Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Impressive students of Ton Duc Thang University

The Vietnam experiences continue to inspire us as we learn more and more about the Vietnamese higher education system and make more friends.

We couldn't resist sharing two more photos from the annual TDT team-building of Hollis playing beach volleyball and one of the fishing boats that anchored and motored out to sea daily (note the smaller round boats which were used to get to/from the beach).  We can vouch that these are talented fishermen since it was their fresh catch of octopus and crabs that we enjoyed late one night.

Last Sunday we had a little party in our dorm apartment to share all the trip snacks and treats with some of the "volunteer students" who have been so helpful with visiting museums, translating, and orienting us to Vietnam.  The students were foreign language and labor relations majors and EVERYONE enjoyed the dragon fruit (red and white), candy from Hue, "big ears" cookies, dried fish, DELICIOUS salty/sweet dried bananas, milk and chocolate candies -- we all ate good!  Each and every region seems to have special food, so we are in for some on-going thrills when we travel beyond HCMC.  While munching we really enjoyed getting to know each of the students better and learning more about differences between college and university studies here in Vietnam, progressing from high school to higher education, etc.

  The following day we were invited to observe the Labor Relations Department B.A. students present and defend their THESES!  The top 7 students in the department were invited to write a thesis and use this process rather than take a final exam in order to receive their B.A. degree.  The Committee hearing and evaluating each thesis included 3 faculty including the Dean of the Department, a VGCL (the Vietnamese National Labor Federation) leader and a Human resources manager from one of the State Owned Enterprises.  After a rigorous afternoon of PowerPoint presentations and then responding to serious questions from the Committee, the students left the room while the Committee deliberated.  The students were called back into the room, given their scores and then congratulated -- all of them passed.  We were very impressed with the topics for the theses and have been able to meet with some of the students to learn more about their research.  You can see that the students traditionally wear the ao dai for such important occasions as do many of the faculty and various leaders.  The students at TDT have a beautiful pink fabric they use which includes a printed pattern of the University name TDT.  Many of the Labor Relations majors tell us they are interested in working in the labor movement here and are quite inspiring with their interests and motivations.  And remember that TDT was founded by the VGCL and continues with its active support and participation --- what a difference of the role of the labor movement in society. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Off to the Beach I.E. Team Building for Staff and Faculty of the University

