How's that Working Out For You?

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

Power Theater — October 31, 2015

Power Theater

Although we have written many class handouts specifically for these classes in Vietnam, this is the first one that I think really gets at what we have to teach.

When we teach collective bargaining in the US to trade unionists, we do not have to make explicit what the power relationships are behind what is going on at the table. That is taken for granted. American trade unionists know what capitalism looks like.

But here, we have to make it explicit. I think that in this handout we are starting to cut to the chase.  Here is the one we call Power Theater. It is being translated right now by a young guy named Dang.

Power Theater: What We Learn from Collective Bargaining Simulations

Collective bargaining is really Power Theater. Collective Bargaining is not an argument, in which one party tries to convince the other. Instead, it is like a chess game with an audience. Each turn in the conversation is a move. The whole conversation enacts a strategy. The Union has a strategy and the Employer has a strategy. Every move is strategic. In between every move, each side has to stop and think, “What happened? Has the balance of power changed with this move? How? What move shall we make in response?”

There are two audiences for the performance: one is the party on the other side of the table. The other is the people away from the table: the workers on one side, the investors or managers of the company on the other side, and the allies of both in the broader society and government.

The thing to remember is that the Union’s interests are different and opposed to the Employer’s in most respects. If they were not, we would not need a union or collective bargaining at all in this form.

Although the parties that meet and negotiate across the table are speaking politely and thoughtfully, what is really going on is a conversation about the power on both sides. Each one is silently showing how strong it is.

The Real Questions Behind the Questions People Ask

The Union is the moving party and starts the conversation. It says, “Here is what we want.” Whatever it actually says, this is what its words mean.

The Employer may really say, “Thank you, this is interesting,” but what they mean is, “Why should we? Can you force us to give this to you?”

The Union responds: “Yes, because if you don’t, we won’t work for you or we will make life difficult in other ways for you.” This is the power that the Union has.

The Employer then has three possible responses.

Employer Response #1: “I don’t believe you. You aren’t well-organized enough. You aren’t unified. You aren’t a real collective. You haven’t educated your members. Maybe some of you will refuse to work, but all the other people will come and work because they need jobs.”

Of course, the Employer doesn’t say this out loud. None of this conversation is going on out loud. But this conversation is what lies behind everything that goes on at the table.

Possible Employer Response #2 is this: “You need us because we give you jobs. Our company can go somewhere else. Or we could fire all the workers and hire new ones that will be satisfied with anything we give them. This is our threat.”

Possible Employer Response #3 is a question: “What really matters the most to you and your members? What are your priorities?”

What Does the Union Say Back to the Employer?

First we will talk about the Union response to Employer Responses #1 and #2. Then we will talk about the Union response to Employer Response #3.

One possible Union response to Employer Response #1, which is never said out loud, is “You are wrong. We are well-organized enough to do that.” If this is true, the union should have chosen to display how strong it is by gathering names on a petition, having a membership meeting at which workers talk about a strike, giving workers buttons or T-shirts to wear, talking to journalists and the media and other public actions. The Employer will have heard about this and will remember it when it meets the Union at the table.

A second possible Union response to Employer Question #1, also never said out loud, is: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we aren’t well-organized enough to really give you a big problem. But we are still well-organized enough to give you a small problem, and you have to talk to us.”

This is the basic power equation of bargaining. The understanding that workers need jobs, and employers need workers, is what brings workers and employers to the table. But the relative strength of each is what determines what goes on at the table. By “relative strength” we do not mean how loud they talk or how emotional their language is. We mean their ability to either withdraw labor power (work), on the union side, or withdraw capital (jobs) on the other side. Both sides need each other and have to respect each other, but they are also engaging in shows of strength. They are performing.

At the table, the way the Union shows their strength is by being disciplined and prepared. Their self-discipline at the table symbolizes their ability to control the behavior of the workers who are not at the table, and who may be called upon to demonstrate their strength and unity as a collective. Likewise, the Employer shows strength by being firm but reasonable and knowing clearly what is possible and what is not possible. Their self-discipline symbolizes their control of the company.

What the Union says to Employer Response #2 (“What if we take away your jobs?”) depends on how well the union has researched the company and the legal context. An effective Union will have researched the company well and knows how much profit they are making. An effective Union will not ask for something that is impossible or will cripple the company. An effective Union will also know if the laws prevent a company from firing all the workers just in order to get cheaper workers.

So the Union might say, silently, “We know how much money you are making and we know that you can afford to give us what we want and still make plenty of profit. So we are ready to put pressure on you to give us what we want.” Out loud, the Union might say, “Here are the details of how this would work. Give our proposal your careful consideration.”

The Employer should be aware of how much research the Union has done. Just to make sure that it knows, the Union should be ready to mention relevant facts to show how well it has prepared.

The First Management Caucus


If the Employer is convinced that the Union is strong enough to put pressure on it, and prepared enough to negotiate something that is reasonable and will not force it to flee the country or fire all the workforce, there is a third response to the Union’s opening proposal. The Employer will ask:

Employer Response #3: “What are your priorities? What really matters the most to you and your members?”

This is a good question. It is the question that opens the conversation after the first exchange of proposals. The two sides have met and looked at each other. They have mentally estimated what the responses of the other party might be. The Employer might be thinking, “These people are well-organized and self-disciplined, and they are going to put serious pressure on us.” Or, the Employer might be thinking, “These people do not really represent the workers. They do not have the power to really pressure us, so I will give them only a little of what they want.” The Union might be thinking, “Do they understand that we are serious? Do they know that we have done our research and can check what they say about their finances and resources? Do they think we forgot to educate and prepare our workers? I think that they do not really understand how strong we are – yet.”

The Employer Caucuses

Let’s imagine that the Union has passed their first set of proposals across the table, saying, “This is what we want.” The proposals are written simply in clear language. They focus on the main idea. They do not contain the careful, fine language that will end up in the contract. That will be worked out later.

The Employer reads the proposals. Maybe a short question or two is asked. Someone makes a signal and they go into caucus. Maybe they wait to read the proposals when they are in caucus. They want to discuss their response to the proposals privately. Most important, they want to make sure they understand what the Union is asking for. They make a list of clarifying questions that they want to ask.

When the Employer comes back to the table after the caucus, they ask specific questions that are all part of this big Employer Question #3, which is: “What do you mean and what are your priorities?”

Clarifying Questions

The little questions that get answers to this big question are called “Clarifying questions.” The Employer wants the union to clarify its proposal. Questions like “What does this word mean? How often would this happen? What is the purpose of that? How does item 3 relate to item 4? Help me understand this item.” – things like that.

