Sunday, December 13, 2015

Miscellaneous Musings - or Leanna's stream-of-consciousness

As we're getting ready to hit-the-road for some traveling around the NorthEast provinces of Vietnam, I'm sorting through observations and impressions from this most recent visit to HCMC as well as what we've learned with students here at Ton Duc Thang University...

Students in the non-credit Simulation class for
Collective Bargaining
In just months (our last trip here was less than 2 years ago!), the traffic and air pollution has increased here in HCMC even while work is happening BIG time on increasing bus service, building over passes and expressways to separate motorbikes (THE preferred mode of transportation here) from cars, trucks and buses.  At rush hour sidewalk vendors and pedestrians really have to watch out for motorbikes ON THE SIDEWALKS.  Major intersections can't get unclogged without BRAVE traffic cops.  There is lots of debate going on about the new subways being built (who will they really serve as commuters, etc.) but for sure Vietnam is working on a major issue for HCMC and other growing cities.  We see and ride on smooth, paved roads and walk on wider sidewalks (not just in HCMC but in smaller towns as well), but as in USA such infrastructure only seems to invite more congestion and pollution.

Living here on TDTU's campus puts us within easy walk (except for when it's 90+degrees and 60% humidity!) for shopping, delicious restaurants, a great bookstore.  What we see is an expanded western-style shopping center as well as a nearby very upscale mall (never made it inside).  Prepared foods are increasing in popularity.  I notice way more cosmetics and skin treatments for sale and wonder if combination of pollution and "fast foods" are starting to have an impact on young folks' skin?

Building the new library here
at our University -- Modern
construction techniques but also
a use of physical labor
Distressed jeans and brightly-colored hair highlights are here on TDTU's campus alongside the traditional ao dais.  Helena and Joe report students complaining about the dress code (shocking!) while Hollis and I talk to students who take great pride in wearing the ao dais and admire the traditional dress of lecturers and professors.  We find students who are not into knowing history sitting next to others who can tell story after story from Vietnam's 1,000s of years of history.  Many students know about the TPP and seem to be following the debate here in Vietnam -- but certainly not everyone!

We've also talked with students who seriously need the discounts and grants for the dorms and canteen food while wearing the TDT t-shirts and sweatpants instead of having to buy lots of clothes.  Food at the canteen is still a deal -- 60 cents for a meat-filled sandwich, 76 cents for a great bowl of soup, less than $1 for rice-meat-veggies-soup combo.

The campus is still spotless with sculpture everywhere you look.  And students who don't keep their rooms clean and safe can be seen (women and men) picking up trash -- after getting called out with bulletin board postings.  Again, some students see the standards and discipline as off-scale, but we've talked to many (included graduated students we've maintained friendships with) who support this "TDTU culture".

As students and their families have opened their homes and visited with us we've really come to appreciate the openness and willingness of these friends to talk informally.  Some times it is heart wrenching and can leave me speechless -- can I possibly believe that the amount of Agent Orange and the number of unexploded ordinance settled so deeply into the soil here can ever be removed?  Does such technology really exist?  I'm getting to know folks who moved from family, villages and home provinces to a town or city (with different accents, versions of traditional foods) in order to eat, work, send home money.  Some times it seems like the Vietnamese move as much as we do in USA!  But often the pull of home village is very strong, even for our young students.

Because we spent a chunk of time working with students at the TDTU English Zone, this time we've met more students from other academic departments - electrical engineering, physics, language (Chinese and English seem popular choices here), international business, applied art and design.  The number of students who work part-time is impressive -- and their stories sound a lot like students and young workers in USA.  Except the student debt issue bewilders them -- how can USA government allow private banks to exploit students like is happening?  I've been impressed (again) with the number of students who are active in "running" projects like the English Zone as well as those who participate so actively in Music Club, Art Club, Youth Union.  Rock concerts and traditional songs -- what a range.  While not all students are so active, the ones who are really do show leadership skills, political commitment and learning motivation that inspires.  And TDTU students do know how to have fun very inexpensively!

We are fortunate to build these friendships with people of all ages and home towns...means we're developing at least the beginnings of appreciation for the diversity and richness and

Ho Ho Ho!
depth of the people, culture and society.  Sure challenges our own USA filters!

