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.

Da Lat: Garden City — November 30, 2015

Da Lat: Garden City

The bus leaves at 9 pm from HCMC and gets into Da Lat about 4 am. It’s one of those Korean sleeper buses; two levels of couches where you lie almost prone. In the dark, the bus climbs. I can feel my ears pop. Da Lat is in the Central Highlands, about 5,700 feet. That means it is cool, like San Francisco. It is known as the City of Flowers.

Yellow orchids_1

Orange flrs

bouga bons

The famous garden center has hundreds of bonsai, some of which have to be over 100 years old. Someone took care of them throughout those 100 years. Where were they kept? This one looks like an ent, walking:

Walking bonsaid b_1

The main entrance to the gardens:

Entrance to grdn

At the center of Da Lat is a large long lake, fed by numerous rivers that come down from the watershed through valleys. Those valleys are filling up with greenhouses and garden beds. This is where strawberries, artichokes, and many other good things come from.

greenhouse valey 2

We traveled up into these mountains to visit a performance space where members of what is probably the Co Co ethnic minority (more about that later) offer a show about their life, and then a visit to a valley called Cu Lan, where there is a  village where the Co Co may have lived. On the way, back, we stopped with Vinh’s friend Hien and her boyfriend for a picnic. It’s a full-service picnic area; they will kill a pig or a chicken for you, provide charcoal stoves, and if you want to spend the night, a blanket.

Picnic tent

sow pig

Bao Dai, the last King of Vietnam, had one of his summer palaces up here.  He managed to keep a position after 1945, while the French maintained their occupation, all the way to 1955 when he finally left and went to France. Here’s a paper about the design:

Bao Dai paalce 2

This is the bedroom of two of the princesses.

Princess' bdrm

This is the main parlor. Orange mohair and silk (looks like, at least) upholstery. All original furnishings, somewhat faded. Imagine having to think about what color dress you are going to wear to sit on those chairs.

Living room

Dining Room

Dining room.

The paper I’ve linked above describes the layout as an arrangement of volumes, not a set of rooms. This sounds right.

There is a “moon-viewing” terrace outside Bao Dai’s bedroom, overlooking one of several formal gardens and a row of trees bordering a steep drop down into a valley. It’s easy to imagine him walking there, smoking, calculating, figuring the best date for getting the hell out of Vietnam. His wife took the kids and went to Paris and died of cancer. Bao Dai stayed on a while with his concubine. His son, the Crown Prince, fought in Algeria and lived into the 2000’s.

Vinh’s friend Hien lives and works in Da Lat and knew the best place to have breakfast, the Home Cafe, which is somebody’s house and also a greenhouse.

Home cafe bkst

We climbed up through winding roads in the center city and looked down at the the big market, that gray multi-story building in the center, the Cho Da Lat.

Street from above

Me and Vinh, on the “tourist train” which still runs to some nearby location; it originally brought the French up from the lowlands to get out of the hot weather. Now the train station is a tourist destination. They’re working on getting the train back running.

Me and Vinh on the train

Thinh at the garden.


Six lists about what workers need from their local union —

Six lists about what workers need from their local union

4 and 5

Joe asks his class to discuss in groups, then make a list to answer the question: “What do workers need from a good local grassroots union? What do they need it to do?”


Here are the items from the six lists that the students wrote on the board in Vietnamese, translated by Vinh and typed up as she spoke:

  • To protect the right and benefits for the workers
  • Consult [about] and publicize the law
  • Train and educate the workers about the law
  • Take interest and take care when the workers have difficulties or occupational disease because some kinds of work will cause health problems
  • The union will support some of the good policies to support the families, for example: a kindergarten or other sponsorship, a sponsorship fund
  • Policy to get loan – some are very poor, can’t get a regular loan. This is to help the workers in case they get into difficulty in paying for things
  • Have career orientation, have some of the skill training courses
  • To do social dialogue, collective bargaining and collect the workers’ opinions and solve labor disputes when they arise
  • Visit with workers when they get sick or have accident, and encourage them
  • Sign the CBA
  • Ensure fair treatment between the workers
  • Have some entertainment and sports activities
  • Show respect – be respectful
  • Democracy
  • Ensure good working conditions and safety
  • Have worker pay and bonus policy promotion
  • Good benefits
  • Self-actualization (*highest of Maslow’s hierarchy)
  • Ensure good work in the workplace with enough of the right equipment and tools
  • Well-equipped with labor protections – labor work clothes, gloves, PPE
  • Encourage support from colleagues, co-workers
  • And also to be informed about the new policies of the state or the enterprise
  • Share their opinions with the union
  • Share their opinions with each other

1 nx

Joe noted that this list does not include helping mangers manage the business. Therefore we can say that this list assumes a capitalist and somewhat adversarial relationship between workers and employers. It also does not include motivating workers to be more productive. It does not mention enforcing the contract, which is half of the collective bargaining relationship, the other half being negotiation. Nor does it mention enforcing the laws. What ‘s more, the students did not limit the union to the collective bargaining function. Their list included things that you could not get from a CBA such as education, recreation, or “the policy to get a loan,” which is sort of a union credit union.


I noted that there are some items that are necessary for union democracy, such as showing respect, sharing opinions with the union and with each other, maybe the self-actualization point, and the word “democracy” actually came up. But there are no procedures listed such as voting to ratify a contract or running for office as a union leader.

3 what does a good union do

Joe noted that the six lists overlapped in many ways, but by having six of them, we got a wider range of ideas than we would have if we had just made one list. This is a familiar popular education technique but also good for brainstorming if you are going to do a strategic planning exercise. The point here is that democratic discussion is worth the time; this is a better list than any individual or any one group could have. Although it took more time, it made a better basis for the whole class to move forward.


5 and 6

Some Things Get Straightened Out — November 29, 2015

Some Things Get Straightened Out

drugsMost important, we have an actual date to go and meet with union leaders in Dong Nai. The date is December 21. We will have half a day, to either teach or ask questions, it’s up to us.


Dean Hoa told us this at lunch on Tuesday, after we taught in his class on strategic labor relations.


Piecing together information from various people, we have learned something that may help us prepare for this meeting with union leaders. This is about how worker representatives are employed by the VGCL. The jobs are not announced publicly. Instead, you get invited or chosen to come and apply. You may be an activist worker who has become a leader at work, or you may be someone who is well known for other reasons. The body that actually screens you is the provincial government. You take a test. If you pass the screening, the government sends you to the VGCL. In other words, the VGCL does not hire directly.


If this is accurate, the first question we usually ask in a meeting with union leaders — “How did you get involved in your union?” – will generate answers we haven’t heard before.


Dean Hoa’s union contacts are in Dong Nai which is where he has set up our December meeting. He intended to set up a previous meeting in Vung Tau but was unable to arrange the details in time, and we already had a conflict. He told us that those union leaders had wanted to meet us.


Two other things that have been taken care of: Our visas and my medications. It turns out that we got the wrong kind of visa. Our visas are “enterprise” visas, not “tourist” visas. Therefore they were harder, and more expensive, to renew. But Vinh managed to get it done, using a private service, including a young woman who rode out to Ton Duc Thang on a motorbike to deliver them, in the rain. Twice. Now we are legally here through February 15.


