village of Cu Chi, original population 18,000, had dug out buildings/bunkers for tunnel workers and their families, schools for the children, a small hospital, eating rooms for communal meals, kitchens, weapons manufacturing areas where we watched how American bombs were turned into weapons to fight the invaders, a clothing and “shoe” manufacturing plant where the workers turned used tires into sandals. While we watched an operator used the equipment to make shoes like the ones that I bought. (The sandals I bought are made from recycled pieces of auto tire for the sole and heel and inner tube strips for the top straps. I put them on and worn them them the rest of the day to walk a mile in another persons shoes to know her life in a small way.) The living quarters and other buildings now rebuilt are both above and below ground level so that us tall foreigners can get in and out easily, but in the day the buildings did not protrude above ground or just barely above ground level so that the jungle canopy would make them invisible. Not protruding above ground also offered some protection from the blast of bombs that exploded near by – the blast would travel horizontally above the dug out buildings and the building would survive to be used again. The folks in the buildings would run into the tunnels as soon as there was an alert and head down to safety. Every building had an alarm or alarms made of pieces of bamboo that could be struck with sticks to make a racket and warn other buildings. Indeed sections of the tunnels have been enlarged for people Leanna's size and equipped with electric lights so that you can careful climb down into the first two levels of the tunnels and move through the tunnels for around 150 feet. Even that short distance is overwhelming in a crouched position when you know you're headed toward an exit. Incidentally we saw a lot of bomb craters left from the carpet bombing by B52s and other US aircraft. Chemical warfare was used extensively on Cu Chi --- is Henry Kissinger and our generals and officer staff up there with Adolf Eichman and the other NAZI swine? You will have to answer but it is a hell of a question. As I remarked recently on Facebook, our troops shouldn't be put in the position of killing others to satisfy the desires of the ruling classes of our nation – who make damn sure their kids don't go, [think “Dick” Chaney and George W. Bush for example.].
The second area we visited was a reconstruction of the original Cu Chi village so we could get a feel for the history of the area and people from 1960 through 1975. First we saw typical bamboo-sided, thatched roof houses with rooms for sleeping, cooking, eating with storage as well as wooden houses of similar size but made with sturdy wood and more substantial furniture – the relatively rich. There were plentiful fields of rice and vegetables, grazing, bamboo, livestock. A school was proudly built and in full use by 1965 for the village children. There was a market, village meeting house and a modest health clinic. After the defeat of the French colonialists, the Cu Chi area remained solidly Viet Cong/anti-USA imperialism so the tunnel system connected all buildings, houses, public areas, work areas, school and clinic. As we continued walking we entered an area depicting the village during the increasing USA war when heavy bombing and troop invasions took place. At this point houses and buildings became bunkers as described above all connected by tunnels.  Since this USA strategy of carpet bombings and toxic defoliants did not stop the Vietnamese resistance in Cu Chi, the USA then constructed concentration camps and attempted to force the people of Cu Chi into the so-called “strategic hamlets.” The USA then used more carpet bombing, Agent Orange and bulldozers to demolish the land, vegetation, village above ground structures, etc. As we walked through the area of bomb craters, un-restored land and destruction and desolation dotted with tunnels, it was sobering. Yet the people of Cu Chi continued to fight off the USA military and provide a launching area for successful liberation using the tunnels and their creative commitment to independence, freedom and happiness. Today 38 years later it is amazing to see bamboo and other trees (peanut, rubber, fruits, etc.) growing again with healthy vegetables, rice fields. The resilience of Vietnam's people and land is inspiring.
Our final stop was the Ben Duoc Martyrs' Memorial built from 1993 until 1995 as a tribute to the more than 47,000 military dead from the area. We were visiting on an anniversary day of the Vietnam military so there were special ceremonies honoring the heroes of the American War. It was very moving to see the huge statue of Ho Chi Minh and the innumerable golden plaques listing each dead revolutionary. The outside walls of the memorial was covered with beautiful mosaics depicting the history of Vietnam. The buildings are surrounded by quiet gardens with many trees planted in memory of individual soldiers as well as a large fountain shaped like the lotus flower – the entire memorial overlooks the Saigon River.