There was one student question that still has me Vietnamese-American workers get to take a week or two (paid) off to celebrate Tet?  The answer is easy -- none of us in the USA gets paid time off like that for ANY holidays!  Most folks in USA don't even have that much paid vacation each year!  So here we all are working in a global economy where increasingly we're becoming immigrants or working for a corporation with either another country's culture or its own inviolate corporate culture.  What's our alternative to the horror of global capitalism on this human scale of celebrating Tet wherever we may be living AND working?  Vietnam's experiencing the "culture clash" right now of abusive foreign supervisors in foreign-owned companies mistreating Vietnamese workers as well as many of the same companies not paying the legally required social insurance taxes to cover their Vietnamese workers.  Students quickly get beyond "culture" to talk about worker rights and the interests of the larger community.  As Vietnam continues its dramatic development and becomes more and more of a global player, these students will be engaging us and other union and political folks in some serious discussion and shared building!                   

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Simulation Class where students practiced Negotiation Skils

The last 10 days of the semester we were asked to provide 3 simulation sessions on bargaining skills for students in Labor Relations and Trade Union department.  It was appreciated by the students who commented that practicing listening and analytical skills, conflict resolution and negotiations: considering the issues and coming up with proposals, planning how to present them, gathering evidence or planning the evidence gathering, making and modifying the proposals AND planning communications systems and organization for the workplace really made it clear that this is not easy work, that it is on-going work to build and have an effective union.

 The green (black) board writing gives some idea of the concepts and work that were discussed and made use of by the students.  Each session included different students -- with a mix of class room and workplace experiences.  Groups ranged from 10 students to just three.  So we all learned together based on Vietnam workplace "case studies".  As we learned last visit, students have great ideas about what makes for good leadership and quickly "see" workplace connections.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Fifth Birthday Celebration of the Dormitories

 This week has been full of students cramming in final class sessions, starting to STUDY BIG TIME in small groups clustered all over campus and "final" celebrations.  A really great celebration was the 5th Anniversary of the TDTU modern dormitories.  We knew when we stayed in the dorms two years ago that they were new-ish and modern, but did not realize just how recent they were constructed.

The dorm Birthday Party this week was also an event to hand-out dorm "scholarships" -- grants or subsidies for student rent based on both need and scholarship.
 Along with other campus leaders we got to help hand-out the grant recognitions to students -- what an honor for us.

The students also prepared a beautiful drawing of the dorms for Mr. Heiu who has been the primary administrator for the dorms for the entire time.  There was a GREAT video showing him and earlier students "surveying" the ground before construction started, observing progress, moving into the dorm rooms, etc.  IT was a real treat to see the connection Mr. Heiu has made with so many students! Having the dorm rooms and affordable or free dorm rooms makes the difference for students from all around Vietnam being able to attend university.  And having support from staff like Mr. Heiu makes such a dramatic move from villages and rural farms do-able in the midst of also experiencing university and city life.
No TDTU celebration is complete without student singing and dance performances!  There were modern songs, outrageous soccer ball " freestyle" handling, traditional songs and even a student skit about respecting rights of the disabled.  Several of the performers "testified" about their own dorm experiences at TDTU either currently or in the past.  The whole evening was very "homey" where we often felt like adults glimpsing students talking to each other.

Never did get to see how that BIG cake tasted!  

Cookies Buffet

Okay, this is a party, let's have fun!
December 9th we celebrated a "Cookies Buffet" final gathering at the English Zone with the students we have been meeting with weekly providing them with a chance to practice English with an American accent.  It was hard to get a real accurate estimate but there were about 30 students and four teachers -- Helena and Joe joined in the fun.  We sang songs together, were entertained by students singing and played charades as well as munching on cookies and other Vietnamese snack foods .
Joe, Helena and students.

Our co-workers, volunteer instructors in Labor Relations and Labor Unions at TDT, Helena Worthen and Joe Barry chatting with students at the end of the semester Cookie Bash.
Waiting for our Karaoke music to start up and chattering.

One, two, three, digital memories!
We had hoped that it would be a little cool and breezy by our start time of 5:30pm but no such luck. Instead it was about 90 some degrees with 50% humidity but we got through it.  Most everyone had a wonderful time although when we sang "This Land is Your Land"  Karaoke style, it was not complete with the radical words of Woody Guthrie. When you download music from online sources you may not get everything you want but you get what you get.