These are not hostile questions but they are strategic. The superficial purpose of them is to get the Union to clarify anything that is unclear. The deeper purpose is to get the Union talking and reveal what is important to them. This is a point at which several representatives from the workers’ side might speak, each one with special knowledge about their work groups. They have to be on board with the strategy.

Once a party knows whether something is important or not important to the other party, they can begin to think about trading. Here is where negotiation begins. The parties start to think about: “We will give this if you will give that.” But you don’t say this out loud. At this point, you are just learning about the other side.

The main activity in this part of negotiations is listening.

The Employer will listen to the Union’s answers and think, “This point is important to them, this one is not so important, here is another thing that would actually work well for us, maybe we can develop this idea, but here is something that is a real problem for us so we will not agree to it. But we need to find out whether it is a top priority for the Union. We need to find out if they are united about this.”

The Union will listen to the Employer’s questions and think, “Aha, so this is what worries them. This is what they want to know more about. This is something they like. They seem to think this is reasonable. We can build on that. But that other point, that’s going to be a hard one to win.”

Neither side reveals its strategy intentionally at this point, but it is impossible to avoid revealing it a little. This phase of bargaining is not hostile and not confrontational. At this point, the two sides are listening to each other very carefully. They are trying to build a relationship of respect because they both want to get an agreement.

Once the Employer believes that it has understood what the Union’s proposals mean, they go back and caucus and come to agreement among themselves about how to respond.

The Employer’s Counter-proposal, and what follows

What happens next is that the Employer presents their counter-proposal. The Union asks clarifying questions for the same reason that the Employer asked clarifying questions last time. Then the Union caucuses to decide what it will do.

And it goes on and on.

Sometimes a party says, “No, that’s impossible. We can’t consider it.” They set it aside for the time being. Maybe it will come up again.

Sometimes a party says, “We’re interested in this part of your proposal. Can you tell us more about how it would work?”

Or: “Let’s try a different way to accomplish what you’re trying to do.”

Sometimes (rarely) a party says, “That’s a good idea, we agree on that one.”

Or sometimes one party says, “You’re not bargaining seriously. Call us when you’re ready to be serious. In the meantime, we’re going back to work.” And they walk out.

The Point is Not to Convince the Other Side

This description of table skills takes us a little bit farther than we have gotten in any collective bargaining simulation we have done so far at TDTU. Mainly because of limitations of time, and also because of the difficulty of working with translation, we have had to cut short bargaining at about this point in each simulation. However, the biggest problem has been that in most of our classroom situations, students have made the mistake of trying to convince the other side, which is mostly impossible. We have written this handout in order to explain why this is a mistake.

Bargaining is not about convincing the other side. Bargaining is not debate. It is power theater. Debate can turn into blame and even squabbling – that is, arguing back and forth in an undisciplined, non-strategic manner.

Therefore we are writing up this special handout in order to emphasize the importance of strategy and to explain that collective bargaining is not a matter of convincing the other side that your demands should be granted. Every argument that you make is a move in a game of strategy in which the essential demand that you are making is always foremost in your mind. At the same time, the strategy creates theater. People are watching you perform. That means you do some things just to show power – even if perhaps you do not really have as much power as you would like. And some of what you say at the table is largely for the benefit of those watching you are away from the table, to build unity and resolve in your own ranks and to help to recruit and solidify allies. You will report portions of these sessions on the web or through other means and people will read what you report.

Examples of Kinds of Arguments and Their Use at the Table

Here are some different kinds of arguments that people use in real life. Some of them are useful in collective bargaining and some are not. Remember: bargaining is not about convincing. Bargaining is about power.

  1. The argument from power: “We can make you do something.” This is a threat. In bargaining, this is usually left unsaid. You are talking about coercion. You should only speak it out loud in the last moment, when everything else has failed. If bargaining fails, and you have to get up from the table and go on strike, that’s when you say this. You also need to be sure that you can do what you threaten, like having a big majority strike vote in your pocket.
  1. The argument from efficiency. This is useful when you get down to details. This is for going over the small numbers, showing that a wage increase will not really hurt profits, or that a different way of scheduling or doing the work will make things easier. Employers like efficiency. The Union likes efficiency only when it makes a job safer or better in some way for workers over the long term.
  1. The argument from pity. Be careful with this. Neither Employer nor Union should use this argument lightly. The people facing each other at the table are not there to be moved by pity. They have to make decisions based on their roles in the negotiations. Employers will say, “If workers don’t think their job pays enough, they should get a different job.” The Union will say, “If the Employer is losing money, they should do a better job of running their business.” If workers are not making enough wages to live decently, or if the employer is struggling to pay for overhead, these facts can be explained in detail without making it an emotional appeal. What really matters here is how strong each party is away from the table, how much pressure they can bring to bear.

The argument from pity can be used to mobilize certain allies who want to support companies just getting started or workers in their struggle. A city government might be willing to give a company a tax break if it is having trouble. Obviously, it is not a good argument to use directly with workers, who will feel insulted.

  1. The argument from blame: Be careful with this. The question of who is responsible for certain things is established in law and by the contract. It is a waste of time to try to make the other party feel bad or admit moral lapses. The only time to do this is if one party’s behavior, either at the table or away from it, is so insulting and disrespectful, either in form or content, that the other party needs to employ the theater of moral outrage, which may be accompanied by leaving the table for a time. Most effective bargaining teams have one person who can do this effectively, when needed. Generally, if one party is not fulfilling its legal and contractual responsibilities, such as ensuring health and safety or sanitation or controlling disruptions in production, the consequences of this failure should be explained so that the guilty party will do its job.
  1. The argument from justice: This works best when the Union talking with membership and potential allies. They know what is right and what is wrong. Workers will be moved by arguments about what is fair and right. They can be mobilized and unified around these arguments. But justice is not an argument that works at the table. At the table, saying that something is right or wrong is not a strong argument. The whole idea of right and wrong presumes the existence of a single, absolute standard of justice. At the table, each side takes a different perspective, and right and wrong look different depending on which side you are on. Some Employers, of course, will be swayed by this argument, but not if they will risk a lot of money by doing it.

The main argument that both parties should use are the arguments from power.

But Negotiators are Just Human

Even the most experienced negotiators break these rules sometimes. They will appeal to pity, get angry or confrontational, slam their fists on the table or ask hostile, confrontational or blaming questions. If they bargain all night they will be tired and let their discipline falter. The rest of the team has to be quick to call a caucus when they see that one of their members is falling apart.