           There were many times during the Cu Chi visit that were painful and uncomfortable for us as Americans. The guides and installations were very straight forward and we were treated with sincere respect. The facts spoke for us. There were also moments of intense inspiration at the strength, resilience, depth of political commitment, vision and thirst of the Vietnamese people to win and shape their own future. We came to Vietnam thinking we had a solid foundation and understanding of the history of Vietnam. Cu Chi has taught us that there is so much more to learn about and from the Vietnamese people and their examples for the world historically and now.

We will share more pictures in a second post on this subject in the next few days.
The woman ahead of me moving through
the enlarged tunnel, made so us
big people can get through!
The hole at the top right into the wall of the room is a tunnel entrance,
original size and I can't picture myself trying to run from falling bombs into
that tunnel, but people did it to survive.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Out to the countryside: Provisional Revolutionary Government and Black Lady Mountain!

House of President Pham Van Dong, President of the
Provisional Revolutionary Government and later of the
Unified Republic
Tay Ninh Province – Vietnam-Cambodia Frontier (amazing mountain and the historic site of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam)
While the armed struggle and diplomatic work of freeing Vietnam from French colonialism and American imperialism took place, the Provisional Government of South Vietnam (the real one, not the USA puppets) functioned in the jungle passing laws, implementing a new economy and building a free, unified Vietnam in coordination with the Viet Cong Peoples Army. In spite of US military spraying of thousands of tons of Agent Orange, dropping millions of pounds of bombs and committing more than 625,000 troops at one point trying to defeat the people of Vietnam, in the end the Provisional Government and People's Army WON! During many of the years of struggle in the jungles of western Vietnam's Tay Ninh Province at the Campuchia border, the Provisional Government made its plans and ran its people's government and war committed to victory and liberation, no compromise, no defeat. And we got to see a replica national monument of such a location during a recent day trip!
Country side in the frontier area near Campuchia in Western
Vietnam, Tay Ninh Province

