Wednesday, August 21, 2013

VuLan Lunch with Students from TDT on Buddhist/Vietnamese Holiday


21-8-13 – VU LAN HOLIDAY TREAT ( A Buddhist experience). On Monday, 19-8-13 we taught our first class of the semester, but more about that later, and returned to our office to start putting together the materials for our Tuesday class. About 10:30 a student contacted our interpreter and asked if she would ask us about going to lunch with a group of our students. We were surprised and happy at the request and said sure, “Where are we going?” Vinh said that we should meet the students downstairs by the bus stop though we would walk to the restaurant which was just across the street from the campus. Vinh then told us that the students were inviting us because they would be celebrating Vu Lan, a Vietnamese Buddhist holiday that is set aside for honoring all ancestors and especially ones parents and our students wanted to honor us by hosting us for lunch at a Buddhist Pagoda.

What a turn of events this was. Instead of going back to our dorm room or the canteen to eat soup or sandwiches we were going to a Pagoda for a lunch honoring (grand)parents. At about noon we hurried down stairs to join the a group of about three or four women students who were waiting to walk us over to the Pagoda. Our group arrived in about five minutes and found that we were a part of a larger group of at least 12 students who were waiting for us. We had entered the building that seemed to be a restaurant from the front and we thought, how nice, a small place but plenty of room. Instead, the entire group were lead through another door and we now found ourselves in a larger room with several tables that were pulled together to provide us all with a seat. We were actually seated inside the Pagoda. It should be noted that almost all of the women in our group were dressed in pink and white ai dai very much the same as you see in the pictures accompanying the “Open Day” blog a few days ago. There are several TDT students who we learned are regular volunteers at the Pagoda helping to prepare and serve food. On most days we believe that the food is sold very inexpensively so it is a popular student eating spot.  The volunteers from the University wore a gray specific outfit that we were told identified them as volunteers working in the Buddhist Pagoda. Also present was a Buddhist Monk who welcomed us as guests and shook our hands and then the staff started serving us a several course vegetarian dinner centered around rice but with lots of different vegetables and fruit fixed to go with the rice. Around the interior of the Pagoda was art work illustrating the life and travels of the Buddha as well as several statues of the Buddha. At that Pagoda and at Pagodas all around the country food was being served for free to encourage the love and respect for ancestors and parents. To us this seemed to be a small and modest Pagoda with an open air restaurant and gardening.
PhotoThis photo and the one above are of art work on the campus of TDT.

The fragrance of incense was in the warm air swirling through the Pagoda and all in all it was a new and enjoyable experience for us to be a part of this with the students. When everyone left everyone gathered their shoes and guided by two students we navigated back across one helluva busy street.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Sunday before the first class day of the semester is special at Ton Duc Thang University. The day is referred to as “Open Day” and students and their parents are invited on campus for a day of information, sports, cultural presentations including song and dance, martial arts, and lots of fun. The celebration takes place from 8am till late afternoon. We participated by joining the students and Faculty of our Labor Relations Department at a table where we met potential new students and their parents and welcomed them to the University. The information tables were staffed by students who were assisted by faculty.  There was lots of Q and A about our department and our pride in Labor Relations and Trade Unions and its important role on the campus and in society. In addition to the discussion with the parents we displayed a video to interest people in the department. Together with the other departments sharing tables on the plaza of Building B we attracted lots of parents and students.

When we walked around campus we saw groups of 40 and 50 parents with their students taking guided walking tours of the buildings, grounds and facilities such as the Sports Arena and the football (soccer) field. If for any reason a person preferred to be transported on campus nice vans were available that shuttled parents to the different locations. It was a day of excitement! In this country as in the USA, parents may be seeing their daughter or son off to school and away from home for the first time and they have the same concerns of making sure that everything is going to be just fine.

Close to our table was the table of the science and technology students and faculty and they brought a lot of fun to the event with their collection of robots made on campus. The robots drove around among the crowed, sensed barriers and changed direction to the enjoyment of the crowd. I shot a couple of short videos of the robots in action! At one point Leanna and I were invited to go over to the technology table where we placed our little finger into a electronic health scanner that checked heart rate, blood pressure and many other health signs in a matter of a few seconds and output the results on to a screen. We both were rated very healthy.  Photo

At another corner of the plaza the hotel industry students and faculty set up their facility and were serving samples of nicely concocted drinks to adults. I had a delicious rum drink, maybe a Havana Libre or something like that.Photo No one was allowed more than one sample drink and no students, thank you. In the picture above we posed with a Duck that was on campus for the day holding our drinks.