And then, since Kaiser wouldn’t give me six months of meds, I only brought enough for 3 months. I waited until they were re-authorized in October and then re-ordered them. Long story short, after many mix-ups: A friend of Gabi’s named Tenley flew to Hanoi with them in her luggage, mailed them to me at TDTU and luckily kept the tracking slip. Weeks went by.When Tenley checked the tracking slip, there was a name on it of someone who had signed for the package. It turned out that the young woman on whose desk they ended up had gotten married right about then, and simply forgot.


These three things, although not all of the same level of seriousness, created a small storm of tension that has now passed. Included in this storm were the complexities of paying the Berkeley earthquake and homeowners insurance and the property tax, all due this month and next. Now all I have to do is register to pay the Vermont rental taxes, which has been a real fuss; I had to get a business license and now that I’ve got one and am ready to pay online, the screen keeps freezing on me.


We will have two more full months at TDTU plus two weeks to travel around and then we’ll go home. It’s time to push actively on the contacts that we have made and get the bigger picture we’re in need of. Kent Wong has put in a proposal for a session at UALE in April.


But I am still asking my original question, “What are we suppose to be teaching?” I am not sure that we have contributed anything that is going to stick. We have spoken a lot of English to people who want to learn English, we have taught our classes, we have tried to help with the Top 100 New Curriculum which will be taught in English to Southeast Asians. But what we know about labor-employer interactions in the US may fall on deaf ears. Many of our students simply don’t believe things could get that adversarial. A whole generation of living in a context where the president of the union can be the HR guy has left them unprepared for big fights.


Hollis and Leanna’s first response to my “What are we suppose to be teaching?” question was, “They know that capitalism is coming and they want to know how to fight it.” Well, I think that they don’t really know that capitalism is coming, and they don’t particularly want to know how to fight it.


Here, a big factory here may pay people barely enough to survive on, and cheat on overtime pay and the quality of food. Nevertheless, the social dialog process, if it takes place at all, moves forward rather smoothly with regular meetings. The union may organize a kindergarten or a “travel trip.” In other workplaces, where no one has heard a peep about any union, many people are still “satisfied,” a word we keep hearing students use. They don’t need a second job as a union activist.


When we used the story of the Heartland AFSCME 3494 workers in Effingham to show what a whole campaign looks like, from organizing to contract, the students here couldn’t believe it. How could the workers hold out – for a year on strike followed by a year on lockout? Reportedly, Miss La couldn’t believe it.


In one class I ran down a list of current strikes that were either threatened or in process – a general strike in Quebec, the faculty at AFT 2121, the faculty in the CSU system, NUHW at Kaiser in Oakland, just for starters. Then I told how the UAW workers and the Southwest pilots have voted down their contracts and I realized that to our students, our way of doing things sounds completely brutal and Wild West. “Vietnam is peaceful,” one student told me, in a slightly corrective tone.


Yesterday in Dean Hoa’s class we used the example of the IKEA warehouse workers, 32 workers in the warehouse who work from 2 am to 10 am, who have decided to organize with UFCW. The teaching point was how far back in time the strategic planning had to happen in order to pull off a coordinated action in the present. In this case, it looks like at least 2 years. They have given IKEA 72 hours to recognize the union, and somehow got Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and the UNI General Workers Union in Switzerland to send out letters of support all at the same time. Seventy-two hours, after which they will probably go to an NLRB election. We got this on Portside and Dang translated it into Vietnamese.


Last on my list of things that have gotten straightened out: Joe and I have decided that at least we can leave them with a small collection of labor ed materials translated into Vietnamese. We’ll pull together all the good stuff we’ve written for our classes and then had translated, and put them into one packet and distribute them. They may never get used… or maybe they will.



Vung Tau with Thi — November 24, 2015

Vung Tau with Thi

Thi's little brother

Thi’s little brother

On Saturday morning the four of us plus Thi, who is a first-year TDTU student, took a taxi to the bus station and then a 16-person van (110,000 D each) down to Vung Tau. The highway is good and new and every roadside inch along the way is built up with shops, workshops, hotels, whatever. Only when we started to get close did we see open land, but it was shrimp ponds.

Thi had a tourist agenda planned for us with many activities, and I tried to explain that we are old people and we like to sit around and talk and look at things. She cooperated with this as much as her 19-year old self could manage. She is one of five, all sisters except for the little guy above. Just thinking about their family makes me smile. Her mother is 41, looks great, rides a motorbike and made us amazing seafood lunches. Her father works for the oil company as a machinist (as far as I can tell; he came home in an orange jumpsuit with oil stains on it). There are ships in the harbor that belong to this oil company and a helipad a few blocks away, on top of a big office/headquarters building, where helicopters land ferrying workers out to the ships. Their house is in a neigborhood developed for oil workers. It’s a typical multi-story Vietnamese city house with shiny floors and big carved wooden furniture. Thi and her mother

Thi and her mother when we went out for seafood on Saturday night.

Thi endured and handled well a series of long conversations with four adults, all asking her about what she studied, why Vietnamese students do this or that, how the school system works, what books she read, etc etc. I think that if I had had four adults peppering me with questions for hours on end, in a foreign language, I would have been exhausted. She held up very well.

One of the reasons that students volunteer to be in the group that does things with foreigners is so they can improve their English. Thi certainly got a workout this weekend. One of these conversations took place at their kitchen table after lunch with her mom circulating in the background. If I had been her mom, I would have been proud of her.

After our first lunch (one of two prepared by Thi’s mother, who is a serious cook, expert in the subtleties of very fresh, very local seafood) we took a walk through the neighborhood.

VT house arch des

There are three houses in this picture, plus a sliver of a forth on the right. They are tall (at least 3 stories), open to breezes, and have a combination of public and private spaces that is fundamentally different from what I’m used to.

We came to Thi’s high school. She went to a public high school that accepted students who had tested as “gifted.” At age 14, which is the school-leaving age in Vietnam, (ninth grade), she took a test that identifies students as gifted, OK, or failed. If you fail that test, you can either pay a lot of money to go to a “private school,” which is for students who are “lazy,” or else if your family cannot afford to pay, you can go to work, or in some cases get vocational training.

We were not able to find out what percent of students “fail” this test and if the rate of failure varies by neighborhood and if the rate has changed since doi moi. The question is, what is the level of free public education that a working class kid can expect to have, by right? And are there fees in the public education system?

Thi did her best to answer these questions.

At Thi’s school, although it was Saturday, there were two rooms in which students appeared to have gathered. The boys were in one room, being rowdy, and started calling “Hello!” to us. Then the girls, in the next room came out and began a conversation. It turns out they were studying for a big test, in history. History did not used to be one of the subjects that was tested. Now, a history test has been instituted. I would like to know what the story is behind that, and what is on the test. Here are the students:

Thi's school

Thi asked us if we would like to climb a mountain. Since yesterday, on Teacher Day, I did two things that I had not planned to do (run in a footrace and pull in a tug-of-war, not great for knees or back), I didn’t jump at the opportunity, but it turned out to be a wonderful tree-shaded paved winding walk up a small mountain (a little farther than walking from our house up to Tilden) past several temples, many smoothie stands, and some actual monkeys who live in the trees over one temple. This is evidently the aerobic walk of choice for Vung Tau residents on a nice Saturday afternoon.