December 15th Leanna and I had the opportunity to visit this historic site with Ms Vinh and a TDT driver. It took a couple of hours of driving to reach Tay Ninh and the Black Lady Mountain, a beautiful mountain with several pagodas built along its sides – the mountain is surrounded by fields of rice, vegetables, rubber trees, fruit groves – a real vista which also included a LARGE lake. The Black Lady Mountain is well known to religious and sightseeing Vietnamese. In March the park and mountain trails are very crowded. The monks in the pagodas manufacture herb medicines on site. People younger and more fit than us will spend the three to four hours to hike up the mountain, but we took the cable car to the terminal at the first and largest pagoda probably 3/4 mile in elevation change. Then we walked up steep stone steps for probably another ¼ or more mile visiting three more pagodas and historic sites. The cable car was fun with an incredible view of the mountain and surrounding lands – LARGE farming valley of the area and a beautiful lake in the distance.  
Pagoda on Black Lady Mountain
 When we arrived about 9:30am at the foot of the mountain there were very few tourists around and even when we got off the cable car there were no crowds. But an hour later we had lots of company of all ages (many families visiting the pagodas) as we were climbing up and down the steps to the pagodas and other sights such as the caves that the pagodas feed into (the pagodas are built with their backs to the mountain and to natural caves that provide more useable space). Painted pagodas are beautiful in many aspects: yes they are “holy” buildings but not in the same way that we are used to thinking about: There are many great big statues of a golden Buddha, but Buddha is not a god but a moral and metaphysical inspiration for leading a good life with the hope that if you are successful then you may move up the wheel and when you are born again you have a better chance of enlightenment with a chance to reach moksha, at least that is my feeble and humble understanding. These pagodas as well as other plaques especially commemorate
Memorial to Viet Cong soldiers who died
defending the mountain from the
American invaders.
the brave soldiers of the People's Army who fought and died in the province and in many battles defending Black Woman Mountain. Besides tending to the visitors at the temples, the monks are around (they live there!) making traditional herbal medicines from trees, bees and plants in the area. One picture we shall be sharing shows a barefoot nun mixing the medicine by pressing it with her feet. The materials were of a doughy looking texture. When the nun noticed me watching and shooting a pictures she waved to me so that I have a wonderful photo of a smiling, happy nun to share on blog. Beside her were two, I think monks who were helping in the work. At other spots close by more monks and nuns were working herbs that were piled in the sun to dry. All around the temples the smoke and smell of joss hung in the air as people lit up to honor the Buddha, ancestors, soldier heroes, the temples, nature, whatever and the beautiful surrounding of the Black Lady Mountain.
It is noteworthy that the young people sprinted past us on the darned steep stairs, oh the exuberance of youth and childhood when scampering up mountains is just a big lot of fun. Another woman was taking the mountain using both hands and feet to make sure that she eliminated or at least reduced the chance of falling. We were already on the way down so I didn't give her method a try then but who knows what will be on the next mountain? Oh, a great insight, walking down steep mountain stairs is easier than walking up the same steep stairs, duh. When we had come off the mountain there were a lot of tourist shops open selling local foods and other gift items, so we bought some to share with students and other faculty at the University.
Of course we also ATE delicious food in Tay Ninh Province starting with an early lunch in a small cafe run by a village woman – great bowls of pho bo and bun bo Hue. Tay Ninh is famous for soup shops and they deserve the credit that they get. Tay Ninh soups are made with fresh meat, fresh greens and other vegetables and good rice noodles made by either the proprietor or at a local noodle factory. It seemed that we had already carried out a full days touring but it was only noon (We had climbed into the van and hit the highways at 6am.).
Full, we headed back south and east but still paralleling the frontier with Campuchia. There were many farm tractors pulling loads of cut bamboo and other crops on the highway – like in the US in rural areas tractors have the right of way on the two way hard top roads and dirt roads of the countryside, they make for exciting motoring what with the big trucks, buses, and schools of motorbikes. Then there are the buffalo munching away alongside the highway as well as chickens, dogs and cats, geese, and egrets (probably a few pigs too but I didn't see any). We also noticed for the first time traditional fishing rigs all along the banks of the many canals, creeks, small rivers and larger rivers. After a few kilometers we took a right hand turn down a narrow road heading toward the Campuchian border This was definitely getting off the beaten track, just some farms here and there. Ms Vinh said that we were on the way to a historic location: the site of the provisional revolutionary government.
Furious fighting took place in Tay Ninh province as the US and the puppet army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam fought to dislodge the Viet Cong and halt imports of material support for the    
Plans made for the capture of Saigon, now HCMC, by the PRG
and the National Front for the taking of Saigon in 1975.  The
map tells the story of the movement from North to South and
through Campuchia and Laos of men and materials.
 revolutionary war being brought down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Campuchia to US occupied South Vietnam. For those who haven't read about the Ho Chi Minh Trail you might go to Wikipedia and type in Ho Chi Minh Trail and you will find a nine page document about the trail. Here is a little quote from the history in Wiki.
It was named by the Americans for North Vietnamese president Hồ Chí Minh. Although the trail was mostly in Laos, the communists called it the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route, after the Vietnamese name for the Annamite Range mountains in central Vietnam.[1] According to the United States National Security Agency's official history of the war, the Trail system was "one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century."[
Just FYI the trail was not one super highway but many dirt trails that were large enough for some smaller trucks, bicycles, buffalo carts and thousands of men and women carrying materials on their backs or with carrying poles. When you walk in this jungle you realize the amazing effort made by the Vietnamese to carry out their liberation struggle. The sacrifice to reach freedom liberation reportedly cost somewhere between 2 and 4 million lives over the years and in a country that at that time had maybe 50 million people that would have been about 4 to 8% of the population, or about 12 to 16 million of the American population.
One of the fabled tunnels, with top removed but you
can see the top in the left background and where it goes
under the house.
The Provisional Government Headquarters was hidden in the forest/jungle (Leanna has the mosquito souvenirs to prove it!). The site has a small museum and trail map that helps guide you through the scattered buildings which include a president “house” and vice president “house” - both were thatched, open sided buildings only large enough for a small bed, drawers, writing table.
Kitchen to prepare food for the government and troops. 
There was a thatched open-sided hut large enough for a larger meeting table and benches. The site also included a hut for eating, a separate kitchen (with stone ovens), medical clinic with shelves, 2 beds and a cabinet and a hand-operated, open well. So basic and functional. It was impressive to think of the bravery, hard political and government work, and stark living conditions for this functioning and successful government! All throughout the complex there were tunnels – several entrances at each hut and throughout the trails. This visit was a real highlight for us both. Two of the Labor Relations faculty are from Tay Ninh Province and recommended much this itinerary. We are so appreciative of their knowledge of history and their politics!
The hospital to treat ill or wounded
Like many frontiers, a duty free commercial area has been functioning here for quite a while. We checked out several stores and were amazed at the shopping crowds! Busy!
On the way back to TDT our driver recommended not only a wonderful restaurant for banh trang and banh canh (great rice paper wrapped pork rolls with special fish sauce and great soup) but also a VERY BUSY little cafe where we enjoyed khoai mi and a special version of ngoc mi (coconut drink). Khoai mi is the tuber vegetable that was the basic food for Vietnam during the many war years. We keep eating our way around this marvelous, delicious Vietnam!
A corner of the hospital and the escape
tunnel necessary to protect patients
and staff from US bombing.