When we taught USA political songs like "This Land" in the English Zone, it was with the radical lyric.  We also discussed with the students explanations of the depression times or political struggles in the US when Woody Guthrie and other artists and singers spoke out to help organize for depression relief, an end to racism and in support of  union organizing.   How great to get to use music to talk about USA politics in the 30s and again in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s and now!  The stickers and buttons from #BlackLivesMatter and other current struggles were also real popular with students.


y special moment of the evening occurred when the students performed a song that is a big favorite here.  It reminds one of a folk song and brings a warm, wonderful feeling as we instructors appreciate the welcome we have received here.  The song is HELLO VIETNAM or Banjour Vietnam.  Here are the lyrics of the version that they sang to us. Attached is a video of the students performance it may take a while to load when you hit play.

The most popular song version is sung by Pham Quynh Anh, an overseas Vietnamese born in Belgium who values her parents' homeland and life and wants to share Vietnam. Hello Vietnam was written by Marc Lavoine and Yvan Coriat.

Hello VN
Tell me all about this name, that is difficult to say,
It was given me the day I was born.
Want to know about the stories of the empire of old.
My eyes say more of me than what you dare say.

All I know of you is all the sights of war.
A film by Coppola, the helicopter's roar.

One day I'll touch your soil.
One day I'll finally know your soul.
One day I'll come to  you.
To say hello ... Vietnam.

Tell me all about my colour, my hair and my little feet
That have carried me every mile of the way.
Want to see your house, your streets.  Show me all I do not know.
Wooden sampans, floating markets, light of gold.

All I know of you is the sights of war.
A film by Coppola, the helicopter's roar.

One day I'll walk your soil.
One day I'll finally know my soul.
One day I'll come to you. To say hello ... Vietnam.


And Buddha's made of stone watch over me
My dreams they lead me through the fields of rice
In prayer, in the light ... I see my kin
I touch my tree, my roots, my begin


One day I'll touch your soil.
One day I'll finally know my soul.
One day I'll come to you.
To say hello ... Vietnam.


One day I'll walk your soil
One day I'll finally know my soul
One day I'll come to you
To say hello ... Vietnam.

The End.

Hope you loved it as much as we did.  Vietnam has come to you to say hello! Come here anytime, it is a wonderful land to visit.

Hearts and Friends.
After the songs we played Leanna's version of charades and there were some really quick and accurate guesses for the winners.  Each contestant had to draw a word and then they had to act out the word.  Most of the players elicited the right or correct response within 30 seconds or even though the game was in English. The fun evening continued with lots of photographs, compliments, and just good times for couple of hours.  Then we all cleaned up and the students headed back home or to their dorm rooms to study.  We returned to our room already missing these incredible Vietnamese students.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Journey to downtown Ho Chi Minh City City Square – the People’s Committee Building

The People's Committee Building with the statue
of Ho Chi Minh that looks east across the large
Public Plaza.
A few days ago we had to go to downtown HCMC to make some changes in our Air Vietnam reservations.  The Air Vietnam office was in a very major, attractive, modern building in District 1, across the street from the historic old building referred to as the Opera House under French colonialism that is now the National Theatre of Vietnam.  We took a walk by the Theatre after we finished our business at the Airline.  Incidentally, the airline staff were efficient, quick and thorough in helping us solve our problem. Note:  change of date, departure city cost a whopping $35.)
The Spacious and lovely Plaza in downtown
HCMC facing to the People's Committee Building.

We walked around downtown for a bit and really enjoyed the several block long plaza that has recently opened as a foot traffic area facing the People’s Committee offices – a beautiful French colonial era building that has been either restored or perhaps has always been kept up very well. On several streets around us we could see the evidence of the very large construction project taking place down town.  HCMC is building a very large subway system to help handle the commuter population of a city of 11,000,000 and growing.  Yes, motorbikes are and will continue to be a major method of personal and family conveyance, but to meet the needs of the city without contributing immense amounts of pollution the subway is needed. 
The People's Committee Building

I wish I had the time to find out how they will deal with the ground water in the soil since the city is near sea level but that is a question for another day.  Obviously since they are constructing skyscraper size buildings all over the city they have got this all figured out.  We didn’t get any pictures of the subway because it is under construction and the work area is walled off for safety...maybe next time.