At the top, Leanna and Thi and I sat at a table and drank papaya and mandarin smoothies while the sun set over the harbor. Joe and Hollis went on up the last stretch, which was rocky, not paved, and came down in the dark.

Sunset from mountain

On Sunday, after I explained to Thi that no, I did  not want to get up at 6 am and go swimming in the sea, the adults all went to the same coffee shop to warm up our brains for the day, reading our books and drinking various Vietnamese coffees. Thi came around at 9 am and we took a taxi to the beach.

Beach in Vung Tau

The water is warm, the waves are great for very gentle bodysurfing, and the fact that the sun is not blazing down is a good thing. A clean water shower costs 10,000 dong.

Bikinis in Vietnam g

These are Vietnamese women’s bathing suits. Although they are modest, they are two-piece, which means that they would not be allowed on swimmers in the pool at TDTU, where girls wear one-piece bathing suits with skirts and usually something that covers their shoulders. It is not unusual to see a girl in a suit that looks like a wetsuit, covering her legs and arms, but with a skirt, plus a bathing cap and goggles. I see this when I go swimming from 6:00 to 6:30 on weekdays and the “swim club,” with students learning to swim, arrives en mass at 6:30. The issue is partly modesty and partly temperature, since to them, the pool water is cold.

Beach Karaoke

These guys were singing loud Karaoke and dancing around while they made a huge seafood lunch next to the beach parking lot. I asked Thi what the songs were and she said they were Vietnamese military songs from the war. There is a certain character to these songs, which remind me of Russian orchestral music and the Israeli Song of the Partisans. They are in four-four time, of course, but they are in a minor key, and rise to a heart-breaking pause in the middle where you hold a high note  as you stand on the top of a mountain and look back over all the sacrifices that have been made for your country. This is very different from “The Halls of Montezuma,” “Oh, Say Can you See,” or, for that matter, the Marseillaise, which are all in major keys and go whump-bump-bump-bump.

After lunch on Sunday, Thi’s father brought out a bottle of something that tasted like very good whiskey. It is made somewhere in the North.

Thi's father whiskey


Van back to Ho Chi Minh City, in the rain. Big motorcycle accident (three bikes lying in an intersection) on the way.

Teacher Day — November 23, 2015

Teacher Day

There is nothing like Teacher Day in the US and I wish there was. There is no place to put, collectively, the strong positive feelings that grow between teachers and students, no place to talk publicly about what that relationships is or how important it is, no place to honor it. Instead we get “Teacher of the Year” awards for single “top teachers” on the one hand, and on the other, a huge contingent workforce that has about as much of a socially legitimate, recognized, stable relationship as a whore and a john. Someone is going to be mad at me for saying that. But if you know “Who is Professor Staff and Why is He Teaching All These Courses?” you’ll know what I mean.I speak from experience. I don’t mean contingents are whores. I  mean the relationship between a whore and a  john doesn’t get any respect. I’m trying to draw a sharp contrast.

Once upon a time I tried writing down all the different students I could remember, giving each one a page, telling their story as I remembered it. Writing teachers hear a lot of stories because people write about themselves. I wrote a pile, a book’s worth of one-pagers, of students who were unforgettable. But there it lay. My memories of those students ended up as a pile of paper. They went their way, I went my way, and that was that.

On teacher’s day in Vietnam students go home to their hometowns and visit their old teachers!  The schools are open and kids bring flowers. Even the bad teachers probably get some visitors, because everyone can reach somebody.

Obviously this day of commemoration awakened some strong feelings in me.

This is an annual holiday, established 33 years ago which means 1982. Madame Binh was Education Minister until she became a member of the Central Committee in 1982 so I don’t know if she had anything to do with establishing Teacher Day in Vietnam. It originated among Communist bloc countries at a meeting in Warsaw in 1957.

The reason why it might have something to do with Mme. Binh is because when she was Minister, teachers were very poor. Of course, most people were poor – starving, in fact. She had a lot to do with raising teachers pay and getting schools built out in the mountains where there was high illiteracy.


Teacher Day at TDTU involved:


Meeting Vinh at the office at 6:50 am, wearing our white TDTU shirts and baseball caps. Going to pray at the gold statue (bust) of Ton Duc Thang at the front of the college, placing incense sticks into the sand-filled vase below it.

Going up to the giant auditorium called Room A and hearing many speeches, seeing traditional dances on the stage and hearing traditional songs.

Crowd in auditorium

Changing into our sports clothes and going to the gym where all the teachers (the full-timers, called lecturers – adjuncts seem to be missing throughout) lined up by faculty, marched across the gym, were saluted by a traditional teacher’s song, a waltz, in which the gray hair of an old teacher is credited to chalk dust. Then we played games. Each faculty was a team. Bag races were at one end of the gym. Leanna and I were invited to join the International Business Faculty team to play tug of war. We lost, but it was fun. Then came races. Swimming, which I had signed up for, was cancelled for lack of people signing up. Maybe I was the only one. I found myself in the Older Women’s Running, and actually made it around the course running or at least shuffling. Leanna and I finished last. She waited for me.

Then I went quickly to change into my ao dai and go to another ceremony in Room A.

At 11:30 Joe and I accepted the invitation to the Accounting Faculty lunch, where fabulous food, especially a mango/guava/carrot/cabbage salad was spread out in their office. These people in the Accounting Faculty, as I have mentioned before, have really good chemistry with each other. They are almost all very young, too. They keep suggesting things we can do with them, like go on tours. I hope these plans work out. One woman offered to ride us all over HCMC on her motorcycle.

After lunch, still wearing the ao dai, I walked across the terraces, looking at the art. The whole campus was decorated for Teacher Day, with giant posters that the students had been making all week, plus baskets of flowers everywhere. The poster art has many images of children, trees, floating clouds, boats heading out into the ocean. On a nearby terrace is a display of very high-end, techno-sophisticated art produced by the design students, so I have to presume that the teacher day poster art is intentionally naive.

teacher day art

Everyone was saying to me, “Happy Teachers’ Day!” Even the security guards said it.  My “You’ve got to be kidding” function was on high alert. I was having very mixed feelings.

Add in the omnipresence of top-volume music coming over loudspeakers and the fact that our seats in Room A were just 15 or 20 feet away from the speakers.

I have to insert something here. There are two things I do not like, which are inconvenient peeves for someone living in Veitnam:

One, large demonstrations of semi-military or completely military discipline, especially ones that involve people standing in line in the sun for long periods of time. I don’t mind the way a band marches out at half-time at a football game and makes patterns on the field. That doesn’t bother me. That’s partly a joke, anyway. But one step beyond half-time drills and I am on my way gone. Since a lot of celebrations in Vietnam involve precision marching in military formation, there is room for a problem here.

I actually made a silent vow about this years ago when I was teaching in Laney Community College in Oakland. The Gulf War had started. It was 1991. I had been teaching some English 1-A class that allowed me to use WWII materials for essay prompts. In my class were Vietnam vets, Vietnam “boat people”, Oakland high school kids (African American), Africans from the wars in East Africa, poor white kids, battered women, some brainy college dropouts, etc etc etc – the usual wonderful mix. The perfect cast of characters to make someone say, “I will never go to war again.” For some reason, I showed the famous photo of white men with crew cuts sitting in four or five lines of Adirondack chairs. They are wearing what look like hot weather uniforms – khaki shorts, open shirts. If you know this photo, you already remember it. The Adirondack chairs, which are wood and do not belong on a boat, are nonetheless spread out in lines on the deck of some boat. The men are looking off into the distance with serious expressions on their faces. They are looking at an H-bomb test going off. The vow I took was about standing, marching, sitting in line: Lines should be banned. No more lines, ever. Let no one ever stand in line again. This was a personal vow, for me only.