Later from our dorm room we heard the cheering from the football stadium as the games progressed and music from the Arena and almost constant drumming. In Vietnam a soccer game is not complete with each team's drums!  Sports and cultural activities are highly prized here and we got our fill today. Volunteers from the Youth Union and campus student groups performed and directed people around – it is expected that all students at the campus will volunteer in activities to serve the people and they take great pride in their service – putting people before profits – one of the demands so often within the movement in the US.

After the day's activities, we joined the TDT Business Administration faculty at a restaurant across the boulevard from the college to celebrate the start of a new semester.  GREAT seafood and a chance to get to know some of the newer lecturers.   

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Wonderful Coffee Time with Ms Dang Hong Nhut -- a remarkable new acquaintance!

17-8-13 -- Report on a wonderful cafe time this morning with Ms Dang Hong Nhut, the Vice President Secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin, a veteran who served in the “Long Haired Army”.   Ms Nhut was accompanied to the restaurant by her
Photograndson who was knowledgeable and proud of the part his grandmother has played in the history of their nation. We discussed the effects of agent orange/dioxin on humans, animals and the land and soil and how even after all these years it is still killing folks and causing children to be born with major defects. Leanna and I assured her that we will continue to work on this issue when we return home. In turn Ms Nhut invited us to visit a workshop where agent orange/dioxin victims are taught skills that make use of the talents they have so that they live with all possible dignity and contribute to building VN's future. We accepted the invitation and will report on it in a future blog. 

This gracious and caring lady also invited us to go to the “Women's Museum”. This museum tells the history of Vietnamese women and the many roles they played in the struggle for freedom and equality.  We'll report on our museum visit as soon as possible!  We had a lively discussion about Vietnam today and about the role of the VGCL and the labor movement in moving the country forward as they represent an important link adding the strength of the working class to the challenge as building a modern nation.  As we discussed politics she shared with us her interest and knowledge of the USA Occupy Movement. 

After more than 1 ½ hours we broke up our meeting with a commitment to get together soon to continue the conversation and visit the workshop and meet the workers there. Incidentally, we had our coffee or cafe at the Trung Nguyen Coffee Shop and our coffee and refreshments were excellent -- think sophisticated Peet's. 

After we concluded our meeting our translator, the venerable Vinh, 
took us shopping at the Cho Tan Binh market – another giant building that has about 1000 shops under one roof, like Bien Thanh Market that we visited shortly after arriving in Vietnam.

Cho Tan Binh is newer than Bien Than but still older than me. Leanna found some blouses there and we looked at bolts of silk material sold for the construction of the Ao dai (Ow Yai) dresses for women and Ao Dai for men that are traditional silk “pajamas” that are worn on special occasions such as weddings … . To prevent mis-information, there are also Ao Dai for men and women that are worn on a daily basis as work clothes. Pictures of women at work in rice paddies dressed in ao dai are not unusual.  It was impressive to see row after row and little shop after little shop featuring beautiful silk fabrics.

   After arriving home after our talking and shopping morning we went out to get groceries, clothes, and some novels at our local shopping mart. Rather than take a taxi we took a route 86 bus. The driver posed for a picture beside his new bus, the bus was made in Vietnam at one of their new factories.  The accommodations in it were very sturdy and we felt comfortable and safe on our trip. Now this is important because it means that VN can modernize its mass transportation infrastructure utilizing locally made products so they create jobs for the working class, use new technology, and provide improvements for the use of the community, socialist theory and practice at work. Of course for developing countries like VN,  the USA and other developed countries often use trade agreements to  threaten trade sanctions against such VN manufacturing and products claiming they are "unfairly  subsidized by the VN government." 
 What hipocracy and a laugh: the USA subsidizes big oil with oil depletion tax allowances, subsidizes farmers not to grow food, subsidizes wind power generation and solar power generation, bails out Wall Street and banks with tax money (subsidy) and on and on. The USA claims their pro-corporate and pro-wealthy policies corporations are not a subsidy.  We say FAIR trade, not USA-version of FREE trade! 
   For the architecture and building buffs the picture below illustrates the construction of the very large open air buildings that house the Bien Thanh and Cho Tan Dinh markets.  Now I am no builder, though I worked on construction as a young man.  It appears to me that the lattice work supporting the roof in the photo is made from concrete.  It must have been quite a job to construct this with all the angles and triangles necessary to hold the weight of the roof with safety.   Now it may be that the roof is corrugated steel with windows here and there but though that would be lighter than a concrete roof or a clay brick roof it still would represent a considerable weight. 