Leanna and Thao on the Plaza
We hope that the pictures in this post give you some appreciation of the beauty of the People’s Committee building.  In the US we would refer to this as “City Hall”.  It is the seat of the elected government.  Each ward in the City also has a People’s Committee Ward office with easy access so citizens can meet with their representatives and keep their eye on the progress made by the government working for them.  

Couldn't resist throwing in a few more pictures from the English Zone and a couple of shots from a Social Dialog simulation session that we held with labor studies students yesterday, Friday the 5th of December. 

Students getting prepared to practice Social Dialog
as another workplace tool in addition to collective bargaining and
negotiations in labor union work.

Which Side are you on, SISTER! Which side are you on, BROTHER! Which side are
you on STUDENT! Which side are you on, TEACHER!
Well, here is how you
do social dialog, the things that
you must keep in mind.
Students at the EZ

 With you on our side and a little help from our friends we can find our way to progress and a better world.

BTW...Hollis recently bought a smart phone 3g SIM card and 6 GB of data for around $8 USD. Vietnamese can't believe folks in USA   deal with "contracts" and pay the prices we do for technology. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Some More English Zone

As we have mentioned in a previous post the English Zone is a special area on the campus where students gather to practice listening and talking in English.  It is all voluntary and not graded so that students can learn without any pressure.  The Zone is actually run by the students themselves: they not only learn English but they set up the equipment, help raise funds to keep the place going, volunteer and help each other practice their English, decorate the area and in general just keep it up and running.  One staff person, Ms Vinh, a lecturer from our Labor Relations and Labor Union department, acts as a mentor and works with the students.

  This week while we worked with a group other students were painting Christmas Themes, singing songs, practicing their English -- Christmas is increasingly celebrated here, mostly by Catholics.  Since we attend the Zone four times a week, twice a day on two days, we regularly teach union and USA political songs as well as informally converse
Working the board for a simulation on Social Dialog
between Workers and Management in an enterprise
with the students, some times focusing on union jargon.  Our songs this week were "With a Little Help from Your Friends" and the second was "Which Side Are You On".  Each time with these songs we tell the story about how they were used or the special significance.  Our story about "a Little Help" covered some about the anti-war movement and John Lennon and the second we used to talk about the coal miner's struggles for justice and safety.  In both cases we made sure to mention that these songs are used in a wider context of the progressive movement and progressive thought in the US and in other parts of the world.  

We do not sugar coat our homeland -- how could we do it even if we wanted when the leading candidate for the GOP as I write is Donald Trump?  No, we speak truth in an effort to lift the blinders placed on  people in other countries by Hollywood.  Our films make us look like either a nation of idiots or as one that glorifies violence and militarism -  think Sanberdoo, Califa.  George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush threw the seeds in the winds.  Oops, I forgot that sadistic fascist Dick Cheney. 

It is a strange feeling to not be able to explain Trump, Rubio, Bush3, and the other half wits who are receiving appreciable market share of the voter confidence for the GOP at this time. Looking from a far the Democratic side looks better. The Bern is good but those in control of the party are going to do everything they can to push Clinton in as the candidate and Bernie out.  And then Clinton will deliver her soul to Wall Street and the militarists, she has done before, and we won't be one step ahead of the mess we are in now.

New Library being built at Ton Duc Thang University -- December 4, 2015
Oh for a change of pace and here is one.  The picture to the right below is of the hole for the new library here at the University.  It will be the largest University library in Vietnam and the newest when it is finished!

Why is the library and all the building that is going on significant?  Well, Vietnam and the rest of the formerly colonized and then neo-colonized under neo-liberalism are finding their own way into living in a more developed world.  There cultures are older than those of Europe but because they were plundered by the British, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Portuguese, and the Americans and their wealth and intellectual property moved to the "West" their countries and economies are playing a rebuilding game.  Now, with the US instigated wars in the middle east  even more plundered countries are going to find themselves with destroyed infrastructure.  How will they survive and rebuild their countries in this century when most wealth is in the hands of the financial oligarchy of the West.

