High Rise and just plain highs

train platform

Night train from HCMC to Nha Trang

Dinner Wednesday night Sept 30th with Shawn Shieh, pronounced “shay,” who is the Director of Development and Operations of the China Labor Bulletin, http://www.clb.org.hk/en/,

a regular online publication coming out of Hong Kong that covers labor in China. His background is working with civil society organizations in China, although he was a tenured prof at Maris University in New York at one point. He’s married to Betsy Shieh, who works for the US consulate in the commerce department, finding ways to sell US made products in Vietnam and thereby keep US jobs in the US. He lives in Hong Kong, she lives in Ho Chi Minh City, and they visit back and forth. Joe had made contact with Shawn via a Vietnam study group discussion list.

We met in their apartment in District 1, right along the Independence Palace Park. Up on the 6th floor, overlooking the city. It had a terrace large enough to serve dinner for 20 and a living room to match. I’m mentioning it because it was definitely a different side of our Ho Chi Minh City experience, in fact, an outlier on my spectrum of available housing options. It could have been plopped down from a brand-new, very nice condo building on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. It’s provided by the consulate, furnished with dark wood furniture that is half-Asian half American-comfortable.

Long conversations ensued. Overall, Shieh is interested in developing labor-side collaborations among southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. There will be more conversations.

On Thursday afternoon, after a meeting with three spokespersons from the Accounting Faculty (they want some help with their spoken English and Dean Hoa has indicated that this would be a helpful thing for us to do), I went to the Lotte Mart and bought two pairs of thong sandals, one plastic but white, the other black leather with soft, padded soles. Both were in men’s sizes. No-where in the Lotte Mart did they have a women’s shoe size 42. I spent nearly $45 on the leather ones, which felt criminally expensive, but in the US these would have cost $145.

Anyway, I was very glad to have bought them because the next thing that happened was our trip to Nha Trang and I wore them all the time.

It is not going to be possible to describe everything we did on that trip. Nghia and Vy (pronounced Vee) came to our door at 5:30 pm. We were ready. The taxi was late, though, and there was a lot of worry as we fought our way through the incredibly polluted traffic, picked up Anh who was waiting in the fumes near Lotte Mart, and headed for the train station, the Ga Sai Gon, which may be the old Gare Saigon as in Gare du Nord. Vinh came on her motorbike. This is a trip Vinh started planning back last spring and sent to us all written up in our contract which we got in July.

Getting on train

Vy, me, Anh getting on train going north to Nha Trang

How to describe this?

Nha Trang is a beach town with blue green mountains in the background and islands out in the bay. It’s very beautiful. The mist comes down between the mountains. The islands in the bay make it look as if some of the mountains just kept on marching down into the water.

We saw more “foreigners” on one block there than I’ve seen in a month here. Big blond women in bikinis, striding along the street, sometimes wrapped with a silk shawl. Nha Trang was a Soviet vacation destination and all the signage is in Vietnamese, then Russian, then maybe English. The beach is golden, the water is bathtub warm and ripples.

We stayed at the Ton Duc Thang campus dorms in Nha Trang, which were before 1975 a Catholic institution (nuns? Monks? Large, clean rooms with tile floors). The university is up high on a bluff overlooking the sea with great views. Right next to it is Nha Trang University, producing what felt more like a campustown with multiple coffee shops than anything around TDT in HCMC.

In three days we ate incredible amounts of seafood of sorts that I hardly recognized, saw tourist destinations, including the 9th century Cham towers, a giant Buddha that overlooks the whole city, and a Catholic church (Anh is Catholic) where couples were getting their wedding photos done. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Friday afternoon we rode out a long road that led uphill to a mud bath. Yes, a mud bath. Acres of gardens, pools, shower rooms, locker rooms, and then these tubs that they fill with slimy clay-y warm mud while your whole party sits in it together and you spoon mud all over each other. Incredible.

We traveled from place to place on motorbikes, rented by Vinh because they were cheaper than taxis. Three motorbikes, driven by Vy, Nghia and Anh, with Vinh and me and Joe on the back. Joe looked like a stepladder laid crosswise on Nghia’s back saddle; his knees stuck out, and since these vehicles stream through traffic like fish, anything sticking out is an accident waiting to happen. But we drove here there and everywhere, not too fast but pretty fast, and all was well. Yes, we wore helmets.

All day Saturday we spent at VinPearland, which is an amazing place, hard to describe. It is on an island in the bay. Look it up:


It used to be a prison island, according to Wikipedia. There is a Buddhist pagoda on a high point of the island, away from the amusement park.