If they really know what they are doing, they will break the rules strategically – that is, for a purpose, to confuse the other side, delay the process, try to separate and dis-unify the other group. When this happens, the other side should caucus quickly and come to an understanding of what that move meant in terms of the other party’s strategy. Was it an accident? Is one of the other negotiators just getting tired? Are they really weak and losing their self-discipline? Or was there a strategic intention behind this behavior? Maybe there is a split, a difference of opinions in the other party, and maybe they can drive a wedge between these differences and make them weak. All this information can be used strategically by the other side.


Remember, most of all: This is power theater. At the table, you see only five or ten people, talking to each other and pushing pieces of paper across the table. But away from the table on one side are workers who may or may not be unified in support of the Union negotiators. Away from the table on the other side are investors and owners, and the families of owners of the company, who see their wealth being used either well or put at risk by the Employer. At the table, both parties perform a theater of power that reveals by representation the reality of what is off stage outside.

How effectively you bargain will depend on how well you wield the power of theater. The old saying is still true: You can lose at the table if you make a mistake, but you can’t win anything at the table that you can’t win in the street.

What Should We Teach #XXL —

What Should We Teach #XXL

Kent Wong is bringing a delegation here in January. As preparation, he has sent us a video made by Howard Kling in Minnesota, about the 2007 delegation.

also at

Watching this video makes me think about our first question: “What are we supposed to be teaching?” In this video, they talk about the benefits of exchanges with labor and labor educators. So here we are. And what are we supposed to do? The original answer to that question was, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to know how to fight it.”

Well, this is true, as I’ve said before. But we’re still figuring out what that means in terms of what we do when we are standing in front of a class of 70 students at TDTU.

The problem surfaces in many ways. First was the surprise to find out that in many firms, the HR professional is also the union president. Second was to notice that in many of the student research projects, students bring back a report that says that workers are “satisfied” with their wages and working conditions. This is in spite of the fact that the VGCL has publicized the fact that minimum wage, which is typically the actual wage, not the floor wage, only covers 65% – 70% of what a person needs to eat. So our students are bringing back news of workers working for minimum wage and not much more, and they are “satisfied.”

What about “fighting capitalism”?

We also saw a video in Vinh’s class that demo-ed how collective bargaining works. It was created by the ILO, as part of a whole project to increase the use of collective bargaining and develop stronger relationships between the workers and union at the grassroots level. All of this is very good. However, here are some things we noticed about that video. One, in an early scene, the workers are complaining. They don’t organize, they just gripe. Then along comes the local union leader so they talk to him. This happens more or less by accident — he just happens to be coming by. He informs them that social dialog is taking place at this time and so their concerns will be brought up.

The local union leader then asks the District leader for help, and he agrees to come in and help.

Then we go to the scenes about social dialog. Now we see the District union leader visiting the management leader in an office. The two of them are alone in the room together. They talk in a friendly way. We don’t actually know what they talk about, but it is surprising, from my experience to see the two leaders alone together. You would expect that the union leader would have brought another union representative along as a witness that nothing untoward was going on.

Then we see some scenes from the negotiation, also friendly. Both sides get a lot of what they want. The union side lays out their demands without prioritizing them strategically.

Then we see the District leader reporting back to the workers. He says, “This is what we got.” The workers are disappointed — they wanted a 25% wage increase and they only got 12%, or something like that. So they fuss a bit and then the District leader explains. They also got a joint labor-management committee to work on the food and bathroom sanitation.

My reason for writing all this is to make clear that all communication between workers and representatives, from the griping workers who encounter their local leader, to the local leader requesting help, to the report from the District leader, is top-down. No real democratic participation is shown. The people lower down ask for help from the next level up, and get it, but they are otherwise passive and the workers don’t even seem to know that social dialog is going on at that moment. Also, nothing in this video suggests that there are serious vested interests on each side which are in conflict with each other. George Borjas’ sharply black-and-white view of the conflicting motives that drive the actions of workers and employers are no where in sight. Instead, you have people explaining things to each other and maybe arguing a bit to convince the other party that something is important. But it doesn’t look like “fighting capitalism.” Instead, it looks like a committee meeting.

Joe and I realized, after trying to run four  — no,five – different collective bargaining simulations, that this basic assumption — that workers and employers are on the same side, that there is no fundamental conflict of interest — leads our students to think that what they are supposed to be doing at the negotiating table is convincing the other side. It’s as if, by appealing to fairness, generosity, good-heartedness, pity and justice, or even efficiency, the workers will convince the employers that they deserve and should get more, and the employers will convince the workers that they can’t afford to give more. If only they can touch the hearts and maybe the minds of the people on the other side, they will get what they want. All they have to do is talk more.

At this point, the “bargaining” collapses into squabbling and he-said-she-said and maybe blaming, including confrontational questions and sometimes threats and insults. Bad behavior, in other words.

So Joe and I were trying to figure out what to do.

Suddenly, we realized what the problem is. We knew it all along, of course. What happens at the table is not the most important part. It’s what happens away from the table that really matters. Why? Because that’s where the strength of each side is. What happens at the table is not debate or convincing the other party. It’s strategy.

Conflict of interests does not mean shouting, insults, rough talk at the table. Conflicting interests, if they are embodied in smart strategy, can look totally cool and disciplined. The cooler they are, the bigger the threat, in fact.

We spent most of Friday writing the handout which I will post next, which we are calling Power Theater. I am thinking about how big martial arts are here; very formal, very disciplined — and then you grab the other guy and throw him on the ground. It’s not messy sloppy fighting with snatching and scratching. It’s one-two-three boom, very formal, very strategic. It’s a show, from the beginning when opponents bow to each other until the very end. The discipline, and the display of discipline, is essential to doing it right.  Same with bargaining, only the discipline is how well each party is in control of its agenda, how well it carries out its strategy, and how deep into the membership (or, on the other side, into its allies) the discipline goes. All of which depends on having an educated, active, conscious membership, which is where labor education comes in.

Hue, Vinh’s Wedding #1 — October 28, 2015

Hue, Vinh’s Wedding #1

Vinh wdn

Vinh is from Hue and her family lives there so the first wedding (of three) was held there. Three solid days of ceremonies, family gatherings and meals after meals, all in extraordinary places. At one extreme was the wedding dinner, at least 7 courses served efficiently but unobtrusively to 800 guests seated at round tables in the Full House ballroom of the Century Hotel. At another extreme was the final breakfast before we got on the plane back to HCMH, which took place at a noodle shop under a tent out in the countryside, Quail eggs and pho.