We must all hope for and build for peace in the world and the ascendancy of working people as the ruling class in society.  Only the leadership by the 99% offers a chance for peace, prosperity, and the end of militarism.  You can bet your boots that the industrial-military-intelligence (oxymoron) complex won't do it.  Even with both hands and a strong flashlight they couldn't find you know what so they are hopelessly out of depth trying to bring together the peoples of the world to share equitably the wealth of the world and create a world of food, medical care, housing, education, culture and love for all.  And you know all the people want those things so that their children, grand children, and all of us can grow up and live with dignity.  When we are lead by the greedy that all the prophets disdained and hated then you know where we are at.  And I am not even one who believes in the prophets -- I believe in evolution and our species though at times I get a bit pessimistic. 

We now appreciate the value of email and social media (Facebook is our limit) to stay in touch with all the hard organizing going on as USA movements mobilize. analyze and grow together fighting against the systemic criminal and oppressive powers challenging our rights.

Here in Vietnam, the students and professors at Ton Duc Thang University also inspire us that people want justice and peace and that together we have the capacity, strength and smarts to work as one to build a world that serves the needs and aspirations of workers. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Visiting with Family: Trip to Dong Nai Province and the City of Long Kanh (Thao'sHometown)

Friends, those are shrimp that Thao's
parents and Leanna are holding!
Everyone is Vietnam seems to love their home town and our friend and TDTU student Thao is no exception.  This past week-end Thao and her man friend Kenny escorted us up to Long Kanh in Dong Nai province where we stayed with her parents at their home and we had a moving experience.  Thao's parents have a business of their own that they have developed over a period of  years: they have been in Long Kanh for 26 years after moving down from "up north".  Thao's father is from one of the provinces south of Hanoi. They provide top quality fresh, caught the same day, sea and fresh water food to restaurants and markets in the area as well as caterers (weddings are one of the major events for catering) and this means they work lonnnng hours.  Her parents plus an uncle go to nearby ocean and river fishermen/women and buy sea and fresh water products.  This means work days that can start at 2 am to 3 am. With their refrigerated truck they make deliveries to the markets, cafes and caterers. In addition, they sell at a daily central market to retail customers.  When we arrived on Saturday at noon we had a lunch of tasty seafood: shrimp, fish, rice and a hot pot after which we drank some tea (leisurely cups of tea with conversation a a northern tradition) and took a nap.  Note the HUGE shrimp to the left -- it was like eating lobster (often cooked with fresh coconut).

Parents meeting and enjoying life!
Later in the afternoon we walked around downtown Long Kanh with Thao.  She showed us her High School, a beautiful Buddhist Temple and then a large Catholic Cathedral just down the street.  It should be mentioned that where ever we go across Vietnam we have found that there are many temples, pagodas, and churches -- the Communist government does not oppress religion and folks are free to choose as they like and as far as we been able to observe everyone gets along just fine, believers and non-believers. It is interesting to see a Church or a Pagoda right next to an office building or police station flying the Gold Star on a Red Background Vietnam national flag and the hammer and cycle flag of the Communist Party. Before we went home to rest a bit more I purchased a Sim card for my unlocked smartphone and the necessary memory unlimited data -- unlimited data for a smart phone is about $5 per month -- think about that and how we in the US are being ripped off by the big phone companies.

You get the impression all we do is eat and take naps?  Let's tell you about two other delicious Vietnamese foods -- com tam (I think I have it correct) which is "broken rice" served with grilled/barbeque pork and bahn khat.  Bahn Khat is yet another regional version of pancake that is small and delicate, fried batter (mostly egg like a little cup) served with shrimp, greens and dipping sauce.  Take it from us, eating and napping are lots of fun in Vietnam!  In-between there are lots of great conversations and sights!

Thao's parents have a beautiful 3 story house - you can see the painted wall panels in the front room downstairs in photos posted below.  It was a wonderful week-end to relax in a smaller town and get to know Thao's family.
Hollis can't resist a good Nuoc Mia
stand so enjoyed cane juice
a picture. 

After dinner Thao, Kenny and the two of us went out to have "cafe den" at a local coffee shop, Torinos, where they also served delicious smoothies: blueberry, kiwi and strawberry kept us happy. Us two old folks went home while Thao and her friends went out for kareoke.  With enough stamina and naps we're hoping to be part of a crowd at a Vietnamese Rock Concert next Sunday night in HCMC with Thao and her friends.