Or course, forswearing military display only earns you points if you are a citizen of a powerful country with a big army. If you are a small country in danger of being invaded by a big country, forswearing military display or military training and preparation is stupid. But I’m talking about myself: a citizen of a big country that invades other countries.

The other thing I don’t like is loud music, especially amplified music coming over loudspeakers. I do not enjoy that at all. Period. Many times sitting in a Vietnamese auditorium where the MC says, “Enjoy the traditional song of Vietnam” and then the music blares up, my deepest wish is to be able to leave. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, we went to a show called “TDTU Has Talent,” and since as foreigners we get ushered to the front row, we were stuck there for the whole thing. I sat with my fingers in my ears.

I have very good hearing. I can hear birds sing. I can hear footsteps. I can tell what’s going on when an orchestra is turning up. I have used my good hearing to enjoy and play music. I love my hearing. I feel like calling the police on someone who turns up the sound so loud that it hurts my ears.

So I spent the whole TDTU has talent evening suffering the pain of loud noise. Leanna and Hollis were next to us. In Room A on Teacher Day we watched videos of previous events, which included many shots of Leanna and Hollis loving every minute of it of the TDTU Has Talent show.  The camera carefully did not catch me with my fingers in my ears.

The day finished with a fabulous banquet in the gym, with more food than I have ever seen anywhere. White floors, white walls, white table linens, all the chairs covered with white, with great gold and bronze bows.

Vast buffet

But the high point of the day for me was mid-afternoon, when I was crossing the canal, a boy whom I had never seen before (maybe) started talking with me out of the blue. He was a handsome but very young-looking guy.

He said, “Happy Teachers’ Day!” I smiled back and said, “Thank you! How are you doing?”

He said, “I am so happy! I am going home to my family. I miss my family so much. I have a grandmother and a grandfather who are in their 70s’ and I have two little brothers younger than me, and I miss them so much! I live in a province that is about 100 K from here. I will go home on the bus and come back on Monday. I will see my mother and my father! I haven’t seen my family in five months! I am so happy!”

I was blown away by this warm, happy confession, and especially because he seemed to feel that I wasn’t a stranger at all even though we had never spoken. I was “a teacher” and therefore one of his teachers.

I attribute this moment of openness to Teacher Day.



Employers have too much freedom in the US —

Employers have too much freedom in the US

Joe, Leanna, Hollis and I went down to Vung Tau, a seacoast city two hours southeast of HCMC. Our guide was Thi, a 19-year old freshman whose family lives there (see next post).


On Sunday morning the four adults left the hotel and went to find a coffee shop on a street at the edge of Thi’s neighborhood. We sat in comfortable chairs under a striped awning and drank various versions of Vietnamese coffee and talked. There was a sea breeze and a blue sky.

Coffee shop

A small, fifty-ish muscular man in an orange T-shirt heard us speaking English and paused on his way over to his own table.  The picture above was taken before this happened, so you can’t see him in the background.

He said, “Aha, Americans, we will see a lot of you now with TPP.” We laughed and he went on towards the other people who were waiting for him.
Later I went over to his table and, apologizing for interrupting, asked if he would mind talking to us a little bit about TPP.


He was happy to do this. Here is basically what he said: “ TPP will be a good thing for us because we will have independent unions. Right now, the union belongs to the government. It does not do anything for workers. Workers don’t see it. It is part of the government.”


We asked, “But will Vietnamese workers really organize their own independent unions?”


“Yes,” he said. “It will happen.”

He himself is an employer. His company, which is based in Vung Tau and makes equipment like cables, hooks, slings, chains and other things that lift stuff up in the air and move it from one place to another, very important in a shipyard, has 30 employees.

“How will employers respond?” we asked.

“They will do it.”

“You are an employer, how will you respond?”
“It is the law,” he said. “They have to allow it.”

We pointed out that in the US it is also the law to allow workers to organize unions, but in practice it is very hard to do because of employer opposition.

“Employers in the US have too much freedom,” he said. “Workers have freedom, employers have freedom. Too much freedom.”

There was that little twinkle that I often see in the eyes of Vietnamese when I make a comparison with the US. It’s as if they are saying, “Oh yeah? You think so?” A great deal of self-confidence is behind that twinkle. “You think we weren’t paying attention?”

He just came back from a conference in Ho Chi Minh City where various government ministers talked about the changes that were coming under the new trade agreements. It sounds as if changes will come sooner rather than later. The TPP will be very good for the Vietnamese garment industry, he said. They heard about the agreements with Chile, Peru, Singapore, Japan and other countries. Vietnam has a whole set of trade agreements, not just the TPP.

You could ask, “Why doesn’t the US government step in and restrain employers who interfere with workers organizing?”  But deep, deep in my view of how things work is the certainty that any law that protects labor by restraining capital will not be enforced. This has been true in my life ever since I was born. In the US, employers certainly do have this freedom.What if this is not true in Vietnam?


Our reading of the TPP Side Agreement is that it is one-sided, favoring the US corporations; that it promises many protections to Vietnamese workers that US workers don’t have or that we had to fight tooth and nail to get; that it may make conditions worse for Vietnamese workers if it weakens the VGCL and divides labor into less powerful, scattered organizations; and that it may allow forces hostile to Vietnam’s socialism to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs, violating their sovereignty.

US union people will assume that all those new rights and protections will go unenforced, like in the US. But what if they’re wrong?

Vietnam observers that we have talked to have warned against assuming that Vietnam has entered into the TPP without sufficient preparation. One of them pointed out that for the Paris negotiations, the US rented space for a year; the Vietnamese bought a house.








King Lear in Vietnam — November 18, 2015

King Lear in Vietnam

Lear's Kingdom

The Map of Lear’s Kingdom

Yesterday (Monday Nov 16) in Joe’s class he used the Xuan-Trang and Binh interviews from Kent Wong and An Le’s book, Organizing on Separate Shores, that Dang (Tony) translated for us, except that at Binh’s request, we cut out the part about his childhood and military experience. The students read these intently. They made a very powerful impact. It seemed as if suddenly organizing became something they could see themselves doing.


They asked questions like: How can you tell if you have the potential to be an organizer? What do you need in order to start? and What do you do if you have a bad leader? This is the connection between Joe’s class and mine right now: bad leaders. King Lear is an example.

Lear in costume

A good student volunteers to play the role of a bad king.

On Wednesday, students in my class performed Shakespeare’s King Lear, starting with Act 1 Scene 2, the scene in which Lear throws everything away. They continued through the end of the play, summarizing but acting it out, all the way through to Lear’s death scene with Cordelia. In Vietnamese, of course.

My reason for asking them to perform King Lear is this. Northouse, the author of our textbook, defines leadership as leaders that he likes. This means that according to his definition, Hitler does not count as a leader. Another problem with this definition is that he avoids having to tell us how he deals with the behavior of a leader who is bad or has gone bad.