 If a reader knows more about this type of construction please feel invited to leave a comment.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Little Humor in a Busy Time and more about life in Vietnam

16-8-13   Note: in Vietnam the day is listed first then the month and year.  Yesterday, Thursday in Vietnam and Wednesday in Los Angeles and most of the USA, Leanna and I were invited to join the Facebook group of the TDT Labor Studies Department.  Well, we joined and immediately started getting all sorts of invitations to be "friends" from lots of students, faculty and staff from the campus community.  We are rapidly accumulating new friends.

A post on the site even before we were invited to join  was a comment that one of the new foreign faculty members has been observed picking up trash while walking around the campus, depositing it in the trash cans, and that he should be emulated by the students.  Well, I hadn't noticed that I was observed picking things up, but I am greatly honored that a student would state that this teacher should be emulated in the actions of serving our campus community!  On one hand I felt a bit awkward that my compulsive behavior (if you've ever been with me walking our dogs, you will recognize this Hollis-ism) was noticed,  but I've been assured that the emulation was a show of respect and that it is good to be emulated.  We are learning that the concepts of competition, rewards, cooperation, recognition and emulation are different here in Vietnam than how we experience these at home.  We continue to learn about the combination of Vietnam culture and building socialism here!
.The Picture to the left was taken as we sat in a little coffee, tea, juice, and fruit milk shake bar a few blocks from the campus.  It seemed interesting to see the motor bikes through the spokes, ruins, of the wheel  as they whizzed by.  I also shot a short video of the same scene and I will try to post it below.

Hope you can enjoy the video.  I don't know how to make it stop repeating but you probably do.  More soon.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Some Thoughts on Vietnam, Colonialism and War

Agent Orange warfare materials being loaded up for killing anything that moves, destroying all plant life, contaminating land and ground water, and causing immediate and on-going birth defects and serious health problems to this day in the children and grandchildren of survivors.

Growing up in the USA deeply involved in anti-war, anti-colonialism and  national liberation support organizations, one doesn't face the effects of colonialism nor can one really understand the problems faced by nations after they have liberated themselves from the colonizers. At home in the USA, we take for granted all sorts of services and conveniences that are just not available in former colonies even years after their successful wars of liberation. We have forgotten what it means to be a colonized country even though we were a colony for a couple of hundred years and had to kick the butts of the stinking English Monarchists to get our freedom.   Now living in a former colony, even one such as Vietnam that has made great strides and is making giant steps forward, for even a few weeks we realize more vividly that during the colonial period everything was done to meet the needs of the colonizers.  While the colonizers took the wealth out of Vietnam, they didn't invest in infrastructure unless it was needed to increase their profit taking, make war on the indigenous peoples, or for their personal comfort --- the colonized were an after thought if they were considered at all.  For example sewer systems weren't constructed, nor clean water systems, nor power grids, nor highway or train systems unless they were required by the colonials to move their plunder to ports.  No universal school systems or hospitals and other medical services were available.  Add to this the reality of incredible war devastation of practically all bridges, ports, hospitals, schools, roads, farm land -- the list is endless as a result of the French and American wars in Vietnam.  So, at the moment of liberation, the newly independent Vietnam is faced both with a lack of capital (after the plundering of their country by the colonizers who have stolen billions if not trillions of dollars in labor and resources) and with the need to begin rebuilding from the ground up.  In the case of Vietnam, the nation was almost constantly at war for most of 130 years --- against the French, then the Japanese during WW2, then the French again until liberation in 1954 and then the USA from 1954 till 1975 and then afterward with USA imposed sanctions.

Besides stealing the riches of the nation, colonizers treated the colonized people as slaves or perhaps even worse in some ways. The colonialists didn't care if the indigenous peoples lived or died. . 
Here is a photo of the devastation of a mangrove trees destroyed by our Agent Orange attacks.  Note the little boy in the forest --- devastated too by the loss of his home.  We did this over and over --- we dropped dioxin loaded Agent Orange on water sources, the land, forests, rice fields, any place we wanted.  We even dropped it on our GIs and they suffered from the effects of Agent Orange with cancer, skin lesions and other illnesses and they have had deformed children like the Vietnamese.  I have known two vets who suffer/ed from Agent Orange.  I worked in the psychiatric area of Wadsworth-- Brentwood VA hospital next to UCLA in 1971-1972  where Vets suffering from PTSD were housed.  The trauma of their work experience pushed them over the top into mental illness.