The pictures below are from our Sunday visit to Van Mieu Tran Bien temple that honors Literature and Learning in Ben Hoa.  This is considered to be one of the most important Temples in Dong Nai province.  Besides the temple building the grounds cover many acres and there were a lot of people enjoying the park.  We observed one wedding party going on and heard the noise from a bird owners contest.  People bring their singing and happy birds to the park for contests where they showoff their pets.  This temple is visited often by entire schools so that students can learn about the Vietnamese culture and traditions of learning and scholarship -- and pray for success at exams.  Currently there is a special exhibit at the temple about the scholarship of HCM and important academic and cultural writers from Dong Nai province.
A long view of the Temple across a large pond and beautiful grounds.

A lovely bonzai tree -- you will probably have to
make it large to see it well.

Tortoises are honored as great
holders of knowledge.
The teacher Ho Chi Minh in the
Temple Meeting Hall

Horses and Thao's 20th
Birthday Decoration

Water Buffalo and Motorbikes

Phoenix Birds in Thao's home.
Driving through Dong Nai province we saw both older and new large industrial parks, young and older rubber fields.  The area is well known for guava, custard apples and star apples -- all delicious! Both on the van from HCMC to Long Kanh and then back into HCMC we rode on the brand new expressway which is limited to car and truck traffic.  Traffic congestion, especially in the growing cities, is a major issue (along with pollution), so expressways, special "over passes" to route cars and trucks around major intersections and rail projects are all important infrastructure plans here.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


Puppet Center, and Leanna and Hollis
at the Laodong Center theatre where we
attended the Water Puppet performance.

Over the last few days we have had multiple experiences, days and evenings of fun.  In this blog we will speak of going to the world famous Water Puppet Show in downtown Ho Chi Minh City at the Laodong (Trade Union) Cultural Center and then a restaurant for banh xeo.
First a little explanation, the Laodong Cultural Center is a multipurpose facility provided by the VGCL (Vietnam General Confederation of Labor) for cultural activities in downtown HCMC including theatre, dance lessons, sports and who knows what all.  Among the activities is the Water Puppet Show. No, the puppets are not made out of water but they and puppeteers perform in the water.  The themes of the performance ranged from the opening act of Raising the Festival Flag to the concluding Dance of the Holy Animals (tortoise, phoenix and fish) where the performing puppets portrayed the animals swimming and dancing, chasing each other.  Now this puppet show dates back to 11th Century and here are some more titles: Dragon Dance, On a Buffalo with a Flute, Unicorns play with ball and Fairy Dance.  Of course dragons and buffalo are both an important part of the Vietnam historical culture (VN is shaped like a dragon on the map).  And the buffalo besides being a friend of the family that owns it is also a very hardworking member who still contributes to the farming of Vietnam (compared to tractors they contribute nourishment to the plants through deposits -- manure) as plow pullers, cart power, grazing unwanted weeds, etc.).  On a previous trip to VN an acquaintance explained that after 5000 years or more of living with and around humans, buffalo will not hurt a human -- they just don't do it.  Probably accidents happen but no intentional act of malice by a buffalo. We have the one picture of a puppet outside the theatre but we never shot during the performance in respect for the performers and audience members.  Others did shoot pictures so maybe in the future we can provide a picture or two from inside the performance.  The music was a live performance by six musicians who used "traditional" instruments flute, guitar/s, drums and sang with their playing.  It was GREAT!  The puppets are beautiful.  The skills of the puppeteers in manipulating from long poles under water is impressive.  Lots of history, folk tales and humor. 

Leanna and Thao in front of Lao dong Center
Leanna and our friend Thao posed below the sign for the Nguoi Lao dong.  While we waited for the performance we walked around and saw people practicing martial arts, dancing to rap music, and a class of workers learning ball room moves in other parts of the Cultural Center.  WORKING FOLKS, making use of their union owned and operated center both day and evening into the night we understand.  Folks look upon their union movement as a people's organization that is involved not in just collective bargaining but in the community social life, seems like a good idea to me.  On the Wednesday night of the Puppet show much of the audience was tourists and out of town Vietnamese as might be expected since folks have to work.