Beautiful scenery, warm and friendly people, inspiring history, fresh and delicious food – we are so happy in Vietnam. Until next adventure, greetings to all!

Monday, December 9, 2013

EOS (endofsemester), Green Day and Mekong Delta here we went!

The Green House for 

Our Vietnam Experience was FULL this past week with the final classroom sessions of our two classes, a GREEN DAY event organized by students from Business Administration, coffee and dessert with two friends who are coaching us in Vietnamese, and Leanna seeing Hunger Games 2 movie with students (while Hollis grumped at home and didn't go to the movie). Yesterday, Dec. 7th, we took an out-of-town trip to the Mekong Delta area in Tien Giang Province, My Tho City and Ben Tre. The trip inlcuded a boat ride on the Mekong River to visit two islands, learning about a new part of the country, shooting pictures, having fun and eat too much great food.  
 We saw first hand some of the problems caused by global warming as we passed an area that was flooded by high tide, an event that happens more often now with more serious consequences. Yes friends, global warming is real and its effects are precipitating serius problems for folks living close to sea level.

Last Monday and Tuesday we taught our last two regular classes for the semester and one “make up” class on Thursday to fill the void that was left when our interpreter was not available a few weeks ago. All the classes were successful as we reviewed course materials in preparation for finals which begin Dec. 9 and go on for two weeks.  
  Overall we are happy with the semester even with the challenges that had to be overcome on the fly. TDT's support has been GREAT! Of course we don't know yet how our students will do on their finals but we're hoping for the best! This has been a challenge for the students as well -- dealing with some USA content as well as the challenges of translation. As they heard more English as the semester progressed it was fun to watch their comprehension and comfort levels with Englsh improve.

What's next...our inability to learn much Vietnamese has been a disappointment, but that's the reality. We're hoping a couple of patient friends can help us learn some basic words and phrases to help with travel around Vietnam in late December, January and February.  
The students raise money on GREEN Day
to support their activities.
 The University will continue to provide us with a room while we remain in Vietnam. It provides us a base of operations to scurry around and then come back home to our "home away from home." Meanwhile, various University projects will give us a chance to continue our contribution to TDT. We have helped with documents and web site translations. We're also enjoying conversational English sessions with faculty members.

TDT invited us (and we accepted) to join the international lecturer staff of the University, which means we will have the opportunity to return to Vietnam in the future to lecture at the University for a few days to months. This is really exciting for us since our position would provide us with sponsorship and the accommodations necessary to do more volunteer work.

Last Wednesday the students from the Business Administration Department produced a great event Green Day highlighting the need to create a GREEN world to ensure the survival of our species. We're including Green Day pictures. Leanna is a big hit here, everyone wants to get a picture with the American teacher. I get my share of that from the students, too, and maybe we'll include a picture of students who stopped me on the way to our office and asked me to have a picture with them. Many friends may remember that I used to shy away from having my picture taken but it was time for a change and change I have. I am even eating fish and chicken though I am still afraid of bones getting caught in my caw. Fresh fish here is very tasty -- check out the photo from the Mekong Delta of a delicious Elephant Fish we had at lunch along with coconut steamed rice (outrageously good), a hot pot fish soup, shrimp cooked in coconut milk, green vegetables that we dipped in a fish sauce: need I say more about this lunch.

At the My Tho boat dock waiting
to board and on to the islands.
    Our driver picked us up at 7:30am on 7/12/13 for our trip to the gateway to the Mekong Delta, the city of My Tho in Tien Giang Province, across the river from Ben Tre. At My Tho we boarded a small launch that took us to visit two Islands: Unicorn Island and Phoenix Island. The first island is a part of My Tho and the second is part of Ben Tre Province.

