An American woman of the Viet Nam War generation goes to Viet Nam 40 years later to teach and learn

What to do next? — February 20, 2016

What to do next?

We have been back for a week now. We are nearly aligned with the clock. But aligned with the country, the culture?  Not yet.

I need to figure out what to do with this blog. I see that although I haven’t posted anything for several days, people are still checking it. Today there are check-ins from Poland, the Philippines, the US, Taiwan and Viet Nam. I don’t really trust the map, however. I think I know most of the people from the US and Viet Nam, but who are the others?

Here is what I can see looking out the window. Those are rain clouds. In the distance, just to the right of that tree, you can see one of the pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond it is the Pacific Ocean. Way across the Pacific Ocean, and a couple of other oceans too, is Vietnam.

GOlden gate dark rain

The purpose of this blog was to track my learning about Viet Nam as we approached our trip and once we got there. I should probably go back and read the whole thing and give myself a score for how well I learned, or didn’t – how many blunders,  how many insights, what the overall tone tells me about how I learn or don’t learn, etc. Another purpose of it was to communicate what I was learning both to people in Viet Nam, who can read English better than they can speak it, and people elsewhere who I am in general extended conversations with — family, friends, labor activists, people interested in culture and history generally.

One thing I began to notice soon enough is that as a traveller, as a visitor to an entirely different world, I am not very flexible. A silly example:  When I found out we were going to kayak among the islands in Halong Bay I said, “Oh, no! Not me! I’m going to lie on my bed and read a book.” Then they put us in a boat and helped me down into a kayak and it was one of the most amazing experiences ever, kayaking silently on those glassy blue-green waters among those unforgettable islands. Of course there were many more serious examples of inflexibilty, some of which I’m embarrassed to admit.

However, I’m still unpacking. I’m just starting to clean the house. The whole kitchen should be washed with soap, including the walls.

What if I tried writing about my life in the US through looking at it with the same eyes I looked at Viet Nam? One of the first things I’d say is, “Where is everybody?” The streets are empty. No one on the sidewalks. Sometimes a car goes by, but you don’t see other people so the place seems populated by machines. So much space in front of houses, dedicated to stage-set arrangements of plants. The front doors are closed, not open. You can’t see into the houses. Each house sits on a plot of land big enough for a market, or for twelve shops. And what’s the matter with the food? I peeled a pomelo today, and it’s pretty good, but not as good as the one Nghia’s mother gave us, or the one An brought us from her hometown. Also, they are hard to peel. That’s a skill. When Nghia’s mother served us the pomelo it was on a plate, arranged in a spiral, and she had peeled off the white rind and the skin between the sections. How long does it take to learn how to do that? She served it with white salt that came in big crystals.  My second try at pho was a little better — at least it wasn’t greasy. An has sent me a link on Facebook to a how -to-cook-Vietnamese food website and I’ll try that. But the ingredients here just aren’t as good, period.

This is the superficial stuff, the outer skin of what I’m looking at. How about the journalism, the movies, the books? How about what’s happening with the presidential election? How does that look, with the eyes I have been using for the last 6 months?

Dave told us about the Pacific East Mall in El Cerrito, where all the Asians go to shop, so I went. I checked the place of origin of bags of frozen seafood and there was nothing from Viet Nam. Is that going to change, with TPP?

I need to stop and think about this. The most important thing is not to lose touch. That’s primary.

Maybe someone who is reading this can comment. Maybe I should start a separate blog just for communicating with people in Viet Nam. What do you think of that?

Back in the USA — February 16, 2016

Back in the USA

Bad pho

This is a picture of bad pho. I don’t know what I did wrong. I bought marrow bones and boiled them for between 4 and 6 hours. I probably shouldn’t have put in that oxtail, which was fatty. But there are other problems, too numerous to mention. The truth is that none of the food back here really tastes like anything. Even mangoes taste like paper. Joe and I went and had our long-wished-for pizza at Little Star and I’m sorry to say, it might have been great pizza, but it wasn’t great food.