Report from Vietnam --- a trip to a resort that is a union specified/negotiated activity for organized businesses and public or not-for profit employers: practically speaking covering the employees of many employers of size in Vietnam.  In our case we as faculty of the University were invited to the annual Team Building retreat along with the rest of the faculty and what would be called the "classified staff" in my experience in the USA.  In other words all the employees who are not faculty.  Many spouses, children and grandchildren also participated.  Impressive to see the TDT administration (both the President and one of the Vice Presidents attended) and the VGCL Union leaders working together to see that all of the trip details were a success.
Anyway, 500+ employees of the University boarded some 9 large buses and headed for a resort that was about a six hour drive from the campus (which is located in eastern Ho Chi Minh City).   The buses were not just your average bus but were accommodations that were as good or better than those on an airliner --- well coach class anyway.  On the way  to the resort got a few photos that tell a bit of the story of these provinces of Vietnam but can't explain anywhere near the whole of this nation of about 80 million, 60% percent of whom are under the age of 30.
We crossed the Saigon River on the second highest suspension bridge in the country that was built in the past few years and has only been open for about a year if I understood correctly.  As we rose high over the port we could see the ocean going ships as well as the shipyards that have been part of the nation for many years. We were heading north and soon passed through the port and city of Bien Hoa, an Industrial Zone that is HUGH and one of the oldest zones (dates back to the French) and still growing at a fast rate.  A few more miles and we passed the Long Binh area and then out into the countryside.  There are roadside businesses along the highway and we saw lots of fresh produce for sale as well as hundreds of motorbike repair shops, gas stations, and small cafes and restaurants serving pho and other foods.  One of the great sights was outdoor cafes that also include hammocks so travelers can eat, drink and take a nap.  At one point we passed through several rubber plantations and noticed rubber workers at the side of the trees collecting latex and it brought to mind that one of the products that the west had for trying to hold on to Vietnam was natural rubber --- the Michellin plantations if my old brain remembers accurately.  But it might have been Perrelli, Firestone or all.  Michellin is the best remembered because it was the remains of the French colonialism that the west hoped to preserve in the south.
Noted the highway to Vung Tau as passed by the turn off --- it is another large port and maybe a place to take a trip one day while we are here.
In the last miles before reaching the resort we passed through the land of the "thanh long" the dragon fruit that is delicious and nourishing at the same moment.  The fruit has the ability to make you feel cool on the hottest days.  We ate some several times and I will attest that it did seem to provide relief from the heat or maybe I was willing for relief and accepted an illusion as fact --- in any case dragon fruit is delicious.  The red fruit that you see stacked like pyramids is dragon fruit - thanh long.  I will try to get and post a close up of a piece of the fruit, we have some in our refrigerator.
The resort in Phan Thiet in Binh Thuan province was gorgeous with beautiful beach (there was a marathon volleyball competition of departments and Hollis played hard in the sand as part of the Labor Relations/Trade Union department -- we did not win the prize), lots of local fisherman and boats nearby, formal team building but mostly informal singing, drinking (we finally experienced the famous Vietnamese homemade white lightening), delicious meals, swimming in the ocean and in saltwater pools and an outrageous marathon when each department performed a song or skit. Not sure we'll ever post it, but the Labor Relations/Trade Union Department (including us) performed Solidarity Forever with Hollis and I attempting to introduce us all in Vietnamese.  We even got to enjoy FRESH seafood on the beach under the moonlight with TDT friends who included us in their knowledge of the countryside tradition of fishermen informally cooking and serving their catch.  We really do feel like part of the TDT family as we meet and get to know more and more of the faculty, support staff and students!  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Well, here it is Sunday in Vietnam and Saturday in LA and time for a few more observations about HCMC and the Ton Duc Thang University where we reside.  First, the Opening Ceremony for the new Sports Stadium and Field House was a splendid event with lots of sub-events of the large event: sports, martial arts, choral and dance performances.  In all just a lot of fun with serious speeches thrown in for the dedication of the  building. Of course the President of the University spoke as well as the leader of the VGCL.  The Vietnamese General Labor Confederation is one of the creators and sponsors of this University as well as several others in the country.  The VGCL is committed to the education of the working class and the whole nation which has near 100% literacy that puts it in the highest achievers of that status in the world.  After all the arts performances a basketball game was held in the new field house and a football game in the stadium.  Now I am going to try to add a short video of part of one of the performances.   If I lose the wifi signal you may have to wait for the video.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

We are attending the grand opening ceremony of the new sports facility tomorrow!

These two pictures are of the invitation that Leanna and I received to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Multi-Functional Stadium here at the University.  The event will be part of the Vietnam Trade Union Conference --- session XI, which is being held by the Vietnam General Federation of Labor, the powerful organization of unions that represents the working class in political work as well as organizing unions, bargaining, and seeing to the welfare of the working class.   

The chair of the People's Committee of HCMC will be attendance and well as union members, students, and so on.  There will be martial arts performers, musical performers, and then the  first ball game to be held in the new stadium.  All in all it will be a great day and we look forward to is with relish.

The preparation of the materials for our classes is about together though we keep making some adjustments as we learn more about what is happening with trade unions here and we change our vocabulary to take advantage of our developing understanding.  In other words we want to be understood as well as possible.

We now have a HD TV in our room and there are a few channels that are in English so that will give us a bit of entertainment --- otherwise we have read quite a few mystery novels during our evenings.

Leanna is making good progress on picking up Vietnamese but me not so well.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More on construction and the pace of our lives in HCMC

A CONSTRUCTION BARGE WORKING IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD BUILDING A BRIDGE ACROSS ONE OF THE MANY CANALS BUILT DURING THE COLONIAL PERIOD AND STILL USED FOR MUCH TRANSPORT.  This canal would be used by smaller boats used by family businesses that ply the rivers moving materials and goods from one place to another as well as being floating homes.

In a few days on July 19th we will be privileged to be at the dedication of a new stadium and sports facility at the University. We have watched in the little over three weeks that we have been here as the complex is near completion. The work on the facility has been carried on night and day and in a couple of pretty serious rain storms and winds. The football stadium is beautiful with a carpet of green and all the markings as if the first game were going to be this Friday rather than a big celebratory grand opening and dedication. The new complex is across the street from our room and just north of the swimming pool that is about 10 yards from our door and where we take a dip upon occasion.  Below is a picture less than ten days ago that illustrates the work that was still to be completed and yet in just three days we will attend the opening.  Wow!