The easiest comparison is to Disneyland. But you get there in gondolas over the bay, strung out over the longest cable car wire in the world (so I was told) and the piers or towers are lit up like Eiffel Towers when you come back in the dark at night. Once you’re there, you can go on all the rides and into all the shows, no special tickets. The only thing you’d buy is food, which is not all from one kitchen.

Huge water park with slides. Merry-go round. Roller Coaster. “Games.” Dolphin and trained seal show (Russian trainers, blond). A “European carnival” in which all the performers are “foreigners,” meaning people like me. A real beach. Shops for silks and pearls, probably for rich Russians, since I heard quite a bit of Russian being spoken. A really beautiful, well-done aquarium, light on science but really great on displaying amazing fish and reptiles, including a giant Red Iguana, and with a walk-through-under-the-water central pool with huge fish. Turtles, spiders, bearded dragon lizards. Many sharks including a whole school of white ones called “incandescent”. A whirligig that I rode on. A little girl with pigtails rode on it after my turn was up. She was about 6 years old, wore a pinafore type dress, and was almost alone on the ride. We were sitting at a café nearby and could look up and watch her. She was in seventh heaven. She was like Joe in one way — they were incredibly relaxed up there, just flying through the sky.

More things that I couldn’t keep track of.

On Sunday morning we met the Vice President (who couldn’t meet us on Friday morning because he was out sweeping the grounds with other university officers). He is a martial arts expert and looks it. A quiet, soft-spoken small man who makes James Bond look like a sissy. He asked us if we had some ideas for teaching labor classes at TDU Nha Trang and unfortunately I had more questions about the university, and we didn’t get a chance to answer him.

But the main thing that I will remember, once all this starts to blur into memory, is that when you are traveling with three students in their early 20s, and their chaperone is 26, you get up early, get going right away, eat a whole lot and stay till the place closes. You have amazing amounts of harmless fun, laughing and rushing around, talking a mile a minute, making up silly games just for the purpose of having more fun.

I am so serious!! Joe and I are so serious together!!! We work all the time. I couldn’t believe that we weren’t going to be able to do a couple of hours of computer email and writing and studying and grading papers every day when we got up in the morning! No, it was up and out and onto the motorbikes and get some breakfast and then off down a list of adventures, including things like riding out to an island in a gondola for no reason at all except to have fun. No one was getting any work done at all! Even though Nghia had two exams on Monday, and the others had exams the rest of the week.

The train going up was not so great, although Joe and I each had a full upper bunk in a 4-person cabin with only one other person in it. The bunks were long enough for Joe. There were actually two sitting-up cars, one with padded fold-back seats and one with wooden upright seats like pews. Beyond the hard-seat car was the dining car, with a full kitchen but not a lot of people eating. After you had stepped over the kids, babies and grandmothers who were spread out under the seats on the floor of the hard-seat car trying to sleep away the miles, it didn’t make you want to proceed further and order dinner.

A civil engineer who asked if he could practice his English with me said that this train was 100 years old, which made sense. The floor of the corridor was wood planks about 8 inches wide. The cabins looked as if they had been re-built many times.

Of course I stayed awake all night long looking out the window, especially because halfway up the coast we came to the region where they turn on the lights for the dragon fruit at night, to stimulate another crop. Nghia says that you can get four crops a year out of the bushes that way. It’s as if whole fields are lit up with Christmas lights. Also, we got to Nha Trang at 4 am Friday morning.

The train coming back was the national train (the one that goes back and forth between HoChiMinh City and Hanoi) and was a little fancier. It had potable water, reading lights and the mattresses had fitted sheets. Joe and I will probably take that train up to Hanoi in December. I walked the length of the train and saw the hard seat car but didn’t walk through the people to get to the dining car. Vinh had brought a whole lot of “local specialties” on board after a made dash to the market, anyway.

For dinner on Saturday night,  we went to a huge seafood open restaurant with tablecloths.  In all these seafood restaurants the creatures are swimming in basins and you choose which ones you want; they get weighed and then come to your table as a dish. Vinh, an inveterate bargaining, would always get “the best price.”

The students had paid for their own train tickets, which actually meant they were supposed to stay in the hard seat car.

At the end of the trip, coming back down into HCMC, we played a game where everyone had to make an animal noise. The rules were complicated. There may be no way to assign 6 numbers to 6 people — randomly. We couldn’t do it.

I have to say, I do not want to forget this kind of silly fun. It really is a different way of being in the world. It makes me look at a lot of the kinds of things that people do for fun differently.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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