On the other hand, this was lunch last Friday, on Hang Ga street.

Friday lunch

We have been back 3 days now and are beginning to align sleep and clock. We have started to re-connect with friends and family, trying to re-enter their lives. I realize that I haven’t really spoken English with anyone but Joe for 6 months. My vocabulary has atrophied.

When we’ve unpacked, paid bills, and cleaned up, we’ll get to work on the various writing assignments generated by this experience, especially the handbook.

Halong Bay — February 12, 2016

Halong Bay

Joe and FaroukJoe and Faruk, having  a discussion.

Our last adventure in Viet Nam. We left Hanoi and went to Halong Bay, about 3 hours east, and got on a little cruise ship (about 30 people) and spent 3 days and 2 nights moving around through the most amazing gorgeous seascape I have ever seen, beyond imagining.

I will confirm this with pictures, but here is something I want to say that can’t really be done with picture: we had discussions. Some of them went farther than others. The other travelers were mostly young, many in couples, but some families, and English was the common language, with Germans, Swiss, Swedish, and Turks all speaking “global” English well enough to do pretty much anything they wanted with it. So we discussed things. At first I couldn’t figure out what was different, but then I realized: the center of attention was some topic (not just “Where are you from?”) and we were actually discussing it. Corruption in Viet Nam (an Aussie who runs software for mall tenants), virtual reality (an Argentinian who has just quit his job in a Maltese online gambling operation), academic standards at European universities, climate change, the tourism industry (Swiss), just for example.  This was not just one-on-one, it was the whole table. Eventually we spent the most time with a family from Turkey. Both the father and son were adept in English and wanted to talk politics, which led to long conversations. The mother was reading a book by Ursula LeGuin, in Turkish.

Throughout, I had the sensation of doing something I hadn’t done for months: a group conversation with each person putting in a piece, the whole thing adding up to more than the sum of the parts; none of us having the power to implement any of the big ideas on our own, although the Turkish father explained clearly how he does his activism.

It was not just because we all spoke English, although who knows? Unless I learn Vietnamese, I can’t know.

We leave for San Francisco on Cathay Airlines, tomorrow afternoon. I have very mixed feelings about leaving Viet Nam and the people we have made friends with. We will probably try to come back. We’ve been invited to come back and work with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, where the combination of labor and anti-war work interests them. We have also been invited to come back to Ton Duc Thang. Right now I find that I can look neither forward nor backward very clearly. Saying goodbye feels like something that is happening to me; all I have to do is wait, and I will be on the plane. Coming home, saying hello, is something I will do. I can’t wait to see the kids and my brother, especially, who has been ill. But doing these both at once is complicated. That’s why it’s nearly noon, Friday February 12, and I am still sitting downstairs in the empty restaurant of the Charming II Hotel at 32 Hang Ga Street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, typing on my computer instead of going out and walking to all the places I want to remember — Hoan Kiem Lake, the Temple of Literature, the Citadel, for example.

Onwards. Actually, Joe and I have a lot of work to do on our handbook, the compilation of all the modules we wrote for our students, which have been translated and will form a new curriculum for the post TPP labor classes.

Halong from Cave

Our boat, the Cristina Diamond, one was on these white boats. It was great. 


Floating village

A floating village. Not many of these left. One of them grows cultured pearls. The man below shows how they do it: open the oyster, put it in the frame, drop a tiny grain of mother-of-pearl matrix into the oyster, place a small spherical base into it, close it, pop it back in the water, come back in a few months. 

culturing a pearl


Setting sun breaking thruJoe on balcony boat

We had a great time.



Hanoi, discussions —

Hanoi, discussions

Apartm 1

Tuyen drove us around the north side of Hanoi on what looked like a new highway. Here is where the new developments are happening: huge apartment buildings that look like “projects” but aren’t. They are expensive and desirable. No streetscape, all high-rise, at least in this picture. This is called “Singapore-style.” Nearby, one developer, Vinhomes, has covered many acres of land with gated neighborhoods villas: http://vinhomes.vn/mua-ban/du-an/vinhomes-times-city

See my post Hanoi II, Realism, back in mid-December, for the painting that captures this.