The grill with the chefs cooking the banh xeo and other
scrumptious dishes.
After the Puppet show we took a taxi over to a different part of downtown where we walked up a small alley to what Thao and her man friend told us is a "locals" favorite banh xeo restaurant full of happy families, hipsters but very few tourist types eating dinner together and drinking beer. Our friends and guides Thao and her boyfriend Kenny ordered for our table and we really ate a lot of banh xeo pancakes.  Now the VN pancake is different than ours, it is fried egg pancake, often with shrimp, cooked on a frying pan on an old style charcoal grill, very thin and served with two or three (at least) different types of greens, bean sprouts and dipping sauces and hot peppers.  You pick up large green leafs, place it in your hand then a piece of banh xeo, and then other greens and vegetable such as mint, basil and perhaps lettuce leaves  You roll the whole thing up, dip in the sauces and enjoy!
Kenny, Thao and Leanna outside
the Theatre.
  (As I am writing this on 30 November it is 97 degrees outside and 55% humidity, a warm late autumn day.)  The four of us ate two large banh xeos with shrimp and popped the lid on some "Saigon" bia (beer) to wash down our dinner.  Then it was time to take a taxi home to our dorm room and get some rest for the following day.
Ball room dancers practicing for Saturday Night Fever

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

More stuff from Vuang Tau

 While our previous posting gave the round of activities, now we'll share some impressions...

While we can't claim to be fully-experienced Vietnam travelers, Thi's neighborhood seemed similar to many others we have visited or walked.  Within easy walking or bicycling distance there were plenty of services such as fresh seafood and meat market, (outdoors with covered roof and ice storage),
 fresh vegetable and fruit stands (sidewalk), small clothing stores, pharmacy, lots of coffee and pho shops, restaurants.  Rather than park on the street, most small businesses provide parking on the sidewalk for customers' motorbikes -- with some minimal security.

Often above or in back of such small businesses there are residential apartments or homes.

Day care centers, primary and secondary (middle) schools are usually also within easy walking distance.  Often even in medium-sized towns, students tell us that one of their parents will drive them (on motorbike) to and from school -- usually Father in the morning with Mother getting them from school in afternoon.  It is normal for students to go home for lunch and a quick nap!

Because many industries were originally state-owned, these enterprises obtained and developed land for housing -- both apartments and single-family houses -- which were then offered to workers at low interest rates.  Workers like Thi's Father have been able to buy their housing over time (loans at first payable to industry or enterprise -- now maybe to state-owned bank?).  With many state-owned-enterprises now being equitized (privatized into joint stock ownership), we are not sure what impact there will be on affordable housing for workers and their families.

Thi's family owned a nice motorbike, an electric bicycle and a regular bicycle -- all eventually parked just inside the downstairs entrance when it was time to shut-the-door at night.  Most homes or buildings have a permanent or temporary ramp to make such indoor parking easy.

In addition to Thi's Father working for the petroleum industry (we think as a mechanic), Thi's Mother sells her beautiful embroidery and also helps families find and buy or rent housing -- jobs she can do while still being at home to raise her young son until he gets older.  Like most parents and families thee seems to be much discussion about home care vs day care centers.

Thi told us an interesting story about worker rights and her Father.  Obviously her Father has many years working in the petroleum industry.  Recently Thi's little brother was ill, so his Father requested special time off from work to help take his son to the doctor.  When the family saw the doctor, the doctor asked to confirm that Thi's Father had received proper paid leave from work -- which Thi's Father did not even know was his right!  The doctor gave Thi's Father proper documentation, which Thi's Father then gave to his company.  Thi was frustrated both with the union and with her Father that workers did not know about this paid parental leave and right.  Thi knew about these rights because she is studying labor relations.  We all had a good discussion about the challenges for unions in both our countries -- as well as challenges for workers -- to be and stay educated and ACTIVE about our rights.

Just two days later in the English Zone meeting with labor relations students to practice English, we heard another story about a student's friend who got unfairly fired with no real help from the union.  Again we had a good discussion about what makes unions effective and accountable back to the workers -- ACTIVE MEMBERS!  It's a sobering discussion when you all recognize really no one else but us collectively can protect our rights and win better conditions and wages!  

A final we give away various solidarity gifts from different USA unions and political groups, we get to have wonderful conversations with students.  Yesterday, one student wanted to know why there were so many languages on a UE button "Unity!" -- just had not occurred to students how many languages people in America speak and how important immigrants and immigration are to USA.  And students are starting to check-out Black Lives Matter and $15Raise on social media -- a big connection to Vietnam where state will implement a 16% minimum wage increase in 2016.