In the picture of a couple of days ago you saw the students, Leanna and I having coffee sitting on stools out-of-doors on a sidewalk --- they call this a sidewalk Coffee and it is very popular with young students and workers in the downtown area. It is strange to have it juxtaposed with a very little distance away shops like Christian Dior, Armani and others that are located in an area where there are wealthy tourists and management for the foreign owned businesses. 


 The rate of construction that you observe as you travel in several areas of the city remind you of books or scenes from movies documenting the building of the big European and North American cities during the second half of the 1800s and the early to mid-1900s. Not to say that there isn’t much construction going on in the rest of the world right now but honestly this seems like construction on steroids with a frenetic pace. Many women work on construction here, as we have noted, but probably they are nowhere near a majority of that work force.

On the other hand in a large shopping center where we shop a lot, Lotte Mart, there are literally hundreds of employees at work at all times, well all the times that we have been there. Not just your normal people stocking inventory, moving things around, and cashiering but in almost every aisle there are workers posted to help shoppers find items or giving out samples of food etc. One sampler was for cold beer --- something I haven’t seen being distributed in sample cups in US stores. Curiously missing from the shelves of the big markets are vitamins --- perhaps they will be found in the next mall that we visit whenever that may be.

The above picture is a portrait produced by an artist on a bamboo "curtain" inside a frame and over a red background which you can't see here except as a tinting of the picture.  If the vertically hanging curtain/s are moved then the background comes alive.  The principles are Ton Duc Thang on the right and Ho Chi Minh on the left.

Next week we will be on a faculty/staff trip to the coast where we will stay in a nice hotel and make use of the beach and other facilities. The entire faculty/staff make this sojourn at least once a year together to build team feelings and participate together in team-building games and exercises and we are looking forward to this opportunity it meet our co-workers.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Our First Motorbike excursion!

In the early afternoon of 7/13/13 Leanna and I took Leanna's first motorbike trip and my second.  Leanna packed with a new acquaintance Hue while I rode behind Vinh (our TDT translator) who loaned us helmets. You will find, if I can remember how to get a picture inserted, a foto of Leanna behind Hue. Hopefully you can see that many Vietnamese women wear protective clothing including socks and long gloves, but not all do!  Without a doubt motorbikes are the mode for transportation in HCMC.  You see buses (frequent and many routes -- costs about 25 cents USA) and taxis, but very few personal cars.  Motorbikes parking is provided at most shopping places or on the sidewalk with 1-4 people to watch the bikes.  It continues to amaze Leanna to watch the flow of traffic!
Our destination was the Reunification Palace and Park/Museum.  This museum is in the famous Presidential Palace built in 1962-1964 by the "government of South Vietnam" with US assistance.  It was, truly, a fort to protect the unpopular government leaders appointed for the Vietnamese by their American sponsors.  You will remember the building as the one from which we saw famous photos of the US Marines fleeing in disarray onto Huey Helicopters on the top of the building and the people who had assisted the US gathering and cajoling at the gates of the grounds asking the Americans to take them out of the country, too.   The palace and museum are beautiful 1960s/Asian fusion architecture.  Rather than get destroyed by liberation, the building was carefully protected by the liberation troops and then restored by the People's Socialist Republic of Vietnam for use as part museum showing the bunker/military operations of the failed South Vietnamese President AND for use now by the government for greeting foreign diplomats, conducting special public events, etc.  So the formal and beautiful rooms for meetings, entertaining, etc. are now in use.  Visitors (it was free) included more Vietnamese than foreigners -- and it was crowded!  An incredible combination of history of the war (photos of concentration camps USA called strategic hamlets, photos of liberation of HCMC, etc.) with beautiful architecture now used by the Vietnamese.  See photo of the palace/museum further below.
1st Photo with this narrative is a picture of the Ton Duc Thang Museum. Mr. Ton was the first President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and a leader for years and years of the Communists and the people of the nation.  Ton was a close friend and ally of Ho Chi Minh.  This museum does not get many foreign visitors and our little crowd was the only group when we went (also free).  Again, inspiring combination of history, personal story of TDT and great art exhibit with many types of art celebrating TDT.  Especially moving was the exhibit about the notorious French prison where so many Vietnamese freedom fighters died and that became for TDT and many other Vietnamese a place for literacy, political study and development of strong Communist Party leaders and members.  In both museums we had great conversations with the students.
Our student friends and Vinh sit with us having tea, sodas, and Vietnamese coffee while seated on small stools on the sidewalk in District 1 north and east of the centre of downtown HCMC.  This was really FUN!  A kid (maybe 10-12 years old with older women relatives) was running the operation out of a van packed with everything he needed for drinks and even some food.  He had 2 menus and a great sense of humor.  You can see our motorbikes amongst the bikes parked in the background.  Students, workers and even more middle-class types (and, we're told the police and traffic officers -- there ain't many of them to be seen!) prefer these sidewalk cafes unless they need wireless or are having a more formal business meeting.  The sidewalk cafes are EVERYWHERE.  More wonderful conversation with the students (practicing their English) about their studies, work goals, etc.  Not a pretty picture watching Leanna clamour on and off the motorbike and short plastic stools.  But such FUN and so much learning for us!!