We had dinner with a young couple who live in this area. These were agricultural lands. (You can still see this; cattle were walking along the road we are driving on, and rice is growing in between the developments.) The permit for their development was rushed through in 6 days, which also happened to be the 6 days before something in the law changed that would have stopped the development. It may have been related to how much the people were being paid for their land. They protested and were met with police action, and when the young woman we talked with tried to find out what had happened — since she had just moved into this development herself – she found herself being questioned by police.

City planning here is the product of centralized decision making. The decision is made at the center: by the time its impact is felt on the periphery, there is no way to push back effectively.

Christy Rogers in San Francisco sent us this link:


Apart 2

What centralized decision making has to do with discussions

Tuyen was showing us something about the city he grew  up in, loves and lives in now. Of all our friends in Vietnam, he is the one with whom, for many reasons, we can discuss the most complicated issues. One reason is of course that his English is very good — not accent-free, but he has a good vocabulary and that comes from reading as well as conversations. You can have a discussion with him, in English.

During the last six months we have talked a lot, with many different people, about discussions. The whole concept of “discussion” is something to take a look at. First we tried to introduce it as something that would happen in our classes. How could we get students to discuss something rather than simply stand up and produce the correct answer to a teacher’s question? How could you get one student to respond to another student, and then a third weigh in, and let the conversation grow until something new appeared that hadn’t existed before?  I think it happened once, once only, that we got a student to respond to what another student said in class. (True, after a student team  made a presentation, students would comment — sometimes several in a row – which was good, but it never was actually a discussion. They said things like “I think you were not serious,” or they’d ask a question and then sit down.) The idea that certainty is on hold while different perspectives shine lights on different sides of something did not get conveyed to our classes.

Then the issue of discussions showed up when we tried to do the “academic workshops” and said that if you’re going to use George Borjas to teach labor economics (even if that is the title of the textbook) you have to situate the text itself in the discourse — the historic and current discussion — about labor economics. The purpose of this is not only to help students take a critical view of the text — who is he, where is he coming from, what does he want, who are his allies, what is the effect of his ideas? – so they can understand what he is reacting to, what he is building on, what the other branches of the tree look like. It is also to enable them to become part of the discourse (meaning the whole conversation, past and present) themselves, so they are not just consuming the learning, they are also producing it. If they are undergraduates, this will help them really become “global people”, as our colleague at RMIT said. If they are hoping to be academics, this is what they absolutely need in order to publish anything, worth reading or not.By publishing, you join the discussion, but in order to do that you have to know it intimately.

This approach did not go anywhere.

Then there was the TPP seminar, and our effort to move the event from being a sequence of papers presented to a passive listening audience to a discussion in which everyone who had an idea would participate. This didn’t happen. People who knew a lot simply sat there, explaining to me later,”I was an observer.” Side lesson for me: being deliberately provocative in a context like that is pointless. No one is going to pick up on what you say and refute it. See my posting of January 14 or so. You will be left hanging, having overstated something or made someone angry, and there won’t be an opportunity to bounce back. (That was partly what was so pleasant about the January 26 discussion when the IT guy and the math teacher started challenging each other. However, we noted that in that event very few if any administrators were present; it really was nearly all lecturers so there was no pressure to get things right.)

Surrounding these explicit attempts to ignite a discussion are the times when we have asked a question about a discussion and either drawn a blank or been told simply “No, it doesn’t happen.” We asked our colleague who is trying to develop an alternative curriculum for the moral philosophy courses, based on human values, if there was any discussion at the levels of government where such a new curriculum would be authorized: she, if anyone, might have been part of that discussion. But she didn’t know anything about it. Even though it would have been appropriate for her to be a leading voice in it!

What’s the problem with having no discussions?