All that plus genocide with Agent Orange, white phosphorus bombs and napalm is how we the USA fought the in Vietnam.  Simultaneously our military intelligence service (now there is an oxymoron)  trained the South Vietnamese Police. Together with the South Vietnamese Police and Military, USA military personnel directly tortured prisoners, raped and killed women and slaughtered children (My Lai is one of many examples). 


I photographed more than 75 pictures and story boards in the War Remnants  Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and will share many more.  Some might say, "Let's forget the war" but Agent Orange disfigured and significantly handicapped babies are still being born.  Dioxin from Agent Orange  is still contaminating the water and land of Vietnam and causing these horrendous birth defects. The Vietnamese people live with this reality every day.  When will our US government commit the money to rectify these acts which stand beside the worst atrocities against human beings and the environment as stains on the history of the human race?

What inspires us daily as we live here is that with this history, the people of Vietnam have built and are building a society and economy that is full of physical and social accomplishments.  Accomplishments such as modern infrastructure, jobs, education, health care, science and so much more.  Certainly the road is long, hard and never straight. We are moved by the openness and honesty of the Vietnamese we are getting to know as they energetically work for the future. 

Last thing for this post, a web address to the largest circulation daily Vietnamese newspaper.  This ought to take you to the English language edition. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A new eating out experience! Delicious and nutritious!

8-11-2013 (Aug 11).  Today after touring another museum here in Ho Chi Minh City Leanna and Hollis had lunch together with our three tour guides, three students who went with us to the museum and kept us company as we kept them company.  Our lunch was a Vietnamese Pancake and it was a surprise I will tell you.  On the way from the Museum to the pancake restaurant one of the women had called ahead to order the pancakes which I thought was rather unusual.  Then to keep the conversation going with Tram I described making my pancakes back in Los Angeles:  a mix of white and whole wheat flour, eggs, milk, baking powder and baking soda, some brown sugar, molasses and so forth.  She listed the ingredients out loud as I did my recitation but without a recognition of my pancakes and in a few minutes I found out why.

We took a table after we arrived at the restaurant which is in two of the student's neighborhood about 1 mile from the campus, ordered lemonade and green tea and chatted while waiting on our pancake order.  After a while, probably 15 minutes or more, the server brought two heaping platters of leafy greens such as romaine lettuce and other lettuces, cilantro, basil, mint and other greens and I thought what the hey, greens on pancakes but I decided to wait and watch.  In a few more minutes three very large pancakes were served to us --- but they were different.  They looked like giant omelettes with ham, prawns, bamboo sprouts, shredded carrots and other tasty morsels.  The pancakes were almost paper thin and were eaten by making a bed of green leaves, putting a chunk of pancake on the bed, adding other spices such as the cilantro,mint and then rolling them up like giant green egg roll.  Then there was fish sauce to dip your pancake in--- and chili peppers to add to your fish sauce if you wanted --- and it was time to dip and eat. IT WAS A FEAST!  We all ate till we were stuffed and happy and then grabbed a taxi back to the campus so these old folks could go get some rest. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013


         Sunday, 4/8/2013.  On a cloudy and warm morning we caught a taxi and asked to be taken to the Ho Chi Minh Museum which is across the river in District 4.  Our driver hung a U turn and headed toward the bridges into the City.  Once we crossed the rivers we cut through a business and residential area for a couple of miles --- the city scape is full of surprises, one moment you are on a narrow street with small shops and older residential apartments and then after a turn onto a boulevard you are confronted by skyscrapers, elegant new hotels and business blocks of banks, fancy stores etc and then back to a neighborhood thriving with working folks.  Soon we were down by the river, the driver took a right turn and in another block pulled over in front of the Museum.   We paid our cab fare, purchased the entrance fee to the museum, 10,000VND (about 50 cents USD) each and we started a most memorable hour and a half of museum enjoyment learning the history and work of one of the most memorable revolutionary leaders of the 20th Century.  The museum is full of amazing photos and copies of Ho's many writings both typed and handwritten.  The museum was full of Vietnamese tourists -- and us.  The Museum is located in an old harbor building -- supposedly like one of buildings Ho would have passed through when he shipped out as a sailor/merchant marine as a young man.  Ho Chi Minh was actually born in 1890 and lived to the fine age of 79 and lead along with many others the anti-colonial struggles of Vietnam who had to defeat the French who were assisted by the US as well as the Japanese who invaded Vietnam in their partnership with the AXIS powers, the NAZIS, the Italian Fascists and other fascists who joined in to help Germany in Eastern Europe, France and Spain.  For young folks, Japan was a militarist fascist regime under the leadership of Hirohito and their policies of annihilation of the Chinese, Indochinese, Koreans and others ranks right up there with the NAZIS' genocide of the Jews, Russians, homosexuals, and Evangelic Christians, and Gypsies (to name a few) --- the holocaust.  Uncle Ho or Grandfather Ho for the younger generations is the living spirit of the anti-colonial struggle of Vietnam for Independence, Freedom and Happiness. The anti-French revolutionary actions began in the mid to late 19th Century and the revolutionaries of the 20th Century carried the anti-colonial war to a successful conclusion though they paid a heavy price for their endeavor.