The above building is the Re-unification Palace and Park area and our student friends with Leanna.

Leanna and Hue, the driver, on the First Motor Bike tour!
Hue is Vinh's best friend, is from Dak Lak Province in Highlands of Vietnam, famous for coffee and elephants.  Dak Lak is also the area where Hmong traditionally live.  Hue is getting married in September, so we had interesting conversation about wedding and marriage customs, how she and Vinh think about personal relationships, differences in cultures and attitudes in various areas of Vietnam.  Hue is a musician, her man friend does "lights and sound for events".  We hope to visit Hue at the HCMC community Music Center where she works.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


One of the joys and characteristics of  HCMC is the absolute swarms of motorbikes careening down the streets with 1, 2, 3, 4 or many people on one  bike.  And the bikes include "trucks" made from a motorcycle or motor bike that is now fitted with a cargo area of several square feet, sometimes designed as three wheeled motorcycles/bikes.  We have observed these carrying big loads, maybe a ton or more of steel or steel cable as well as other loads that are stacked higher than the rider and lashed down. Sure, these trucks accelerate a bit slower but they still tool right along with traffic --- pictures will be forthcoming.

Well, now to the excitement of my first ride which took place on Sunday night here, Saturday night in Los Angeles.  I have been trying to get some calcium tablets and multi-vitamins to no avail so far at the super market.  I didn't look at one market and the other didn't have either product and Leanna and I mentioned this in passing to one of the volunteers, Dat.  Well, about 30 minutes later he shows up at our door and asks me if  I would like to go shopping for the calcium and vitamins, that he has time available to take me.  Sure I say and he says to meet in the courtyard by the canteen in fifteen minutes, okay.  In 10 minutes I am out there enjoying the fresh breeze and the night while listening to the students around me and Dat pulls up on his motorbike.  Honestly I was in shock for a few seconds --- my thoughts ranged from do I really want to go to the store to how do I say no, thank you --- but then I thought what the heck I have to get on a bike sooner or later.  We put on our helmets and took off around the streets on campus where there was little traffic toward the boulevard that fronts the campus and is very BUSY.  Of course I am wondering what it will be like driving in the midst of the traffic swarm but there we went charging out into traffic with a California stop. I forgot to mention it had rained hard about an hour before and there were puddles and so forth and I am thinking about slipping on the pavement.  It was exciting and I will write more soon but now work calls.
Ho Chi Minh City --- July 10.  And I will get a picture on a motorbike, maybe.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

City scapes of area close to campus in HCMC Ho Chi Minh City District 7

Friends, above you see a group of people and their boat who are living in the forest across the canal from the  University.  We don't know much about these folks but we have watched them ply their boat along the waterway and guide it into their parking area in front of the tents that you an see through the trees and large leafy plants. We took our morning walk today and the boat wasn't there --- the people had probaby already gone to work fishing or whatever it is that they do in this bustling city.

As we continued our morning walk we thought it would be good to put up our first picture of the city scape high rises that are an imposing feature of the City.  From the campus I believe that this picture is taken to the west and north, I have yet to get all my bearings but I am working on it, and will have it down soon.  No matter, it is evident from the pictures the amount of new construction that has been built in District 7 and more is going up.



On the campus of TDT University there is, except on the weekend, almost constant motion.  People moving, construction and students on motorbikes.  Even on the weekend there is one place where the work and the workers never stop twenty four hours a day and that is the construction zone of the new Sports Stadium complex that is set to be dedicated on July19th, just eleven days from now.  The complex has a beautiful stadium for football (soccer) and a large arena for indoor sports. The stadium is across the street from our dorm room, maybe 50 foot away, and we see the changes each day as it nears completion.

Leanna mentioned the swimming pool that is outside the door to our room, well we went swimming about two hours ago and loved it.  As people told us before we came here, HCMC is quite warm and the pool was a delight.