When there are no discussions going on among people at the edges, the decisions that are made at the center come down unexpectedly and make the world seem unpredictable. Even if they are good decisions, even if they are what you wanted, the surprise makes them unpleasant. You feel helpless. It makes life more of a gamble. It’s like picking up pennies on the street.

This corresponds to my sensation of being in a country where walls go up and then suddenly come down. For example, we just found out that the President of the VGCL, Mr. Tung, has made it a condition of VCGL support for TPP that the VGCL have autonomy with regards to both its finances and hiring. (Currently, all union staff is hired by the government — the Party – and then assigned to the union.) These are huge demands, but utterly necessary. But when did this happen? Who knows about it? If TDTU is training undergraduates to become on the one hand, HR managers and on the other hand, union leaders and staffers, is there not a discussion here of which they should be a part?

So what does a discussion look like?

We are so used to “discussions” in the US that we are almost blind to them. It seems as if everyone we know (at least people our age) belongs to a “book club” where you read a book and discuss it. The library organized or supports these, but people also just do it. We go to the monthly discussions around Jacobin magazine, which draws a group of 20-25 young people from all sorts of left political tendencies. Then there are discussion lists, including my academic “home” list, XMCA, which has people from all over the world who have in common an interest in Vygotsky. So discussions are like wallpaper, invisible but all around us.

A good example: Joe found the following talk by Bill Fletcher on YouTube:


Technically, this is a speech, but in this case the speech is  part of a very important discussion. Fletcher is not a government official.He has no authority to made decisions. What he says about what we (the US and the world) ought to do is not going to result in legislation or the sale of a rice paddy to a developer.  But he can, and should, contribute to the discussion because he knows a lot, has a lot of experience, and can frame his ideas very clearly in a way that people can understand and remember. People want to know what he thinks/ So he contributes to the discussion. People (in this case, an organization, Justice Works) invite him to talk (maybe pay him), and he prepares a talk based on what he knows and people come — they probably fill the hall and stand in the aisles — and listen to what he has to say. Then they go off and talk about what he said and disagree or agree, or send the YouTube link to people they know, etc. etc.

The point is that although he has no authority to make any decisions, he can influence what happens by speaking out and shaping the discussion. This is not a problem. Not only is it not a problem, it is actually his responsibilty.

“The discussion” means all the different conversations that people are having, the ones before and after, the ones that refer to this, agree with it and the ones that oppose it. It’s the whole flow. If it’s a big discussion (like, right now, the presidential campaign) then it has many streams and threads and thousands and millions  of people talking to and over each other.  Within that discussion, people are influencing each other, and there will be an outcome that will matter.

New bridge

New bridge over the Red River on the north side of Hanoi

Can you have too much discussion?

One of the arguments against allowing discussions is that it will confuse the public. Now that Bernie won New Hampshire by 20 points, the dirt is really flying. The New York Times writes articles about what Hillary says about Bernie; that’s the news. The NYT is like an old fat man trying to rise out of his chair to make a speech without spilling his drink. Beyonce seems to have said something political while dancing and singing at the Super Bowl.  This has made other people mad. It’s a mess.

Indeed, this is a problem. I remember when I worked for UNITE in Philly and wanted to used Schwartz’s Legal Rights of Union Stewards for teaching…well, actually, teaching the legal rights of union stewards. The president of the union, John Fox, forbade me to use it because “it will confuse them.”  After a few weeks he agreed to let me take it to the class but not to let them keep the book over night. Eventually, he let me give each person in the class a copy. Finally, they were so un-confused that they actually got it together to perform some direct action that won them their vacation pay, but that’s another story.



Sapa — February 6, 2016


Sapa luc hotel

Looking into the breakfast room at the hotel

The Sapa Express train from Hanoi arrives in Lao Cai at 6:30 am. It’s still dark. There are vans in the parking lot and a lot of talking about who belongs in which van. Then uphill around hairpin curves for about an hour to Sapa. Sapa has been inhabited for many centuries but was “discovered” by the French only in the early 1900s. The French built a train to Lao Cai and a road to Sapa and it became the hill country resort for Europeans, especially the French military, for that part of Indochina.