On Unicorn we relaxed at a tea house with “honey tea” made with bee pollen, honey, fresh lime juice and tea. The tea was served with dried banana, ginger candy, and other traditional snacks. We bought several scrumptious items to share with the staff back at the university.  
Modeling this years Boa, beautiful neck adornment
  Further along the island we and made port at a coconut candy workshop where we again tasted the product and bought stuff to share with our friends back on the campus. At one stop Leanna took a look at a traditional musical instrument and the musician loaned her a pick so she could hit some notes -- after we enjoyed some beautiful traditional-style music and singing.

Leanna getting music lessons while
Ms Vinh pays close attention.
Piloting the mighty MeKong
 Next we boarded a SMALL canoe for a paddled trip down a channel to meet the Mekong    rendezvous with the launch. The small boat was rowed by a man and woman who seemed pretty expert to me at following the quick moving channel without stress. Back on the larger boat we crossed more of the MeKong River or 9 Dragon River to Phoenix Island. As we headed out into the Mekong the boat man let me take the tiller for a   (very) short ways so now I have bragging rights, “I piloted a craft on the 9 Dragon River.” Whoa! 

Fancy Dining -- multi-course course on 
Vietnamese eating on the Mekong
On Phoenix Island we had our multi-course lunch featuring Elephant Fish   and other delights that I mentioned earlier. During lunch we learned that our driver was a military veteran and had seven bullet wounds while serving. That was a sobering bit of information and set us to thinking while we ate – it is hard to comprehend what it must have felt like to get hit by a burst of seven bullets. After we ate our big lunch we took a foot tour of the Island and marveled at the size of the Mekong.   We had only crossed two of the 9 dragons and each was larger than most rivers that we experienced such as the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Snake and Columbia Rivers in the Pacific Northwest. We have no idea of the total volume of water carried by the Mekong but it is a lot. The Phoenix Island is famous as the location of the Coconut Monk who was imprisoned many times by the South Vietnamese because of his work for peace.

Posing outside the Snake Zoo
Later, before heading back to HCMC we went to a reptile, snake, zoo and were amazed at the number of different snakes that were on display including some cobras that did their standing up and striking bit for us.    Not wanting to shoot flash in the eyes of the reptiles I skipped the picture taking at the zoo. It was a fine day on the River -- and our first introduction to the "western provinces" and the MeKong Delta..

Monday, December 2, 2013

Blogging the work week. Finals are almost here! And Leanna the Judge!

Blogging the work week. Finals are almost here! And Leanna the Judge!
Dean Loan of   Finance and Banking presents awards to the Fantastic Four,
the overall First Place Team in the competition.

The past two weekends Leanna participated in a “panel of judges” for a student organized competition with cash rewards and scholarships – the major goal was to encourage and challenge students to use English in writing and speaking while strengthening their vocabulary. 

     The competition was organized by the Banking and Finance students and open to all TDT students – 400 of whom initially participated with written English essays. These were screened by the student organizers and selected lecturers. Leanna began her work with the “semi-finals” of 24 students who made public speaking presentations in English as well as handling Q-and-A with the panel of judges. The panel of judges then selected the final 12 competitors who were placed into 3 teams of four contestants competing for 3 levels of prizes. The final competition included a bingo-style quiz, timed Q-and-A and a role play simulation of a challenging business situation. Each of the teams did really well (each team had a name, special colors, decorations and a slogan). The 1st place winner was the “Fantastic Four.” There were really no “losers” because all top Twelve
The Blue Birds team receive their awards for the excellent work
they accomplished from Lecturer Leanna.
articipants received a cash reward and a scholarship reward and plenty of recognition. What impressed Leanna was not only the English-speaking ability of the students but that regardless of departments such as Foreign Language, Business Administration or Banking and Finance, the student perspective was NOT to be a millionaire and drive a fancy car, but rather how to combine respect, quality, effectiveness and other values to help build Vietnam's economy for the benefit of all. It was also impressive to see the planning skills, analytic skills and hard work of the students who organized the competition.