I did not take photos of everything. Other people were on the job. Here are a few of mine. These are from the family lunch, at a restaurant overlooking the Perfume River. The little woman on the right is the grandmother of Vinh’s husband. When all the family was assembled, there were at least five grandmothers with similar hairdos, nice jewelry and very attractive garments including ao dais. This grandmother is in her 80s, likes to travel, travels alone around Southeast Asia going to pagodas while her husband, who doesn’t like to travel, stays home. She seems to be in perfect shape and is fearless.

long tableVinh's family

This is the major media moment, when the whole family is assembled onstage at the big banquet. There was entertainment throughout the meal — many singers, and a great clown show (see below)

Vinh et al on stage

The small thin quick clown is a lecturer at TDTU in environmental and labor health and safety. He performs magic all over Europe. THe tall husky slow-moving clown is his brother. The essence of their act is that each is trying to perform magic to impress the other; the other guy always figures out the trick, and reveals it. The audience loves it.

Clown magicians

Joe and I took a quiet moment to sit on the deck on the 12th floor of our hotel, The Gold Hotel, and look out over Hue, toward the Perfume River.  Hue is in the middle of Vietnam, about 15 K from the sea. It is a city of one million with many colleges and universities. It is the cultural and historical heart of Vietnam and the seat of the old emperors.

Joe on deck

Hue City, Perfume River

In the free moments between wedding events we went to The Citadel, which is the 3-mile square site of the forbidden city of the emperors. It’s surrounded by both a moat and a canal. Although its design is feudal, construction didn’t start until the early 1800s. Emperors lived there under the French, protecting their dynasty by making one concessionary deal after another with the French. In 1945, when the French supposedly left, the last emperor handed things over to Ho Chi Minh.

By the time of the American war, the inside of the Citadel was full of the houses of ordinary people. Only a small proportion of the population lived in the other side of the river. So much of the fighting happened in the Citadel. This was at Tet, 1968. Viet Cong came into the city dressed as peasants and ordinary people and brought arms on covered wagons that looked  as if they were going to the market. When the uprising started, they were in place.  People talk about the Tet massacre, and it looks from what I can see on the internet that were were about 2,500 – 3,000 people killed on both sides. Many in mass graves. Many of the buildings we saw — more than half — were war-damaged. The ones that had been renovated were amazing.

Ctadel_1tiny part of tomb

The site is huge These pictures just capture a tiny part of the space. Here’s a long loggia. The documents all along the wall are from the archives and show documents with the different kinds of signatures, comments, approvals or denials written by the Emperor of the time.  On the right, a bigger than life tiger-dog that Aunt Margaret would have liked.

Long arcadetiger dog

Painted clouds and flying dragons on the pillars and walls of the tomb of Le Duc, at his country palace, also a tomb. This is out among hills and has a lake with an island in it.

Renovation is taking place here as well as at the Citadel, and it’s being done by hand using tools and materials that aren’t much different from what was used to build the place the first time. All over both sites we saw people varnishing, sawing, smoothing down the joints between stones. Lots of women were doing this.

clouds dragon mosaic

The burning monk, 1963

Immocation car  The car that drove him to that intersection is on display at Xa Loi Pagoda. The Pagoda is more than just one building with ceremonial spaces. It’s a whole monastery, with dormitories and many young monks in gray robes. It sits on a high bluff overlooking the Perfume River, nearly across from the Citadel.

This photograph of a turtle, also at the Pagoda, is dedicated to Terry Prachett. Somewhere in the place where imagination and reality meet, there is a turtle.

Teaching George Borjas’ Labor Economics; a real Vietnamese song   — October 24, 2015

Teaching George Borjas’ Labor Economics; a real Vietnamese song  

We presented the first 17 of our 33 powerpoint slides on the Borjas book in a session yesterday afternoon with Dean Hoa, Miss La, Mr. Theit and Ms Pem, with Vinh translating. This book has been chosen to be part of the curriculum for the “Top 100” courses, a program at TDTU that is scheduled to be taught to students from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other ASEAN countries starting two years from now. The “Top 100” refers to a list of the top one hundred universities in the world, which TDTU aspires to join. I have also heard it called the “Top 26,” referring to universities in the ASEAN group. These courses will use books used in the top 100 universities in their programs. There will be some twenty or more courses in this program, and part of our assignment is to go through the books chosen for these courses one by one and help the teachers prepare. All the courses will be taught in English.

Borjas teaches at Harvard, in the Kennedy School, and this is the 6th edition of his book.

We decided that the way to provide a structure for teaching this book to Vietnamese and Southeast Asian trade unionists was to frame it three ways: First, to place Borjas’ book in the context of other approaches to labor economics, noting the difference between the approaches of neoclassical (free market, neoliberal) economists and political economists (radical, pro-worker, including Marxists).  Second, to talk about Borjas’ specialized use of ordinary words. These usages have to be defined because they do not mean what ordinary speech takes them to mean. This is invisible to non-native English speakers. Examples are “prefer”(as if people have a choice), “positive and normative,” “utility”, and the “labor-leisure bundle,” etc.. Third, to put Borjas’ actual words up on the screen, so that students can get a taste of his ideas as he expressed them and have at least some of the experience of having read the book.
We were working from a pdf of the book. Students will not have actual paper copies of the book.

Borjas is a straight up neoclassical free-market economist. To him, economics begins and ends with the market, with what price something can bring on the market. Everything can be and should be for sale. He understands workers as trying to sell labor at the highest price, and “firms” to try to buy labor at the lowest possible price. He is clear that this means they are motivated differently. He doesn’t actually use the words class conflict, much less class struggle. This is not because he thinks the class struggle is over. It’s because he doesn’t think in terms of class. To him, workers are not a class, they are individuals. If workers were to organize into unions and act like a class, that would be a market distortion. In his chapter on labor, he argues that the union wage effect (union wages are higher) is about the same as the effect that you get by licensing a profession.

Ironically, Vietnam’s socialism took workers and employers to be on the same side, both motivated by the desire to develop and protect their country. Class conflict had been resolved. Two generations after the reunification, this idea still holds. This is how it’s possible that a firm’s HR professional can simultaneously be the union president – unions and firms harmonize together and solve problems together.

Which means that when capitalist firms come in to hire Vietnamese workers, expecting to pay nearly the lowest wages in the world, the current generations of Vietnamese workers since 1975 do not have a history or a set of relationships – at least not a formal, public one – ready to fight back. Yes, they have a union, the VGCL,but it mainly represents the interests of workers to the government.  Problem-solving at the local level is done through mediation, which they are trying to develop and expand, but it has the goal of harmonizing labor and capital, not fighting back.