I don't know the numbers but from our observation walking by the construction every day I can tell you that there are many women construction workers busy on the site, more than we would observe in the U.S.

Construction is a theme in the District 7 where the campus is located.  A few days ago a new friend took us to lunch in the new neighborhood a little east and north of here and much construction was visible in that area.  In another post we will put a couple of skyline pictures of the area that illustrates the skyscrapers and other construction that is transforming the city.  At the south side of our dorm building there is a navigable channel/canal probably 100 foot wide and the other side is a jungle/forest and we have been told that where are building stands was the same way just four or five years ago.

Enough for now.

Campus Tour

July 7, 2013
TDT campus is very modern with up-to-date physical facilities and electronics -- although wireless fluctuates from building to building and time of day.  TDT is located in District 7 of HCMC which is one of the newest, most modern and expensive areas of the city -- lots of foreigners.  More on the area immediately around the campus later.  We've arrived during the break between semesters and during the administration of the National Exams for university entrance.  Many students have gone home to see their families.  There are three main buildings -- two are for classrooms, labs (both science and simulation -- an example is a lab designed to function like a bank) and faculty offices.  The administration building houses 3 libraries -- a reading room, book library and electronic library, large auditorium and administrators' offices.  The entire campus is designed to represent an industrial gear and is full of sculpture and art -- note the photo of the stack-of-books sculpture.  There are water fountains, beautiful gardens and landscaping.  There are two canteens on campus that provide food and drinks at a reasonable cost as well as two stores that sell basic student supplies, clothing and some food.  The canteens and shops are privately owned and operated with a system to both control prices and generate some income for the University.  There are two large dormitories where we have a main floor single apartment that is very comfortable.  Lucky for us much of the campus is air conditioned.  Leanna has become a devotee of hand fans, handkerchiefs and umbrellas.  There are lots of locations outside for students to relax and study -- yard swings, breezeways with tables and chairs and  benches -- all of which are used.  There is also a large outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, volleyball and basketball courts and outside exercise machines.  The entire campus is amazingly clean and well-kept with no trash, no graffiti.  There is an extensive system (which appears to be centered around the Youth Union) of student volunteers for a large number and broad range of campus-related tasks. There two large parking areas for student motorbikes that hold hundreds or perhaps a thousand bikes each.  Most of the motorcycles are small hondas and yamahas.  Many are step through fashion, what we usually call motor scooter style, that are easy to ride.  Helmets are the law and we haven't seen but a few people without them and usually not out on public streets.

To-date the students have been a great experience -- very interested to learn our opinions about USA and Vietnam, highly motivated to practice English, and very open telling us about their families, college work and career hopes.  Several of them are available to assist us in everything from learning where to shop off-campus to how to use the dorm washing machine to riding the bus.  We'll share impressions from a recent outting with the students to September 23 Park (Saigon Liberation Day!) in another post.

Vietnam and its people are as beautiful and inspiring as friends told us!

Monday, July 1, 2013

2nd day and first post from our office in Ho Chi Minh City

Leanna and I are sitting in our office at TDT University, B103, that we have moved into yesterday on the First of July.  We are going over the plan and some of the curriculum that we have prepared with our staff assistant and translator.  It turns out that we have been asked to do lectures for two other departments, both faculty and students as well as help with the English language clubs where we may help in oral language teaching, TESL to a degree.  And it looks like we will also teach 5 weeks of class for two more classes than the two we originally prepared to teach --- busy, busy, busy.  Our assistant and translator whom we are sitting with right now is a faculty member hired to work with us and the department and she will work with us through the semester.  We have already developed a lot of confidence in her ability.

Yesterday we had a great introduction to the University and a walking tour of it lead by the Dean of the department and our assistant.  Then we went out an bought a cell phone lead by our assistant who then took us to the Ben Thanh market which was a fabulous experience.  It probably covers 4 square blocks under one roof with hundreds of small stalls of merchants and many people selling and buying. It is as you may have seen in movies depicted as organized chaos.  It is where many tourists go as well as the local folks.  We bought an umbrella, the sun can be very hot here.  It is about 95 degrees F and 90% humidity so we have been a bit uncomfortable.  The folks here at the U are fabulous and our small apartment/large room is just fine.  There is a canteen just outside our room where we eat meals for maybe 75 cents per meal each.

Waiting in Seoul Inchon Airport

At the Seoul airport in Incheon waiting for our airplane to Vietnam.  We got here about 5am and it is now 6am and our plane leaves at about 8:30.  Then five more hours and we will be tired but in Ho C