We have an early check-in at the Sapa Luxury Hotel where there is a scalding hot water shower (adjustable) and an electric bed sheet to keep us warm under thick padded quilts for a nap. Then breakfast and our first expedition with the tour guide, Tuan. Somehow we bought a package from the Charming Hotel II in Hanoi and everything — everything! – is included. Even people to meet us at the train or van and to walk us from the hotel to the restaurant where our meal has already been booked and ordered.

Unusually cold weather

Last week it snowed; people came from all over in their cars, to see the snow, and were surprised to find out that it was also so cold that they could only stay a short while. Water buffalos died. We saw a young water buffalo, dead, tied onto the back of a motorbike. Stands of bamboo broke under the snow.

Frozn bamboo_1

The wilted brown leaves are cardamom, frozen. This was on the way to one of the waterfalls.  (below)

If you have time, take a look at this article, which explains why the this is important as well as a lot of other things: http://www.mdpi.com/2073-445X/4/4/1030/htm

Land | Free Full-Text | “Nothing Is Like It Was Before”: The Dynamics between Land-Use and Land-Cover, and Livelihood Strategies in the Northern Vietnam Borderlands | HTML

Frozen Cardamom

When we arrived that morning the snow was gone but there was cold fog, so thick that I couldn’t really see the roof of the hotel across the street. The fog actually gathers dampness into your clothing. None of the hotels are insulated to deal with this kind of weather. They use plug-in electric heaters, one in each room, but people also wear stuffed North Face-type jackets indoors and out and layers of pants one on top of another. Then, just for good measure, everyone leaves doors wide open which makes sense if you’re wearing your outdoors clothes inside.

Some restaurants where we ate warmed customers by placing a low charcoal burning fire pot next to each table.

This town feels like Gabi’s descriptions of Nepal. Streets are narrow and steep, tourists are everywhere, the shop fronts are either restaurants or selling handicrafts, which means indigo-dyed and embroidered cloth. The heavy fog blankets the ends of streets. Apparently there is a fabulous view of mountains, terraced rice fields and plunging waterfalls but we can’t see it. Go on Google and look up Sapa rice terraces for some ravishingly beautiful landscape photos. The tourists are mostly Europeans, at least near our hotel, which is in a quiet street. The Vietnamese, we are told, like a street with more clubs and karaoke bars.

It is, of course, just a few days before Tet. That means that many of the hotel and restaurant staff have gone  home to their family hometowns, but also that people are coming into the markets to buy food, new outfits, treats and flowers for Tet.

So what about the ethnic minorities?

Here, they are the Black Hmong, the Red Dao, and between 3 and 6 others, depending. Here is my summary, through American eyes: People (foreigners, tourists, including Vietnamese) come here for the cool weather, gorgeous steep mountain landscape of rice terraces, but most of all, to see the ethnic minority people. The ethnic minority people, wearing their traditional costumes and selling their handicrafts, are the tourist attraction. In the last 10-15 years, tourism here has boomed,and new hotels are going up all the time (including one huge government-owned 5 star hotel). But they depend on the presence of the local people in the streets and on the production of handicrafts. The tourism industry and the perpetuation of minority culture are interdependent. For this to work over time, under pressure of the changing economy, the arrangement has to be good for both parties. How much of this can I see with my own eyes?

Foreigners, trekkers and tour guides buy a ticket (about 30,000 D) to enter the area where the villages are. It’s like going into a park in the US.

Our hotel receptionist, who has been working at the hotel for 10 years, says that he is worried that the increasing crowds of tourists will bit by bit destroy the local people’s culture, until there will be only a sort of captive minority performance here, no real villages where real people live.