Borjas legitimizes this situation with charts, graphs, and equations using Greek letters, and enshrines it in the glow of the Harvard name. To make his book useful, rather than stupefying, to Vietnamese trade unionists who may be in a position to actually move things forward, it has to be accompanied by the tools with which to critique and contextualize it and some clarity about who profits from spreading its agenda.

Discussions during and following our presentation of the Borjas’ material were lively. Our attempts to frame the book were understood as criticism. We did not get past more than 17 of the slides.

Later, I asked Dean Hoa if he had noticed that the textbook comes with a weblink that gives you access to a lot of teacher resources, including a set of powerpoint slides.

We went to Miss La’s class on labor law. She had a beautiful basket of flowers for me, in honor of Women’s Day. Then a young man sang a song. It was the most beautiful piece of Vietnamese music that I’ve ever heard. It was long and emotional and of course a capella. I wouldn’t call it operatic, although it was complex. His voice moved up and down into a falsetto at times. I was amazed. It seemed to have a pattern, but it wasn’t just a repetition of verses. This is nothing like either the traditional music we heard up at Na Trang, in the coffee shop. Nor is it anything like the music that gets blasted at 7 am in the soccer stadium, which ranges from movie soundtrack orchestral stuff to rap. This was completely different, complex, beautiful and gripping to listen to.

Then the boy went back to his desk and laid his head down for the rest of the period.

Happy Birthday! I’m 27 — October 23, 2015

Happy Birthday! I’m 27

me and cake,

Hollis, Leanna and Joe and I cabbed into District 1, followed (or led) by Vinh on her motorbike.  In case I haven’t explained this before, she  is a very pretty young woman at all times, but when she gears up with a face-covering mask, safety glasses, long-sleeved cotton jacket, big gloves and one of those semi-blanket type velcro-closing aprons that cover your business clothes from your waist down to your toes, she is quite a spectacle. The way you can pick her out in the crowd of bikes is that she the one sitting up ramrod straight, as if she’s playing the piano. This is in spite of also carrying my birthday cake in a big box (see above).

She took us through seas of traffic to a building we did not recognize as a likely place to have a birthday dinner for me: The Yummy Tutti Frutti shop on a street corner somewhere. However, there were six floors to the building, with different things on each floor (a yoga studio, for example, with moms and babies sprawled all over) and we climbed up to the very top where, overlooking the city but above the traffic fumes, we ate barbecue.

Serious eating

That’s the stove, in the middle of the table, and cooking on it are huge shrimp, okra, eggplant, beans, zuccihini, and something that comes from “inside the pig”.

There was also a great deal of serious conversation on topics of common interest, including the differences between being a Communist in Vietnam and a Communist in the US, with some historical context thrown in.

It was a great party. I miss Gabi and Jake but I got phone calls and videos from them that made me feel good.

Exams graded —

Exams graded

I’ve finished the exam grading for the Cross-Cultural Leadership class and will put them on Mr. Hieu’s desk this morning.

I graded them on a rubric like this:

2 points if they actually identified three things that they learned and talked about them.

2 points if they showed that they had done the readings and were present in the class. Many people lost points on this. Some of them only wrote as much as they could have found from the syllabus.They may have been in the class, but they were talking or looking at their cell phones.

2 points if they wrote in their own language and I could understand it. One paper attempted to express some very abstract ideas (which is good) but his/her language just wasn’t up to it, and I couldn’t tell what he/she was saying. I had to take off a point for that.

2 points for reflections on how they learned. Many people wrote about what they did — read the assignments, looked on the internet — but only a few talked about how that resulted in learning. I actually think that most of the points for this one came from people commenting on their experience in the scenarios. The people who mentioned them seemed to really understand what was going on. They spoke about participating in the scenarios and how they developed confidence.

2 points if they talked about what they needed to learn in the future. This was usually related to career (international business, a specific country like Japan or Korea, or the hotel industry where they would probably be interacting with guests or sub-contractors). However, there was a little bit of sheer curiosity about other cultures.

There were 12 papers that got 10’s.

9 got 9’s

14 got 8’s

8 got 7’s

4 got 6’s

4 got 5’s

2 got 4’s

1 got 2 points

I did not get papers from two students.

I was curious to see if the grades corresponded to teams. The students with the worst grades did seem to be on the same team, and there were four teams where two people had 10s.

During the two days running up to the due date for the exam, I got over 60 visitors to my blog. One of the students posted my blog website to the rest of the class.

The Fence, and How to Get Over It In Certain Places — October 21, 2015

The Fence, and How to Get Over It In Certain Places

Last May when Richard Fincher came though Berkeley while attending a conference of arbitrators in San Francisco, we had dinner and he talked about what teaching in Vietnam was like. I can check that blog posting and confirm what he said.

I remember him saying that he taught classes of 75 or more, that the students were all seated elbow to elbow on benches, that the benches could not be moved around to enable students to work in groups, that you use a microphone to talk to the back of the room, and that Vinh does sequential translation. The classes are taught on a once-a-week basis in 2.5 hour sessions, even social sciences classes that require discussion and thinking in between teaching points. He didn’t write the exam his students took, didn’t know what was on it, didn’t grade it and didn’t know how the students did. He mentioned that the boys sit in the back and talk, and don’t participate unless you make them.

So we were warned.

A lot of this is still basically true for us, too. I am calling this, and various other elements of the educational system here, “the fence.” Another piece of the fence: we can’t communicate with students directly. They have email addresses with the domain and our gmail emails won’t connect with them. So we go through Vinh, who has the email addresses for Joe’s classes and my class, and her classes. For my Cross Cultural Leadership class, I communicated through Nhu, the class monitor.

Can the students learn under these conditions?

I think they can. I would say that students somehow figure out how to learn in spite of the fence. They learn over the fence, or through the fence, or around the fence. Again and again when I meet the students and talk with them, to the extent that I can – and many of them can speak sufficient English, if you listen patiently – I find that they are ahead of me. They see the fence, can comment on it, are critical of it, and manage to learn in spite of it.

Some things have changed since Richard’s experience. For our Community Mobilization and Leadership classes in the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty we more or less wrote our own exams, with modifications by others (Vinh and Dean Hoa). I was allowed complete freedom to write a final exam for my special short course, Cross-Cultural Leadership, taught in the International Business Program faculty. It consisted of one question, “What did you learn in this class?” And I am grading it myself. I have read half of the exams by now and am going to treat this experiment as a success. I can read these exams and they do in fact tell me what they learned. They definitely learned something. In fact, I could not have written a multiple choice exam that would have collected better information about whether they learned anything. Plus, the exams are easy to read and have some personal information in them.