The past week and this week are all about final class sessions and review with students for final exams which begin Dec. 12th – two weeks of exams. One or two last chances to encourage students to make their contributions to strengthening the VGCL and VN unions! Lecturers do NOT administer the final exams nor do we know the specific questions that will be asked. Rather, as is done here at TDT for mid-term exams, there is special staff of the university that proctor the examinations using a very strict regimen. It seems as though this process is to eliminate any appearance of favoritism. Numerical identification connects the answer booklets to the exam taker so that the entire system compartmentalizes test-taking away from the lecture hall except for the exam content.
UCLA Labor Center poster that hangs in the Department Office and Leanna's temporary  display of our Certificates of Achievement awarded by the President of TDT University at Teacher's Day

Of course we have a good general idea of what will be asked since we taught the course and contributed a whole host of possible questions. All that aside our last few shifts we have been concluding our lectures; having our students do many simulations of the situations that they may have to deal with in collective bargaining, conflict resolution, grievance handling, social dialog, mediation, arbitration, etc.; stressing strategy and analysis; basic process and skills; Vietnam's Labor Code and Trade Union Law. Basic content here in VN also includes theory, human behavior, social and economic factors, team building, etc. Our experience is that we were able to cover more material per class than we originally thought possible – having a GREAT interpreter knowledgeable about labor made a big difference so that Ms. Vinh not only handled document and classroom translation but helped bridge our knowledge of VN economics and labor law. With Ms. Vinh's help we devised a strategy of having teams of students prepare presentations on each critical topic from the Vietnam experience/perspective so most class sessions were a combination of us and students educating together utilizing PowerPoints, discussions and simulations.
To-date feedback from students, Ms. Vinh and other faculty has been positive. We will see what the final exam and evaluations add to the picture!

Friday, November 22, 2013

*****  AMAZING Teachers Day in Vietnam  *****

Student Dancers from LDnCD
First of all preparation for Nov. 20 Teachers Day starts BEFORE the actual day.  Handmade cards, banners, flower decorations were ALL over the campus.  Monday night (18-11-13) we attended a student performance on campus that featured groups from several departments who “competed” to perform the best songs, dances and art showing honor for teachers and learning.  The students write and produce their own shows: choreography, costumes, select songs, lighting, staging, audio and then direct the performance.  Although I will admit to some (actually a lot of) bias, I felt that our Labor Relations Trade Union Department had one of the best, probably the very best presentation Monday night. The judges agreed and we found out on Teacher’s Day that our department’s troupe won.  Our department's players used as their theme “We are one” and sang, danced and acted with a variety of costumes reflecting the wide range of cultural images of Vietnam: traditional songs and dance, modern student dress from casual through a variety of uniforms: military, Youth Union, and student volunteer uniforms.  Another element of the event was each department “competing” to have the loudest and most visible audience  -- and the Business Administration Department sure made a lot of noise (this is a HUGE department).  We sat in the midst of our student body in the audience and everyone cheered, clapped and hollered for each and every performance.    Although every department's performance was excellent the runner up, in our opinion, used the American War as the scenario for a patriotic performance.  And yes, there were Vietnamese fighters dressed in “black pajamas”, a form of dress based on traditional styles and that provided excellent camouflage in the jungle, forests and rice fields where the shadows are black against the multiple shades of green that surround you in VN.  Then followed Teachers Day…