Lear rehearsal

Rehearsal on the terrace on a windy day. They only rehearsed once with me and then did the whole rest of it on their own.

So I gave the class one session on Machiavelli, whose book The Prince was advice to leaders about how to keep power, no matter what. I included a particularly bloody story about how Duke Francesco Sforza brought the province of Romagna under control. Machiavellli says:

As he (Sforza) knew that the harshness of the past had engendered some amount of hatred, in order to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely, he resolved to show that if any cruelty had taken place it was not by his orders, but through the harsh disposition of his minister (de Orco). And having found the opportunity he had him cut in half and placed one morning in the public square at Cesena, with a piece of wood and blood-stained knife by his side. The ferocity of this spectacle caused the people both satisfaction and amazement (p 27).

Two students did a little role-play in which Sforza asks de Orco if he would please go to Romagna and clean it up. Does de Orco feel honored by the assignment, or does he sense that he’s probably being set up for something awful? There was a moment in the role-play when de Orco asks Sforza if he will give him half his land if he does the assignment. Sforza (played by a young woman whose name I think is Trinth) gives him a quick, narrow-eyed glance. You can tell that if Sforza says yes, de Orco will be sure that Sforza will have him killed (because then Sforza won’t have to give him anything.) Sforza then bargained him down, fooling de Orco or at least getting him off the scent.

So then we did King Lear. In one furious scene, this king throws away his crown, his land, his army; in spite of the pleas of Kent, he loses his self-respect and his mind. When he declares he is no longer father to Cordelia, he loses that as well. Positional and personal authority, gone. Regan and Goneril have been watching him for quite a while, it turns out, and may have set the whole thing up as a trap — a trap that both Lear and Cordelia will fall into. This idea comes from Geoff Hoyle’s play, Lear’s Fool, which we saw last spring in San Francisco, but a student in my class also came up with it during the comments section.

Regan speaks

Regan is telling Lear how much she loves him. Cordelia over on the right. The fool is wearing the little red hat and a red knob on her nose; she follows Lear on the heath, bothering him like a puppy dog. Albany and Cornwall are on the left, by the blackboard; France and Burgundy wait over in the far left.

I typed up the script and a team of students volunteered to perform it. They read it out loud to me in English, in our office, and I realized that the Elizabethan vocabulary is no stranger to them than contemporary English – they sailed right through it, oblivious. Once they knew what it said, they turned it into Vietnamese. There were several young people in the group who had pretty good English.

Vy as Goneril

Vy as Goneril.

They did a great job and it was wonderful. They even had sound effects: trumpets to announce the entrance of royalty, thunder to represent the storm, and sad music for when Lear is holding the dying Cordelia in the last scene.

I find that I rely on drama, especially role-plays, in order to find out what the students are thinking, much less learning, since I can’t really find out through translation no matter how well Vinh does it.  I realized this after watching several role-plays having to do with grievance handling.  The students always bring more to the role-plays than I had expected. I can discern things from their body language, tone of voice, etc.

After all, the exams do not capture what they are learning. That may not even be what they are for.  The exams are more like ways to punctuate the semester.

Some kind of special learning is going on with all these team activities. Is this what they need, to take them into the future? Maybe. Maybe they need this more than what US students get. I am not sure I’m going to be able to figure it out, though.

Our Stuff — November 15, 2015

Our Stuff

Soccer stadium

Our room is under the bleachers in the soccer stadium, on the right.

I threw my back out Thursday morning and have spent a lot of time since then lying on my back so tonight (Saturday) I was watching “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix while Joe and Hollis were in HCMC at Vinh’s third wedding. I noticed all the stuff in the apartment Piper and her boyfriend Larry live in. This is before she goes to prison.

Our room

Piper and Larry have a lot of stuff. For example, there is a magnetic board mounted on the kitchen wall with at least a dozen knives on it. There are a lot of other things around on the walls and tables. Some of them look as if they were probably Christmas presents.

I am going to make a list of our stuff here. This will have the additional value of informing someone else from the US who might come here about our accommodations. I would describe our accommodations as “Spartan.” But at the same time, perfectly comfortable.
We have a flatscreen TV that sometimes gets cable, mostly in Vietnamese. We have pretty good internet with a Cisco Lynksys modem. I have to unplug it and re-start it every now and then. We have air conditioning and a remote to turn it on and off and lower or raise it.

Between us we have three laptop computers which we use pretty much all day long all the time.

For eating we have an electric teapot, two TDTU glasses, two covered TDTU mugs, gifts of the accounting faculty, two other mugs, left by Richard Fincher, the arbitrator who was here last year and is now in Arizona. One good sharp knife that works to cut bread, left by Richard. Two plastic trays, sometimes used for plates. Two Vietnamese drip coffee sets, a white teapot, two small white cups and saucers, espresso size. We have seen these at Lotte Mart. Maybe Richard bought all of these.

There is small square refrigerator. It is not noisy. In the refrigerator we have rolls, cheese (very expensive, 92,000 dong, from Ireland), granola, mangoes, little cucumbers, milk and yogurt in small packs. We shop for this at Lotte Mart. We have three kinds of tea and a couple of kinds of coffee. One kind of coffee that is especially good comes from a restaurant a few streets away and is kept in the refrigerator.

There are two low box double beds with foam mattresses. We use one for sleeping, one for my desk. There is a real desk which Joe uses. It has a set of drawers that lock. There is a bookcase, two bedside tables with drawers, and two chairs. The books we have bought are in the bookcase. All the furniture is made of pressed boards. There is a red plastic folding chair, one of three that Richard bought. Hollis and Leanna have one of the others and the third is in the office.

We taped a big map of Vietnam on one wall and lots of art by Lorenzo and Massimo on the other wall.

We bought two yoga mats. There is not quite enough room on the floor to do side-leg stretches, but otherwise, OK. The floor is white ceramic tile, easy to wash. All our shoes are lined up near the front door.

In the bathroom we have various soaps, dishwashing soap, laundry, shampoo, etc., and a good supply of toilet paper, which we buy at Lotte Mart.

There are two tall armoire-type cabinets near the bathroom. We hang our clothes in there and put folded things on the two shelves. There is a row of drawers at the bottom of the cabinets.

A ladder goes up to a loft where we’ve put our suitcases.

We have a piece of cloth tape strung up for a clothesline. When the air conditioning is on, things dry.

TDTU supplies about 5 towels, two bottom sheets (fitted), two quilted cotton blankets, two big pillows and two pillow roles. I take the laundry to the dorm where it gets washed in a washing machine and then hung up to dry on a balcony on the 11th floor, where the wind dries it. That takes at least 24 hours, more if it rains.

The lighting is fluorescent bars up high. There is one bedside lamp.

And that’s pretty much it. The windows are glazed over so you can’t see in or out, which is OK, because there are people walking past right under one window and soccer players kicking balls around right under the other window. There are heavy gold-colored curtains over the outside windows. The door is also glass, and if you don’t have your clothes on and stand near it, someone on the outside of the room can see a white body through the glass. I’ve noticed this.

The window in the bathroom has a wire screen, no glass, so air comes in and out, so you must shut the door between the bathroom and the main room. Then the air conditioning will work fine in the main room.