(A note written a month later, in November: Vinh graded all the exams for my Art of Leadership and Joe’s Community Mobilization classes. It turns out that we cannot find out how our students did. We may be able to get a general overview of how they did, but nothing specific for a given student.)

I will write a separate post about the progress in the student reports for the Art of Leadership class (group research reports looking at workplaces, especially youth employment) that are now in their second round of presentations. The presentation are taking too much time relative to the value of the points toward their grade, so this is sending a mixed message to the students. On the one hand, they put a lot of work into these research projects!! On the other hand, the whole project only counts a small percent of their grade. We will have to find out how to compensate for that. However, we are getting great information from them. Will the students benefit from this information? We have to make sure they do.

And now here is another example of getting over the fence.

This afternoon, Wednesday the 21, we went to the English Zone. Leanna and Hollis came too, and went off to join different groups. I sat with Tom (Tuan), Ngoc, Heiu, one more whose name I can’t write down, and another girl named Ngoc. One of the girls had lived for 2 years in Los Angeles and had an awful time – it was seventh grade and apparently a whole gang of kids decided to make life miserable for her.

Her story is another story that I can’t report fully in my blog. I would say that by now, I’ve got five or six stories that I can’t write about. I’m not just talking about the English zone students. I’m talking about other Vietnamese we have met in other situations who have told us their life stories, including the stories of their parents, and I cannot write about them.

There is a link here. The link is politics. I believe that the reason I can’t write about these stories is the same reason there is so little talk about politics.

We keep wondering why there is no talk about politics – not bulletin boards posting about meetings, no political clubs, no T-shirts promoting campaigns, no public debates about current issues, no movies about Vietnam in the last 40 years, or even 60 years. Instead, talent shows and food competitions. I’m starting to understand. Here’s a generalization about why that is the case at TDTU.

The students here all have parents who had extremely divergent experiences during and after the American war. Many people here in the South worked for the French or for the Americans. If we’re talking about the grandparents of these kids, we’re talking about working for the French. If we’re talking about parents and some grandparents, we’re talking about working for the Americans. That means they experienced profound changes in their life trajectory after the French left – in 1945 or really 1955- or, in the next generation, after the Americans left, in 1975. Then there are people whose parents were on the other side in the war, supporting the National Liberation Front and the PRG, the Provisional Revolutionary Government.

Then there are people who actually came south from the North after the war (meaning the American war), in many cases, to re-unify with their families. These were people who had relocated to the north in 1954 after the Geneva Accords, for what they expected would be a short time, since they were promised an election that would re-unify the country within the next 24 months. The elections never happened, and it was 20 years before they could return. By then they had kids, too. According to Madame Binh (who was one of these people), for example, a wave of teachers came south after the war to staff the schools that were being built all over the place.

The people who are alive today, and their children and grandchildren, are the survivors of a half-century of war that killed 3.8 million (or 5% of the population) between 1955 and 2002 (according to wikipedia, Vietnam war casualties).  They were fighting the French and the Americans, but they were also fighting each other. The sharply different experiences of this generation’s parents and families are still undigested, un-normalized, un-reconciled and raw. There may have been some kind of effort at a public national reconciliation movement, like in South Africa, but I have not heard about it. (Not that it was the total fix in South Africa, either. And we haven’t exactly done a fix on our Civil War, either.) The re-education camps clearly did not serve this purpose.

So the way this raw memory has been handled is that political speech has been simply suppressed, both officially and by culture and custom. Students tell us that they study Vietnamese history from 500 years ago, but nothing in the last 50 years. That makes sense. Recent history here, like in the United States can be a way to open wounds that are not yet healed and may never be healed, not within the lifetime of people who were hurt, winners or losers. Joe tried to teach a class at CCSF on the Vietnam War and got shut down right away – and that was in the US!

But today, sitting with five or six students, we started innocently enough with talk about who speaks what languages. Soon we were talking about what language their parents speak. Three of them speak Russian. Russian?? This is the first time anyone has mentioned Russian, at least in this group.

But sure enough. One has a father who went to study in Russia. Two have fathers who speak Russian. One has a grandmother who speaks Russian. She studied in Russia. She doesn’t speak it any more. Now she rides her bicycle all over Ho Chi Minh City and organizes groups to sing old songs. But she also speaks Chinese and French. One has a mother who used to speak Russian. Someone else has a father who speaks Russian.

Do they speak Russian now? No. Do they want their kids to learn Russian? No. They want their kids to learn English.

This is good luck for me. Thirty years ago, my English would have had no value at all. Today, I can come to Vietnam and just because I speak English, I have value. I am useful to these kids. But maybe I can also be useful by giving them a little research assignment. Here is the question: Why isn’t Russian the language of choice any more? What happened?

So we actually assigned this as question to be investigated by the kids in the English zone (and yes, at a certain point I am going to stop calling them kids). We said, “For next week, go and find out what happened to make English the language of the market, not Russian. Why do your parents speak Russian, but now they want you to speak English. What happened?”

Some blank looks. I give them a hint – “Try 1989, 1990. What happened in 1989, 1990?” One of them writes it down.

They don’t know. But they accept the assignment.

Tune in next Wednesday.

Final Exam: What did you learn? — October 18, 2015

Final Exam: What did you learn?

I gave the sixth and last session of my Cross-Cultural Leadership classes on October 14. My final exam was one question, basically “What did you learn in this class?” It’s a take-home, due next Tuesday the 20th. Here’s the exam itself:

  1. Name and explain three things that you learned in this class
  1. How did you learn them?
  1. How do they relate to what you already know?
  1. How do they relate to what you are really interested in?
  1. What do you need to learn next, and how will you learn it?

This final exam is worth 40% of their grade. Thirty percent is based on four team reports, one due each week from week 2 through week 5. The last 30% of their grade comes from the midterm which consisted of 20 questions with multiple choice answers. I wrote about this previously in the post titled Zero de Conduite.

I was asked to do this class during our second week here by a lecturer in the International Business Program which has offices right across from our “Visiting Expert” offices. The class would be in English, the students all spoke English, and the course outline and instructor’s lecture notes had already been written, based on a course given at “a university in Massachusetts”. The class was scheduled for 6 4-hour sessions on Tuesday afternoons. I would have an assistant who would come to all the classes. They insisted on paying me for doing it, 2 M dong. Since Joe and I came here thinking we’d be working 24-7 and doing whatever we were asked to do, pay was not an issue, but it was an interesting idea. I asked Dean Hoa if it was OK for me to teach this class and he said yes, that it would in fact help him because it would show the President that people brought to his program were useful for other programs, too.