*********    National Teacher’s Day – Wow!   ***********

Teachers Day begins with a ceremony at the front of the University
Wednesday this week (20-11-13) we celebrated our first national Teachers Day with the faculty of the university (FYI: In Vietnam the word faculty is very inclusive and includes the instruction staff (Professors, lecturers), Administrative staff and the staff that we refer to in the US as the Support or Classified Staff (Facility services and other services), and the student body.  The day could be divided into 4 main sections depending on the type of activity and the timing.  At 7:00am the instructional staff, administration and classified or support staff gathered in front of the administration building facing the statue of Ton Duc Thang.  After singing the Vietnam National Anthem and words from our Administration we filed up in columns with burning incense which we stuck into a large ceramic pot in honor of teachers and education.  This was a very dignified and serious measure highlighting the esteem of National Teachers Day in Vietnam. After we completed our incense placement we returned to the ranks we had formed earlier to wait for all the departments to finish.  There were no classes – all day teachers, workers, administrators, students interacted and shared fun OUTSIDE the classroom.
Then, almost magically a group appeared carrying signs on sticks and people began lining up by the signs.  Leanna and I had no idea what was happening and then Vinh, our extra-ordinary friend/fellow lecturer/interpreter/translator explained now people were forming up in new lines to take part in the athletic competitions among the entire faculty (except for students).  It was strongly suggested that I join the “running” event and after some cajoling (yeah, right – Leanna commentary) I consented.  The course was probably 2/3 of a kilo and I enjoyed running with my new friends from Vietnam.  I won a prize as the eldest competitor.  Students began joining in the fun as spectators, fan clubs, helping with logistics, etc.    
Ms Vinh and Hollis on tandem bike.
  Next Ms. Vinh and I competed as a team on a bicycle-built-for-two in a race that was probably about 2 ½ miles in length with 12 sharp turns.  We almost fell over at the start and ended up dead last out of six teams out of the gate so to speak.  We pumped hard and began to catch up by the first turn and made up our first place into 5th on the 2nd stretch.  Ms Vinh yelled to me to save energy for the end so we could finish.  We sprinted the last half lap and Ms Vinh brought us 2nd place victory with her power (I was bushed.).
Our Dean, on the left, playing football.
Now it was time to watch others “sporting” and we watched our    Dean, Professor Hoa, play football ( aka soccer in the USA) for the Biz Adm team since he also lectures for them. The game was fought furiously and it was getting hotter and hotter out on the field but after about an hour the other team pulled out a victory.  Final event was the “fishing contest” where Mr. Quang (LRTU Administrator) and Ms. Hien (recent graduate and probationary worker)   represented our department.  The fishing event was a wild affair held at the canal that cuts across the campus.  Alas our fisherman was assigned to the southeast side of the canal and the fish weren’t biting.
Our Fishing team,Mr. Quang in front of  Leanna and the
woman to the right side in high heels,  Ms Hien.

Once the fishing contest was over we rushed back to our room (everyone else used offices and bathrooms! )and got into serious clothes again to be ready for the 3pm Convocation where honors were handed out to many of the instructors by the University President and Vice-Presidents after a moving student performance including several from our department.   Leanna and I were presented certificates for our contribution to the internationalization of Ton Duc Thang University as part of UCLA Labor Center’s ongoing international solidarity work– it was such an honor in front of the faculties and students.  To work at a University named for the first President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam who was also an educator and a comrade in arms with Ho Chi Minh – wow!  Ton Duc Tang is known as a revolutionary leader who taught literary and politics to fellow revolutionaries while imprisoned by the French.  You can jail the revolutionary but you can’t jail the revolution!
Thêm chú thích
At the conclusion of this stately celebration that included many special guests seated at the front of the auditorium: guests such as VGCL leaders, VCP dignitaries, retired instructors, government members and the Board of Directors members of our University we all went to a hosted dinner in the newly constructed Sports Arena. (dinner photo).  

  The buffet was an amazing selection of seafood, fish, vegetables, beef and pork, bamboo sprouts, and on and on plus excellent Saigon Beer for toasts to teachers, education and Vietnam.  It was a real gala event for everyone on campus.
Our Table Salutes Teachers Day
We share all these details to try to convey to you, dear friends, that education and learning are CELEBRATED and VALUED here in Vietnam in a way we have never before experienced.  While there still exists a formality in some teaching methods, we observe an underlying cultural (which includes the impact of the Vietnamese Revolution) and societal and economic respect for integrating learning into one’s life.  Increasingly this underlying respect and integration influences teaching methods, workplace organization (which is part of the challenge of Vietnam’s economic development, in our opinions), the role and structure of people’s organizations, evolution of academic policies – this is significant!  This is such a contrast in context and theory and practice to our experience of education in the USA.    We knew when we came to Vietnam that we would probably learn more than we had to share with faculty and students here at TDT.  We had no idea!  We now hope we will be able to share some of the education insights and practices we have gained here in Vietnam with our teacher and organizer buddies in the USA as we all continue our work for a better world of peace and justice for all workers.  Celebrate teachers and learning!

Check out the Ton Duc Thang University HCMC website,,  where you can click on the British Flag in the upper right hand corner for an English translation.  Not only will you see information about Teachers Day but you can get other information about TDT.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Typhoon/s in the Vietnam Area.