There are some insects and some geckos that eat them. I kill the big black insects myself. Joe prefers to ignore them.

My point is that we do not have a lot of stuff here and it’s fine.

I remember reading the Swedish crime novels by Maj Sowall and Per Wahloo, in which the cops go through all the items left in the apartment of the dead person, and they itemize everything: three shirts, two plates, one chair, some books, etc. They can make a list of everything the person owns. From that, you can figure out who they were. You could do that with us here.




Stories That Can’t Be Told — November 13, 2015

Stories That Can’t Be Told

I have mentioned stories that can’t be told. These are stories about the generation of the parents of our students and, if they are still alive, stories about the grandparents. Young people have told us these stories but there is no way that I can repeat them. They are, of course, stories of what people did and how they survived during the years of the French occupation, the American War, the years immediately following the end of the American War, the wars with Cambodia and China, the end of the Soviet Union and now the turn toward a mixed economy.

People in these stories fight in the wars, get bombed, get lost, get taken prisoner, get tortured, see their cities burned and friends and families killed. They also fight in war, bomb other people take prisoners, torture, burn cities and kill people. They experience famine, flood and drought. They practice voluntary privation to get through hard times.

The same people escape, some by helicopter and ship to the US where they live in Southern California or Houston. Some escape by boat, after paying thousands of dollars in gold to a fixer, and many drown or starve or are picked up by pirates. Some pay those thousands of dollars twice or more. Some people are in prison and they escape, or they are in re-education camps and they survive and are released. Some people are the fixers and the camp guards.

People in these stories migrate, from the south to the north or more often from the north to the south, bringing a different accent, different expectations and culture. They also migrate from Vietnam to the US, to Cuba, to Canada and other countries. They have been to Russia to study and know Russian. They have visited Soviet bloc countries, including East Germany, for specialized medical care.

Some of the ones who make it to the US come back, or their children come back, speaking Vietnamese and hopeful to be part of the new Vietnam, which is an economy developing at 6.8% per year. They meet the children of people who never left, who have profited from the new economy, who live in splendid houses – some in District Seven, a few kilometers east of TDTU – and have live-in maids and drivers.

Everyone who has a grandfather who worked for the French is sitting next to someone whose grandfather was Viet Minh. Everyone whose mother was transported away from a battle zone to live with strangers is sitting next to someone whose father who flew US-supplied planes on bombing runs over the battle zone.

If you pick any one of these stories and tell it by itself, it sounds like the story of a lone individual fighting for survival against mighty forces of evil. You have to braid them together to know what you see when you look out at a classroom of seventy students, sitting side by side.

What Books We Are Reading about Vietnam — November 9, 2015

What Books We Are Reading about Vietnam

This is a book of poetry that goes from at least 1000 years ago to the near-present. Joe is in the Museum of Ethnography bookstore in Hanoi. The ancient poetry is in Chinese characters, the more recent in the romanized script of contemporary Vietnamese.

Fat book of poetry

We did not buy this book; it’s too heavy to carry around. I am posting this picture to suggest something about Vietnamese literature.

We found a real bookstore in Hanoi, by the way, down near the Museum of History. Called Savina or something like that. One floor of what look like textbooks. Second floor has a whole big section of English language books about Vietnam. We bought four or five that we hadn’t seen elsewhere. A few nights later, walking through that area on our way to the Opera House, we encountered a night market of books along a whole street. Some had stalls out on the street, some were regular shops with metal doors that run up and down. Lights were on and young people were standing over tables of books, reading just like in the US. This was along the north side of the Post Office, parallel to the big street where Savina is.

I am adding to this post as we read more books.

Nguyen Huy Thiep, The General Retires, 2003 (?), Curbstone Press in Willimantic, CT and distributed by ARTBOOK in Vietnam,  These are short stories, some of the sharpest, clearest, most deftly written I have ever seen. The characters are people in the Vietnam of the 1960’s through the 1990’s, both village and city people (and people who go back and forth). There are some stories that go back into early kings and dynasties,but they connect to people in the present. YOu can almost picture the whole country by closing your eyes and thinking about these stories. The translation is excellent, as far as I can tell. I would use this book in a literature class (but that’s true of some of the others, as well.)

Dec 17:  Le Luu, A Time Far Past, University of Massachusetts Press 1997m first published as Thoi Xa Vang in 1986.  This is a real novel, the story of a whole life of a person who feels as real as any character you’ve ever met. It starts in 1954 when the main character, Sai, is ten years old and forced to marry a girl several years older. His married life and therefore his private life is interfered with by first his family and then by his comrades and the Party, which rejects him because of his wife’s family. Throughout this he’s really in love with another woman who eventually marries someone else. The war is the backdrop but the personal life of Sai is the main story. The book is dark but also beautiful.

Mandaley Perkins, Hanoi Adieu, 2012, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi. A detailed memoir of the son of a French military officer posted in Indochina. This is a view through French eyes of the whole colonial experience fro the 1930’s through Dien Bien Phu. It’s a street-by-street, face-by-face picture of life in the city at that time.  The main character (who was the author’s stepfather) loves Hanoi, feels as if he belongs there, and stays despite the war going on around him. This should be read in tandem with General Giap’s book Unforgettable Days.

Vu Trong Phung, Dumb Luck, University of Michigan 2002. This book was first published as a newspaper serial in Hanoi in the 1930s. It reads like a comic book. It mostly satirizes the behavior of the Vietnamese middle class trying to be French. It does so with rough expertise. The main character is a grinning, indefatigable clown named Re-Haired Xuan. The introduction is nearly 30 pages long and gives a glimpse into the particular space created by the change of political regime in France (the Popular Front, where Communists, Socialists and others joined together and took over the government, for a while) that allowed some open political, artistic and  intellectual life in the colonies. Sitting reading this book I can hardly believe my eyes. Combine this with the Mandaley Perkins book for a multi-dimensional picture.

From here on, this post must have been written in early October.

books as decor in coffee shop

This is a Trung Nguyen coffee shop in District 3, where I went with Clover, the woman who translated for me in the first teaching methods seminar. More books on display here than in most bookstores. 

There are not a lot of big bookstores in this part of Vietnam, as far as we can tell. The closest one to TDTU is at the Lotte Mart shopping center. It is one room about the size of Pegasus on Solano Ave in Berkeley (not huge) and has mostly school writing materials, notebooks, art materials and toys, with one quarter of the space for books and a couple of shelves for books in English, most of which are paperbacks like Game of Thrones and Fifty Shades of Gray. On a few occasions we did see some real Vietnamese books there. We bought Madame Binh’s book there, as well as the Duong Thuy book. There is not a separate bookstore a the University.

At a bookstore in District 1, HCMC, we got Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and the Vo Thi Sau book. It was a narrow-fronted three-story building but a lot of the space was for ethnic handicraft souvenirs.

A place to get good books is at tourist destinations such as in the gift shops in the big imperial court sites in Hue. While this isn’t the obvious place to try to sell books, especially serious history books, they definitely reached us this way. At Emperor Le Duc’s summer palace and tomb Joe saw General Giap’s book, the Dang book on ethnic minorities, and the excellent Vietnam: A Long History, by Nguyen Kach Vien. In terms of American dollars they are not expensive, but in terms of dong, they are expensive. The Nguyen Kach Vien book cost 500,000 dong.