I looked up the link they gave me. It was to an MIT “Open” class, probably dating from the time that MIT put all its courses on line. Putting the whole MIT catalog on line was interpreted as a strategy to scoop the for-profit course offerings during the MOOC craze. After all, if classes with the MIT brand were available for free, why would anyone pay tuition at Phoenix? I knew other places where administrations were urging faculty to get everything on line asap. So I assumed I was looking at a product of that strategy. It also looked as if the instructor had done it in a hurry.

This MIT Open class  was designed for the kind of students you’d get at MIT: elite students from all over the world, speaking good English. Africans, Asians, Norwegians, Brits and Brazilians. The idea was that the instructor would put them in clusters by region and draw course content from the depth of their personal awareness of their own culture. My students, of course, were all from Vietnam and spoke modest English; they probably read and wrote better than they spoke.

The MIT Open syllabus included week by week readings, some from journal articles and some from books, linked to how to buy them from Amazon.There was no way I could order these books from Amazon, pay for them myself, get them shipped to Vietnam and then photocopied for students to read.

I found a bunch of journal articles on line, however. There was also a chapter about cross-cultural issues in the Northouse book on leadership that I’m using for my Art of Leadership class. I used that for my first session, power points and all, and photocopied the chapter. I am aware that that’s a copyright violation but that is simply one battle I don’t think is worth fighting here. The Northouse book cost me $100 and is designed to make huge profits for SAGE. Enough is enough. In my Art of Leadership class, I gave them the book to copy and about 14 of the 60-plus students bought one, paying about 100,000 dong or $4.50. And for kids who make 17,000 D an hour at their part-time jobs, that’s a lot already.

The IB Program also gave me a link to a 166- page book by Aksana Kavalchuk, called something like How to do Business with Germans: A guide, that turned out to be very good. It covered all the different dimensions of cross-cultural communication that were needed, and more. I emailed it to the class monitor, who had the class list and emailed it to the class.

I whipped up my own syllabus, including the way I was going to grade students. It got approved.

This is very important. Once the syllabus is approved, apparently I was licensed to simply teach the class according to the syllabus. If it was on the syllabus, that was what would happen. This is the license I am using to give a single question, no-wrong-answer essay for the final exam. We shall see.

I designed scenarios to dramatize the different aspects of cross-cultural communication and conflict, one for each session.

So the class began.

In the first class I assigned students into teams to adopt country clusters. The clusters were from Northouse’s chapter which describes the GLOBE study (look it up). There was some resistance to assigning the teams randomly. Students sit together in class in tight bunches of friends with the best, most active students in front and the reluctant ones in the back, sometimes with their heads down or talking. After they were assigned, they set about researching their country cluster. This was internet research. I gave them a broad list of things to find out: geography, mineral resources, political process, Gini index, corruption index, military history, etc.

This class, like all the other classes I’ve seen, had a monitor, a young woman student, in this case, who acts as a go-between for the students and teacher, does any photocopying, calls roll at the beginning of class, tells the “guard” who keeps the records at a desk out in the hall if we need to up the fans or air conditioning, and keeps the student email list in case there is anything I need to send to students. Whether these monitors are elected or appointed I can’t tell. Among the most active students, she was the only girl.

In the second class they presented the profiles – economic, political, military, geographic, etc – of their country cluster. Many of the papers they handed in were clearly cut-and-paste jobs. I talked about citations, paraphrasing, quoting, etc.

In the third class they had their first cross-cultural conversation. Teams met and tried to accomplish something despite cultural differences. This went pretty well; people seemed excited and laughed and clapped at the end.

For the fourth class I used a collective bargaining scenario, plus some information about export zones. This was the class that got the most interest. Knowing something about labor practices in other countries is cross-cultural information, right? Although they weren’t really clear on the issue of conflicting interests of labor and management.

The first hour of the fifth class was the midterm exam, a multiple choice 20-question open book test. I wrote about this elsewhere. I followed it with a rather severe lesson on how I correct their English when sentences are unintelligible and I have to go through a guesswork sequence to figure out what they’re talking about. We closed with a short scenario on interviewing a new hire that they carried out patiently but without enthusiasm. I could tell they were bored with scenarios by now.

In the sixth and final class I was planning to give back their last team report, in which they explained what happened during the collective bargaining scenario in Week 4. I had sent the class monitor a rubric explaining my grades. I probably sent it to her too late; she didn’t get my email in time to forward it to the class. I had attached the TPP summary on labor conventions and the two ILO conventions, 87 and 98, that will go into effect (sort of) if the TPP passes. But none of this made it out to the class.

So I did a short 45-minute lecture comparing the US, Russia, Vietnam and China across various labor-related dimensions, using the Pringle and Clarke book, then put them through one last scenario, a project evaluation. They came up with some wild projects: one Japanese group hired Brazilians to rebuild their nuclear plants, a Anglo group had problems with an Italian company that wanted to market coffee to Brits, and the Qatari were trying to get some Venezuelans to build a mall out of gold, which the Venezuelans refused to do because it was a bad use of resources and not ecologically sound. In retrospect, it sounds pretty cool, but at the time I saw them as cooperative but not really learning anything.

So, some notes: The only thing I think students read was the Northouse chapter that I photocopied for them. They did not show evidence of having read the Kavalchuk book. They did not download and print it. They don’t have printers. They don’t have much paper. They don’t have paper file folders; they use plastic covers, probably because of the rain. Many of the students don’t even have laptops; they have phones. So whatever they read, they read on their phones.

On the midterm, most of them got 8 and 9 points out of 10 for reasons which I will not say aloud. On the team papers, how do you know who did what?

So the single question no-wrong-answer essay final exam is my way of trying to find out whether they really learned anything or not. I hope they understand that I want them to tell the truth. Maybe that’s the real test.Do they dare tell me the truth?  It is due day after tomorrow, Tuesday the 20th of October.

I look forward to reading the essays. Even though there will be more than fifty of them. And this was a small class!!!!

Actually, I’m a little nervous. I am banking on my sense that “the students are ahead of the system” which is the idea that keeps coming back to me as I learn more and more about the way students are graded and evaluated. The evaluators — which are sometimes called the Department of Evaluation and sometimes “the control”– have a way of deciding what is a good class. A good class is a class where passing is 5 out of 10 and most of the students get 7 or 8. “They are looking for a curve like this,” explains Vinh, drawing the curve, with “5” to the left of the hump.