Shelter: Filipino residents sleep on the floor of a gymnasium turned into an evacuation center in Sorsogon City in the Bicol region

A weather picture of Haylan
 note the well formed storm center
and the density around the center.
As many of our readers are well aware there was a horrendous typhoon, Haylan, that a few days ago devastated parts of the Philippine Islands and then veered north by northwest across the East Asia Ocean and swept across the eastern part of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam before heading into The People's Republic of China. 

Devastation: Debris which was washed in by the storm litters the road by the coastal village in Legazpi city. Residents now face a long clean up operation to repair the damage to their homes
Note the dead animal amidst the debri

A few friends have asked whether our area was affected and the answer is no with a clarification.  A tropical depression/storm did come our way a few days before Haylan did its damage and that storm caused some flooding in downtown HCMC but not in our area as far as we know.

Downpour: As well as strong winds, the typhoon brought with it torrential rain which caused landslides in rural parts of the country

  In other words the hit area was north and west of the campus.  Streets were flooded and we saw some pictures that showed some places that it looked like some downstairs open front stores might have been flooded, but no deaths that we heard about.  In the north a reported 13 people died in the swath cut by the storm on its way north and there was flooding and wind damage.  There were some more deaths in China but neither country had the terrible death toll and damages that occurred in the Philippines.  Although we have no positive way of knowing for sure my opinion is that is while there are the disaster groups trying to raise money for typhoon relief and they mention only the Philippines and not Vietnam or China [Or at least we have not heard of any relief being sent this way from other countries.].  On the other hand Vietnam sent $100,000 in emergency aid to the Philippines immediately, reportedly the same amount sent by the US government.

A picture of the typhoon from space
that again illustrates the power of the
storm and its strong construction.

Now, having said that it is important to realize the difference in the governments of the nations involved.  Vietnam is a Socialist Republic and takes as its first responsibility the security and safety of its people and therefore several days before the typhoon reached this area there were some extensive evacuations.  Then the people's army of Vietnam began moving large amounts of rice and other food stuffs into the areas along the east coast and the northern areas that were hit to provide immediate relief and life saving.  This is not a particular political criticism of the Philippines, no country could have escaped without widespread damage and desolation from a typhoon, a Pacific Ocean Hurricane, with winds of 195mph with gusts close to 250 mph.  If you have any doubts about global warming and the havoc it  is creating around the globe just consider what this storm did to the Islands.  At this  point we are hearing numbers like 12,000 dead, hundreds of thousands of housing lost, 800,000 people displaced and the tolls and the devastation will probably rise because of illness, malnutrition or starvation, and the like.  Our own nation has been having more hurricanes although from what we have heard and seen here this year there was an unexpected absence of hurricanes but the drought is still severe for the third year in big parts of the US including in our home town of Los Angeles.

It needs to be  added that we donate money almost ever day for disaster relief for the two typhoons that hit the central coast of Vietnam about 6 and 8 weeks ago respectively with great losses of crops, infrastructure, and some lives.  In the housing, dorm, where we live there is a box set up where we all drop money in to go to the areas that were flooded and suffered catastrophic wind damages around and north of Hue.

There have been large and regular blood drives here on campus along with the donation collections mentioned above.  These repeated typhoons do significant damage to Vietnam's infrastructure of electricity and water, flood crops and agricultural land, destroy rural housing, etc.  The level of systematic organization and mobilization in Vietnam is impressive -- advance monitoring and warnings, evacuation alerts and transportation (includes release of children from schools), collective sandbagging, mobilization of medical supplies and care as well as food, etc.  Since we've been in Vietnam the fishermen in some provinces have organized their own union -- citing improved boat-to-boat and harbor-to-boat communications for weather alerts as one of the motivations (other reasons include cooperative fishing to improve catches and better preserve the long term health of fishing stock environmentally and also to better deal collectively with brokers/middlemen).  Evidently already the fishermen are seeing results on the safety/protection of boats issue.  The issue of these serious storms hits close to home here on campus as many of the students come from the impacted provinces with working class/farmer families.

We know the scale of devastation in the Philippines is horrific -- and we know many of you are joining us and the people of Vietnam in sending whatever each of us can to our Filipino sisters and brothers as they meet the challenges ahead of finding surviving family, friends and neighbors, mourning the dead and rebuilding their lives and communities.

Our understanding of the critical importance of global warming and climate change is now more real.   Our sisters and brothers of the Asia Pacific region are strongly leading and calling us to action way beyond immediate disaster relief.  Our future's are shared!