        Here is Leanna and a dancing, prancing young lady in front of the Museum and below are a few visitors at the front gate sign.  The man on the far right joined me in a thumbs up as I modeled my new souvenir hat.  As you tour the museum and read the history of the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle against the French and in WW2 the war of resistance against the Japanese followed again by war against the French fascists/colonialists you begin to understand the inevitable outcome of the unification of the country with the defeat of the US in 1973 and the end of the war in 1975 when the Vietnamese completed the decolonization of their land.  As Americans who had to defeat the British in the War of Independence we should have never entered Vietnam --- it was their moment to end the colonial domination of their land and we should have honored their wishes.  


         Blog for 3/8/2103: Well Leanna and I just had a wonderful lunch at a medium sized neighborhood restaurant with "Hugh" a friend from the University whom we invited out to lunch. Hugh picked the place after we explained that we enjoy Vietnamese food but we also let him know that if he wanted something different that was fine with us too. We had thought that we might need to hail a cab but as it turned out the cafe was only about two and a half blocks from the front gate of the campus and like so many businesses here was an open front establishment where the atmosphere is the same as sitting outside except that you are shaded by the roof. Of course to get across the major boulevard in front of the campus we had to walk through the traffic of motor bikes, cars, buses and trucks and it was exciting. Though truth be told we are getting used to the thrill which diminishes it a bit. Basically, you just start walking across the lanes of traffic with your hand up facing the on coming traffic as though you know they will stop, which they probably won't. Soon you begin to hear some beep, beeps coming at you from the traffic heading toward you but you just keep walking and the traffic schools around you like fish in a tank skirting a rock or a seaweed plant. You have to keep the faith (in humanity) till you reach the other side and not do something unpredictable like stopping because then you force the riders and drivers to attempt to figure out what you are going to do next and this is not good.

Well, we reached the restaurant, got seated, and ordered lemonade for Leanna, a Pepsi for our guest and I tried a Saigon Blue Beer and then we checked the menu which was Greek to me. After a couple of minutes they brought us their English menu and soon we settled on a shrimp hotpot and a pork plate. Well friends, I must tell you that the food at this little neighborhood establishment was delicious. First the shrimp hotpot --- they brought out a large platter of prawns that were so fresh they were moving around on the platter. Then they brought out this burner that they put on the table in front of us and quickly put a kettle of spicy stock on to boil. When it was boiling good and strong the server put the prawns in to cook and after a few minutes she added lemon grass, scallion greens and dried ginger and let the pot continue cooking with the lid on. While it cooked the server brought out a plate of vermicelli rice noodles. When the hotpot was ready we put noodles in our bowls using our sticks to grab nice bunches of the vermicelli and move them. Then we ladled the soup over our noodles, picked out prawns with our sticks and added them to our bowls and then commenced to feast on our lunch. The prawns are eaten by tearing off the outer shell (if you're Leanna and me) and then savoring the meat --- dipping it in hot sauce if you like but it is scrumptious without and it is plenty spicy from being in the hotpot. Now the soup is mouthwatering, too, and truth be told the three of us could have been well satisfied with just the hotpot and the vermicelli, though we did get a second plate of noodles from our server. But, after a while we moved on to the pork plate and had more fine treats in store including slices of roast pork, then deep fried pork feet and savory vegetables to go with the meat. We were able to walk back to the campus with big grins lighting up our faces.

A day ago we shot a couple of pictures of our office and you will see them as part of this post. 
Here are Leanna and Vinh hard at work and below is, well it is what it is.
 Anyway, ours is a nice sized office, large actually for just three workers and their equipment.  We hear there may be another guest lecturer arriving from England to work in another department, so there's plenty of room!