You have to admit that the handicrafts that they make, which are mostly woven cloth, indigo dye, and embroidery, are simply gorgeous and highly desirable. They make great gifts and are easy to pack. Indigo scarves were selling for 200 dong or $9. I bought a big embroidered tablecloth (see below) for 900 dong or $45. But the price that is right for the market does not equate with the hours of labor required to do the work. No one earns minimum wage making these handicrafts.

Our guide told us that many of these goods come across the border from China where they are made in factories; you can tell by the small stitches. Lao Cai, where we got off the train, is right next to the border. From there, no passengers into China, only freight, but you can walk right up to the border. Some Belgians we shared a cabin with on the train told us they went to the border to look, and saw a city of high-rise apartments right on the other side and many well-dressed Chinese crossing the border to shop in Lao Cai market.

On our second day, Tuan, our guide took us to the Sapa ethnographic museum which is where a handicraft club meets. This may be a link to that club: http://muonghoa.com/about/   The goods in the museum shop showed signs of having had some trained design work: beautiful wall hangings, clothing, things that were not available on the street. Prices were still low, though. Upstairs there was a museum of photographs of early French resort development, and meeting rooms as if for classes.

But what about minority people in other areas, far from Sapa? Places where no tourists with money arrive by the vanload and get trekked down into the villages? For example, the province to the southwest of Lao Cai, Lai Chau, is supposed to be the poorest and most sparsely populated in Viet Nam. Immediately after 1954 it was an autonomous area. In 1975 it became a province, but then Dien Bien (including Dien Bien Phu) was carved out of it in 2004. It is the home of ethnic minorities who speak four different language groups. Its economy is increasingly industrial: bricks, liquor, cement, and rare earths to be exported to Japan. Twenty percent of its roads are paved. How about these people?

On the other hand

In the villages near Sapa, the Hmong and Red Dao people (the ones I could identify) are very handsome and look healthy. The children especially look healthy, wrapped up in what could be snowsuits and carried in slings on the backs of women who are out selling. Boys play rambunctiously up and down the stone staircases and go “Boo!” at tourists; girls stay near their mothers. The women especially wear the traditional black clothing layered with embroidered belts, tunics, sleeves, vests. Men wear the black knee-length trousers and a black cap. See how I fall into the ethnic doll description?

The minority villages have electricity (although very low-watt, not enough to read by), fresh water that comes in pipes and has been put through a purification process (although one must still boil it), concrete paths wide enough for trekkers and motorbikes, and schools. We saw three or four schools. We saw a little boy running to school carrying a textbook with the title, “Eureka!” These are all provided by “the government.” The government brings the cement and rocks and earth to make the concrete paths (like the ones in the Mekong). The local people build them. If these paths were just mud, life would be much harder.

This is one of the schools, vaguely visible in the fog to the right. Primary school in the villages is free. Everything is taught in Vietnamese. If you want to send your child out of the village, it costs money, although not a lot. In the rear to the left is one of the women who “followed” us, carrying her baby on her back the whole way.

School, gir with baby

We saw three villages, Y Linh Ho, Lao Chai, and Cat Cat. Maybe we also were in Ta Van, but if we were, it ran together with Lao Chai. The first village was reached by a 6 K “trek” first down an asphalt road and then down a rocky path (rocks actually set in the earth). We were surrounded by fog so that I couldn’t see out over the steep slopes or down into the valley, but now and then I got a glimpse of the tiers of terraces that seemed to climb every slope. Cat Cat village was reached by an endless staircase.

Our guide, who was a young (actually, 37 years old) guy with good hiking boots who had been working in Sapa for 15 years, said that we would be approached by women trying to sell embroidered goods and that if we talked to them, they would follow us. I didn’t know what that meant. It meant that they actually did follow us the whole 6 K all the way into the villages, talking all the time in limited English. “Following tourists” is a way of working. It’s also a way to practice English. Those are the three women at the beginning of the previous post. He also advised us not to buy from children. He said, and so did others, that children will run out of school to sell to tourists because then they can get money, but they don’t go back to school. Signs also warned us against selling to children. But children surrounded us, trying to sell us embroidered ribbon bracelets for 5,000 or 10,000 dong.