This system evaluates how well the teacher can predict what got through to the students.  A “good” teacher guesses what the majority of the students will get 70% of. The evaluators see a snapshot of the teacher’s best guess. if the teacher guesses wrong (guesses low, for example, and the students get 90% of what she taught), then that’s a problem for the teacher: the exam was too easy. If she guesses high (the majority of the students only get 30% of the multiple choice answers right) then the exam was too hard. Either way, it’s the teacher’s problem. The way you fix this is you learn how to write an exam that expresses a better guess at what will produce that curve with the hump at 7-8.

Other things you could fix: your syllabus, your text, your teaching approach, your goals for the class, the size of your class, the pre-requisites for the class, the time of day of the class…etc etc.

So I look forward to getting back the exam papers from my cross-cultural leadership class. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Food — October 16, 2015



Today, October 16, is Women’s Day celebrated by the TDTU union. The way they celebrate it is with a food contest. Every department competes by bringing food.   You cook it at home and bring it in with your serving dishes and take it to the gym, where tables are set up in a U-shape. Then three people, of whom only one can be a woman, prepares your department’s food for presentation. This is men doing women’s work. An outside famous chef and two other people serve as the judges.

At a certain point someone says “Go!” and it begins. They get something like half an hour. While they’re working, we walk around and watch. Then the judges call time and go around and judge. Then they award the prizes.

Here are some photos of the food.

DSCN2075 DSCN2076 DSCN2077 DSCN2078 DSCN2079 DSCN2080 DSCN2081 DSCN2082 DSCN2083 DSCN2084 DSCN2085

Purple flowers are lotus blossoms.


DSCN2087I tasted this. It had coconut in it and was great.

 DSCN2090 DSCN2091  DSCN2093

Something chocolate getting lit on fire.


One of the officers who supervises the dorm, and his wife.

DSCN2097  DSCN2099 DSCN2100 DSCN2101

This drink is made with lotus blossom pods, sour plums and something else. I wanted to try the strawberries but so did everyone else. The department that prepared this was “the researchers.”

DSCN2103 DSCN2104


 The accounting department’s entry.

 DSCN2108 DSCN2111

The International Business department. Helen in the pink ao dai and Hieu on the right.


The banking department.

 DSCN2115 DSCN2116 DSCN2117 DSCN2118 DSCN2119

This is the entry of our department, the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Department.

 DSCN2121 DSCN2122 DSCN2123 DSCN2124

First time around, I missed the Four Magic Animals: A Dragon, a Unicorn, and Turtle and a Phoenix. This is from the Accounting Department.

DSCN2125 DSCN2126

The judges come to look at the Research Department entry.


What are these?They are not tomatoes. They are sweet.

Final conclusion: US and European people do not understand food. Here are the facts about food.

Human beings are part of a food chain. Look down the chain to snails, leaves, algae, bugs, and whatever. Look past what you can see to microscopic life forms. This is all food. Look across to our close relatives such as pigs, cattle, monkeys, buffalos and dogs. These are also food. Anything you can dig up, grab, chop, capture, chase and run down is food because they are all alive or were once alive. They all make life out of molecules of carbon bonded with other elements like oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. Also, all parts of these life-forms are food. Not just the outside, or the soft parts, or the parts that don’t wobble.

Sometimes you have to do things to food before you eat it. Human beings have lots of ways of treating food to make it edible. Many things only need to be boiled. Other have to be dried, left out in the sun, buried in a jar or soaked in some strong chemical. Sometimes one part of a food is edible while the other part is poison. That’s a different project, quite do-able.

Most of the time, we ourselves are not food until we are dead, and then what eats us is worms and bugs. Sometimes we get grabbed or run down but this has not led to food prep traditions that I am aware of.

And that’s the whole story. There are no forbidden animals (like pigs, for example) or forbidden combinations (like meat and milk).

Shopping for an Ao Dai — October 8, 2015

Shopping for an Ao Dai

Vinh took me and Joe shopping for ao dais to wear at her wedding in Hue later this month. The picture below shows just a small piece of the beading and embroidery on one of the ao dais that Vinh’s mum is going to wear. I like that green; I asked Vinh if it was all right to choose a very similar color. She said it was not a problem, and that you couldn’t be sure which ao dai her mum would wear anyway.

VInh's mum's ao dai

We went by taxi into the city, to a certain market that Vinh knows.  It was down a long narrow street, too narrow for cars but just right for motorbikes, near the train tracks. This picture is outside the market, which was huge and dark. A market is apparently not just a collection of people on the street selling things. instead, it is a specific, purpose-built large covered building where you rent a stall. It is not an activity, in other words. It’s a place. A bunch of people selling things does not constitute a market. I have actually not understood that. I only just figured it out.


Vinh took us to a stall where she had bought fabric before and she knows the woman who owns the stall.  I know that the picture is pretty dark; so was the market.

Fabric vendor

As usual, I was overwhelmed by the colors and textures of the market and could hardly calm down and choose a fabric. Joe didn’t have much problem choosing the fabric for his ao dai. He chose a dark blue cloth with gold bosses and a dragon in the weave. He also chose white polished cotton for the pants.  I took much longer. I didn’t really understand how to choose the patterned fabrics, especially the ones with enormous floral shoulder-to-hem patterns. Finally, I chose two fabrics. One of them is the lower of the two shades of green in the left hand pile. The other is a purple and silver overall small floral pattern, double-sided. I chose a kind of creamy white silk for the pants. Total cost for the fabric for 3 ao dai: about $70.00

Ao dai cloth

Then we walked back to the main street and got a taxi and went to Vinh’s tailor. She measured both me and Joe.

Joe being measured

The woman in the lower left is her mother, who lives nearby.

The ao dais will be ready in about 10 days.

Here is the tailor’s sewing machine, a Butterfly, made in China.

Sewing machine

Then we went and had lunch, vegetarian, near the pagoda. It started to rain really hard. That’s not exactly a red wagon in the rain, but it’s a red scooter and it’s equally beautiful.

Rain during lunch

The receipt, showing the different fabrics stapled onto it. Altogether, 3 silk ao dais with 2 pairs of pants made to order will cost about $110.


We got a taxi and went back to Ton Duc Thang, where we met with the Accounting Faculty for a session of English practice. They are a very friendly, good-natured group of people, young like everyone else here. Their English grammar and vocabulary are much better than their pronunciation, so we are probably supposed to help them most with pronunciation. They seemed to get along well with each other –lots of laughter – and were very welcoming to us. They gave us presents — mugs with the image of Ton Duc Thang on them. I am drinking ginger tea out of mine right now.