I bought the Denise Chong book about Kim Phuc from a vendor who came into a restaurant in District 1, in the tourist district. She was carrying around a shrink-wrapped tower of knock-offs. I paid 300, 000 dong for that plus a copy of Gone Girl, poorly Xeroxed.

Then Joe and Hollis and Leanna went for a walk south and east past Vivo City (a huge expensive all-inside-a-big-shiny-box shopping mall) into what’s called Koreatown, where all the Korean managers live, apparently. This is definitely a higher-rent area than where we are. It has sidewalks, for example. There are lots of restaurants, phone stores, travel agencies, etc etc. And a bookstore. Joe came home with 5 books. He says that there were a lot of airport-type self-help business books in Korean in the store.

Here is our collection so far:

Bao Ninh. 1998. The Sorrow of War. English translation copyright Martin Secker and Warburg. London, UK: Random House Vintage. This is a real war novel, said to be the All Quiet on the Western Front of Vietnam. The book begins with the narrator, one of the only survivors of his company, out in the jungle in a truck searching for remains of fallen soldiers, which he wraps and piles in the back of the truck. From then it flashes back to the first days and then the climax of the war. There is a long, difficult love affair interrupted by the war. The section in which the North Vietnamese troops are leaving to go south on the train, and the narrator and h is girlfriend miss his train and they decide to catch another train to try to catch up, both of them – what does she think she doing?- is intense. There is another memorable section in which the narrator hides while three giant American soldiers, “athletes” – huge guys, loaded with weapons – search for him with a giant Alsatian dog. The book itself was banned for a while. At the end, the narrator fades in and out as if he is becoming another person.

Binh, Madame. 2015. Friends, Family, Country. HCMC: The Gioi Publishers. This is a very clearly written, well-produced book that reads like a real story of a person’s real life. She hits a wonderful tone of one-on-one “here is what you need to know about my life” as she remembers it both as part of her own family and on the international stage. I loved it. As a young girl under the French, her job was organizing flash demonstrations in Saigon. She got identified by the French police, caught and tortured. She went North after 1954 and eventually became the representative of the Provisional Revolutionary Government at the Paris Peace Talks. Every person in the book is elaborately footnoted in case you don’t know who was who. When you read about these people in other books, you can find out who they are by looking at the footnotes in Madam Binh’s book. It also has great pictures, some in color. The Gioi Publishers must be some kind of official publisher; they do a good job.

Later, we read that only 1000 copies of this were printed in English and they ran out. Joe bought two more copies when he saw them in a different bookstores.

Chan, Anita, Editor. 2011. Labour in Vietnam. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.  We bought this in the US. Good articles on strikes, corporate social responsibility, labor protests. Good chapter on comparison of strikes in China and Vietnam.

Chong, Denise. 1999- 2001. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph and the Vietnam War. London: Viking. Kim Phuc is now living in Canada. Denise Chong got her to spend several years co-operating to produce this book. She is the little girl running naked down the road into the camera, napalm clouds behind her and hot napalm on her back. There is a lot in this book about the town, Trang Bang, where her family lived, which is in a province right about where the road into Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh trail cross, so a whole lot of fighting took place there, first one side and then the other. Through it all, her mother supported the family (and had 10 kids) by running a noodle shop in the middle of town, and her shop suffers every possible kind of bad luck. The description of how Kim Phuc got used as a propaganda tool by the local leaders of her province is excruciating, as is the story of her changing relationship with her mother. This book is full of details that help bring that part of the war to life, help me understand what it was like on a daily basis. The CuChi tunnel museum is right near there.

Dang Nghiem Van, Chu Thai Son, and Luu Hung. Ethnic Minorities. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers. Haven’t read this yet. Looks like a reference book. Later: Went to the Ethnography Museum in Hanoi and developed some respect for this book, as well as respect for the approach to minorities in Vietnam. It’s very different from “minority” issues in the US. There are 53 or 54 “minorities” in Vietnam, many still living in their historic regions and villages, speaking their own languages.

Huu Ngoc. 2010. Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture. Sixth Edition. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers. Leanna says I will love this book and it will last me a long time. I will take it with me on our next trip. (Joe read it, cover to cover, all 1000 or so pages. He says it’s got a lot of good stuff in it. Unfortunately, it’s organized by topic, not in order in which it was written, which would have been more interesting to me.)

Lundquist, Lt. Col. Donald. 2014. Letters from the Battlefield. Vietnam Writer’s Association Publishing House. This is a very odd book. Its impact comes from its structure, as if it was a play. There are two sets of letters. One set is from a US officer who commanded a headquarters in Chu Lai-Tam Ky known to American troops as “Fat City.” On page 73 he describes “the battle a commander dreams of” when he called in four Cavalry platoons and “all the helicopters I could get” to shoot at “about 300 Viet Cong in open fields running”. The level of self-reflection never goes deeper than that. As if that wasn’t appalling enough, they’ve paired his letters with the letters of someone who actually thinks about the war. No comment, just the contrast.  Lindquist says that out of 180 killed he personally killed 11 himself and was “given much credit for the whole show”. He racks up many medals, retires to his wife’s home in Germany, and dies of a heart attack at age 38 after a helicopter ride.

Nearly 30 years later his daughter reads his letters, listens to his tapes, and goes to Vietnam to retrace his steps. She writes a book, is interviewed on NPR, and gets a screenwriter to write a script. While in Vietnam she is introduced to a family from Hanoi. The father of this family was also in the military, dug earthworks, pushed artillery up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail, saw friends killed, and wrote letters. This guy was a student in the Hanoi University of Literature at the time that he left to fight. His letters are thoughtful, reflective and beautifully written, although the translator certainly gets some credit. After 5 years of war he goes back to Hanoi and works in the military archives, making a personal project of collecting and organizing the letters and other writings of soldiers who were killed. In this case, his youngest daughter, born after he came back, introduces his letters. Both sets of letters are in Vietnamese and English. Side by side, the contrast is enough to make you want to throw the book across the room.

I am sure the book is not a fake. On the 40th anniversary of the end of the American war I read, maybe in an article in the New Yorker (which is where the My Lai story first got widespread attention), that some Vietnamese spokesperson, maybe someone at the War Remnants Museum, said, “We forgive but we do not forget.” I kept thinking of that when I read this book. So here’s a book that helps us not forget: that US military officers were given medals for shooting at fleeing Vietnamese from a helicopter. Like shooting at buffalo from a train.

Nguyen Ngoc Thuan. 2014. Open the Window Eyes Closed. Translated from Vietnamese by Thuong Tiep Truong. Nha Truat Ban Tre Publishing House. HCMC. This is a perfect book. It is written as if someone is holding you on his lap and telling you stories that are just scary enough, just terrible enough, but also completely believable and true, and told completely for the purpose of warning you what life is like, especially how beautiful and wonderful it is. Apparently it is a children’s book but it hits an adult right between the eyes, whammy.