Flower buffalo

This water buffalo, wearing a flowered blanket because of the cold, belongs to the father-in-law of the woman who followed us with the baby on her back. She also let us look into her house, which is in the photo below. The inside of the house was too dark to take a picture. There were three rooms on the ground floor, not really separate from each other. The room to the right of the entrance had an open firepit, beside which a man was sitting. The second floor, really an attic, is for storage.  The floor of the house appears to be concrete, like the terrace on which the water buffalo is standing.

Hmong house

The weaver’s house

We came to a house where an older woman was weaving. This was on the third day, when we went to Cat Cat village, about 2.5K downhill from Sapa, via long muddy stone staircases. She is weaving hemp fabric, from thread made out of the stems of hemp.

grandmother weaving

I looked at the blue dyed embroidered fabric and chose the one I liked best, for 900 thousand dong or about $45.  The older woman told me that it had been made by her son’s wife, who was inside the house, doing embroidery at that moment. I went in and took a picture of her. You can see the blue indigo on her fingers.

Girl embroidering

The house has an open charcoal firepit, like most of the houses, and a concrete floor. The choice is between working outdoors, where there is more light, or indoors near the fire. She is using a tiny headlamp to do the embroidery that is in her hands.

Holding cloth_1

She came outside and let me take her photo. Her name is something like Dzo.

Folding cloth_1

She is 27 years old.

Weaver and d in law_1

I think the mother in law was glad that the young woman made a good sale.

The market in Sapa

Tuan took us to the official market in the town of Sapa. People from the villages climb the paths and roads up to it with baskets on their shoulders to buy food, especially meat and vegetables, although there are many vegetable gardens among the houses in the villages.Vans bring fruit up from the South, through Lao Cai, to this market. This is a glimpse of the outside market. This stuff is grown locally.

Veggies local

Dog is one of the meats sold by butchers. This dog looks as if he or she was once very much like all the other little dogs that you see wandering around. Maybe dogs are no different from pigs and chickens: running around loose, eating whatever they can find, multiplying until their time comes. All the butchers are women, incidentally.


The inside market, the official market, is nearly empty.The government builds the market and owns it. You pay to rent a stall here. Tuan said that most of the goods on sale here are from China. Maybe the market is empty because of Tet.

Official market

And outside, a row of men on motorbikes stand next to trees that people will buy for Tet. These are supposed to be peach trees. The men go up into the mountains to cut them; you buy one and set it in a big jar and see if it blooms. Some of the trees already have blossoms; those are good luck. A fully-flowering, moss-laden old tree can bring thousands of dong.

Peach trees for Tet

How about self-organizing?

For this, on the question of how much self-organizing goes on among the ethnic minorities, I have only what people tell us. Of course, they have to be people who speak English and they have to be people who are willing to talk with us about things outside of regular tourist talk. The stories that we have heard are scattered and do not make it look as if the ethnic minorities have much opportunity to take their lives into their own hands. We do hear a lot about “the government” as if it is a force of nature, not to be spoken to or with.

First, about the land. All the land in Viet Nam is owned by the government. What you get is a “red book” that says that you have the right to use and live on some land. But the government can come in and take the land for a project and pay whatever it has to pay, either a lot or a little. You can also sell your right from the “red book.” As we walked to the second village (which might have been Ta Van) we began to see much nicer houses, houses made of wood and concrete with real floors. These were Vietnamese houses; villagers had sold their land to Vietnamese who were moving in to build vacation homes here.

Hmong people have tried to move into an area in the Central Highlands, we were told. They bought land from the Bahnari people, who (we were also told) were rich, although we didn’t find out why. But when the Hmong tried to move en masse, they were prevented because everyone has to have a “family book” in which your family is registered in a certain place. This is how you get your children into a school or how you can register your address so that you can get a good price on rent or utilities. The Hmong who stayed in the Bahnari area have had to find alternate ways to get their children into school.