So as before when we visited Vietnam, the people here are sure teaching us a lot about development, learning, working, transportation, and the different scale of living day-to-day.

Vung Tau -- Great Beaches, Petro Port, Great Food and WONDERFUL FAMILY HOSTS

All of us at the local tasty cafe for sea food and friendship
Vung Tau is a beautiful, medium size (about the size of Long Beach, CA) city located on the South Sea Coast 2 hours from HCMC by 9 passenger van.  The driver follows National Hiway 1A out of HCMC to the northeast and then we turned south on a newly built thruway as nice as our's in California. We passed through small cities, agricultural areas, and several shrimp fields, a major enterprise in the area.  When we arrived in Vung Tau we grabbed a small taxi from the private van station to Thi's home where her mom greeted us and quickly served us with a  lunch featuring local dishes including octopus, squid, shrimp, chicken and local  fresh vegetables.
Big Buddha overlooking Vi Bac Mountain and the bay at Vung Tau
 After eating and talking for a while Thi and her mom walked us around to our hotel two short blocks away.  It was a very nice: clean, comfortable, our own bathroom and only $18  per night (You can live/vacation inexpensively in Vietnam in the smaller cities and country areas and even in the big cities if you are willing to go "three star").  We had a little nap and then took a long walk up a local mountain Vi Bac that overlooks the bay at Vung Tau where we saw lots of fishing boats and oil tankers and container ships in the port.  We were impressed by the industrial activities and eager to talk with Thi's father who works in the Petroleum Industry.
Hey, its a beach.
The mountain climb turned out to be quite rigorous and by the time we got up and down it was time for dinner with the whole family since Thi's dad was home from work. We had dinner out at a local restaurant a few blocks from our hosts' home -- the picture upper left shows our group at the restaurant.

We got a good rest Saturday night after our mountain climbing and on Sunday morning went out to read books and drink coffee (below left) before going to the beach.  We also got into conversations with local neighborhood folks who were relaxing with coffee. 

The beach pictures barely do justice to the gorgeous, restful town and the people.  The area where we swam was very clean and not too crowded in mid-morning.  You might note to the right a beach umbrella,  table and as many chairs as we wanted were rented for $5 a day.  We were only there for maybe an hour but it was a good deal!  After a refreshing swim in a warm sea with pretty active surf, the tide was coming in.  We hung out on the beach for a while and then returned to Thi's home for another lunch with Thi's artist mom (she embroiders beautiful painting-like wall pieces), sisters and baby brother.  

Then after another sea food and chicken lunch we went back to grab some reading time at the coffee shop we had visited in the morning.  Thi and her family (her father was still at work -- overtime) relaxed at home with the typical early afternoon nap.

Sunday morning Coffee and Book reading time
The indoor-outdoor cafe/coffee house was a perfect place to relax during the couple of hours during "siesta time" for other people.  We were an oddity, not taking a nap during the afternoon.  Late afternoon Thi's father got home from work and we all got to enjoy a traditional fresh seafood dinner before we headed back for HCMC and the University.  We had beer to go  with our meal and afterward before leaving we had a drink of a favorite liquor made with mushrooms with a smooth but strong content.  To enjoy it more I had a second round with Thi's father and we both called out our mot, hai, ba, Yo as we downed our shots.  Then it was travel time.  Thi's Mom escorted us over to the van station.  I rode behind mom on her motorbike and just had a great old time as she transported me to the station.  The others walked!

The van ride back to HCMC was in the dark of night on a sometimes rainy highway and we passed one accident site where at least four motorbikes had crashed but we didn't see any casualties but having been a bike rider I just know it might have been serious.  The van would stop here and there to pickup or drop off a passenger.  In the seat in front of us were two women from Poland who had been vacationing in Vietnam for about a month and were returning home.
A Sunday morning street life shot in Vaung Tau

 The shot below is at Thi's middle school where we visited and enjoyed the company of not just Thi but of a class of students who were there on a Saturday preparing for a special exam. The other school picture is of Leanna and Thi by the statue of  scholar Vo Trung who the school is named after.

Leanna, Thi and Scholar Vo Trung

Mom and Daughter Thi at restaurant.
Talking with the students at the middle school

Proud poppa and his 18 month old son!
Leanna and two of Thi's sisters.