Nguyen Kach Vien. 1987 (2014). Vietnam: A Long History. HCMC: The Gioi Publishers. This is a really good book. It starts with Paleolithic Vietnam and keeps on going up through the beginning of doi moi and the author keeps a steady narrative tone the whole time. He’s a real Marxist: holds everything up to the same standard, makes everything fit in the same story, including the role played by state religions, the labor invested in irrigation systems, how small communities combined for self-defense (against the Han), all the way into the arrival of the French and the experience of colonization. He can wrap a big complex historical crisis into a short paragraph by using exactly the right words. There is evidence that some really good English-speaking people were involved in the translation, because sometimes a word like “pressganged” shows up—a very specific word, correctly use. It wasn’t until I read this that I began to understand the post-1945 period. I think I have a better handle on it now. I assumed, since this book was so good, that it was a famous book and probably was the history book assigned in high schools. When I waved it around at Vinh’s wedding, no one had heard of it.

Ly Qui Trung. 2015.The Sky Does Not Have to be Blue. Nha Truat Ban Tre Publishing House. HCMC. This is one of the ones Joe got at the bookstore in Koreatown. It’s the happy story of a young entrepreneur who decides to open a restaurant selling pho, called Pho24, and turns it into a chain and then franchises it all over Asia. It is written to both inspire and guide young entrepreneurs.

Thong, Nguyen Dinh. 2014. Vo Thi Sau: A Legendary heroine. HCMC: Literature and Arts Publishing House. A very short book. A hagiography, really, for this young girl who was captured after throwing a bomb in a marketplace. She would throw a bomb and cry “Viet Minh attack!” and then run. After some years in prison with a lot of other Viet Minh (where they had a prisoner-run school and she learned to read and write) she was executed. Many cities have streets named after her. The book treats her like a saint but it still reads well; feels like a poem.

Thum Duong. 2013. Beloved Oxford. Translator, Elbert Bloom. HCMC: Tre Publishing House. This is a really strange book. The main character is a Vietnamese girl who goes to Oxford on some scholarship to study international business. Her advisor’s (tutor) assistant is a Portugese guy who, from the POV of a US woman, harasses and abuses her. However, it turns out this is a love story and the young woman actually likes what the guy does to her. Makes for very weird, unpleasant reading. Her assignments in her business class include preparing marketing plans for big US companies like Proctor and Gamble. The translation is strange, too; maybe it just reflects the original, but it is not recognizable as something a native English speaker would produce.

Tre Publishing House appears to cater to youth readers. They run a Book Bus, for example, and donate books. It’s true that you don’t see a lot of books around. YOu don’t see people sitting and reading books. So this may be a way to appeal to a youth audience and get them reading.

Tran, Angie Ngoc. 2013. Ties that Bind : Cultural identify, Class and Law in Vietnams’ Labor Resistance.  Cornell Southeast Asian Program PUblications. We bought this in the US. This is a major work of research into labor in Vietnam. We have used some of her anecdotes as case studies in our classes. The framework is the relationship, both in terms of time sequence and importance or power, between ethnic communities and villages of origin (hometowns), versus class. Which is the operative source of solidarity when it comes to resisting bad work? She carries these units of analysis into reports of labor disputes. Some of her research is library and archives, a lot of it is direct interviews with workers. A huge amount of research went into this. She piles examples and stories into the book. She apparently participated in the conference held last spring (2014) here, that Richard Fincher worked on. I don’t know of any other comparable book. She teaches at Monterrey Bay CSU in California.

Trung Trung Dinh. 2010. Lost in the Jungle. Translated by Gary Donovan and McAmmond Nguyen Thi Tu. Vietnam Writers’ Association Publishing House. This is a gripping can’t-put-it-down book, very short, unforgettable and unique. A young North Vietnamese soldier gets separated from his unit in the highlands and is captured by a guerrilla group that belongs to a small ethnic minority assigned to watch and report on the movements of Americans. It’s written from the point of view of the soldier/prisoner. Also captured by the guerrillas is an American soldier who has apparently decided that he’d rather stay with the guerrillas than go back to his unit. Lots and lots of descriptions of the life of the guerrillas, the jungle, the language, the food. The translation is very readable. This book has won a lot of prizes in Vietnam.

Vo Nguyen Giap. 2010 (written years ago). Unforgettable Days. Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers. General Giap is a good writer. He actually wrote many books; the year in question in one is 1945. The Vichy French government has lost the war, but DeGaulle doesn’t think that means that France has necessarily lost Indochina. The Japanese have also lost the war, and the Kuomintang Chinese, who are simultaneously confronting the Chinese Revolution (Mao) on their home territory, have been told that they (as allies with the Allies, meaning the US, Britain and Russia) are the ones who should disarm and peel off the Japanese who had invaded Vietnam. So we’ve got the Japanese on their way out in North Vietnam (but who inflicted huge damage during the war); the Kuomintang who have arrived in Hanoi with 200,000 soldiers and may not be eager to leave after they’ve carried out their assignment, and then the South jumping with homegrown Vietnamese uprisings against the French. In the middle of this, Ho Chi Minh comes down out of the mountains carried in a litter (he was ill) and has a short window of time in which to get a government together. He also has to deal with some provocateur nationalists on one side and some elitist pro-French on the other. Oh, and the French have just arrived in Hanoi harbor in a destroyer. So Uncle Ho calls a general assembly one day early and whips up new government set up in half a day, spreading seats in the governing body among the different constituencies so that everyone is on the same page. I am only halfway through this. Needless to say, this was done with full preparation; they just carried it out fast. Giap seems to be writing this from his diaries, so there’s a “Now today we did X, the next day we did Y” quality to it, but he conveys the intensity of the time. One lesson I have got so far is that if the gift for maneuvering and strategizing that is displayed in these events is inherent in Vietnamese character, we should not assume that anything happens by accident without enormous amounts of forethought, planning, and the ability to jump into action from dead zero when necessary. I’m talking about the TPP, which I’ll get into more later.

Wong, Kent and An Le. 2009. Organizing on separate Shores: Vietnamese and Vietnamese American Union Organizers. UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.This is a beautiful, simple and much under-utilized book. It’s just a bunch of good interviews with organizers on each side, which is a simple idea, but it can be used for a lot of purposes such as learning some of the history the war through personal stories to teaching how to see what the working class struggle has in common on both sides of that history. The interviews start with the people’s childhoods so we have the story of the war’s impact on children on both sides. Could another book like this be written now, even only 7 years later? People are getting old! Maybe it was a good thing that the book got written when it did. You can see that the role of the organizer is fundamentally the same whether you’re doing it under Vietnamese or US law. This is important news. We’ve found a student named Dang Dang whose English is very good and he’s helping us translate it one chapter at a time. The parallels between organizing in Vietnam (with the VGCL) and in the US are really significant, both in terms of similarities (many) and differences (interesting and important).

A very weird, kind of unpleasant book is Vietnam as Kim Hunyh. I do not recommend it.It occasionally rises to a level of cynicism combined with “more than I really wanted to know about that, thank you,” that seems motivated by a mean spirit.  For some reason it’s being distributed by the Australian National University. This ebook can be downloaded for free from

Final note: If you are going to buy one book about Vietnam, buy the Nguyen Kach Vien. 1987 (2014). Vietnam: A Long History. HCMC: The Gioi Publishers. It’s curious that so far no one I’ve met in Vietnam has heard of it, though. Once I read it I saw it in both hardback and paperback, especially up in Hanoi at the Savina bookstore.

We are at about the halfway point of our time here. Hmmmm…..