In the 1980’s, money from Hmong communities in the US was sent to Viet Nam to encourage the Hmong to unite and secede from Viet Nam. This apparently resulted in some police action. How this correlates with the period when Lai Chau was an autonomous area or when Dien Bien became its own province, I do not know.

When we ask what the life opportunities are for the ethnic minorities (sample question: “What would happen if a Hmong girl decided she wanted to be an attorney?) the first answer we are given is in terms of “education.” Some minority languages are in the same family as Vietnamese (like Hmong) and others are completely different. If your language is somewhat similar to Vietnamese, you have an advantage. Otherwise, it is hard. Students who start learning Vietnamese for the first time in primary school are well behind Vietnamese students by the time they are in high school. The disadvantage accumulates. We are told that minority people speak with distinctive accents and often never become really fluent in Vietnamese, which makes it hard for them to attend university. The barriers are not just geographic, they are linguistic.

They are also cultural.  The Vietnamese who talk to us emphasize that if there is a choice between getting money by “selling,” the minority people, children and adults, will sell. “They only think about today, not about tomorrow,” we are told. We have heard this from many people. The girls might go to high school, but they get married and have children and then it’s all over, they stay home from then on.

The tourism trap

An example of old ways of doing irrigation, a display for tourists:


And another one: these water wheels are pounding rice. These also are built for tourists to see:

Water wheels

I would like to go to one of the towns in Lai Chau to see if, in an area where there is not much tourism, ethnic minority people have found other ways to become part of the larger world. Are there young ethnic minority people who aspire to being a “global person,” like the students at RMIT that our colleague spoke of, or like the students in our Labor Relations or the Business Administration programs? Can they imagine it?

If a village has a school and the students are not tempted out of it by the appeal of “following” tourists and trekkers, do ethnic minority people become serious students and study and ultimately go to university? Are there government programs that encourage this and build a ladder that makes this possible? Something like a serious affirmative action program? What goes on in the secondary schools in the cities — anything like this?

Or does the tourist industry depend so much on the girls selling beautiful embroidery that no one has intervened in this mutual dependency, the dependency of tourism on the presence of the “local people” who produce lovely goods, and the dependency of the handicrafts villages on tourism?



Found the following on google, by searching for “ethnic minority languages Viet Nam.” It was published in a Korean journal the title of which I can’t read. But it should be accessible by the author:

The language policy of minority languages in Vietnam.  Ly Toan Thang, Institute of Linguistics,Hanoi-Vietnam



Questions that someone from the US might ask about the lives of ethnic minority people in Viet Nam — February 4, 2016

Questions that someone from the US might ask about the lives of ethnic minority people in Viet Nam

See update at end of post, about ethnic minority experience.

3 women and baby following

When we set out from Sapa, heading into the valley towards a series of ethnic minority villages, these three women immediately began “following” us. “Following tourists” is a job. They followed us the whole 6K , chatting in English with a very limited vocabulary, and only left us after we sat down for lunch at a trekker’s restaurant where, surrounded by other women selling embroidered goods, we finally bought three indigo scarves from them. 

Is there a problem?

On page 77 of Nguyen Kach Vien’s Vietnam: A Long History, he’s got a short section called “Ethnic Minority Policy.” Page 77 is near the front of the book, so we’re talking about the 15th century. Here it is:

Viet Nam comprises many ethnic groups: minority groups living in mountainous regions, while the majority group, the Kinh, are plain-dwellers. During the insurrection against the Ming, (1427) the ethnic minorities living in the highlands allied themselves with the Kinh to fight the occupiers. But after liberation, the feudalists in the delta resumed their policy of exploitation and oppression vis-à-vis the minorities. The Le monarchy ruled over the highlands through tribal chieftains upon whom it bestowed mandarin titles. These chieftains collected taxes. Control over mountainous regions was tighter than under the Tran (the previous dynasty). The Kinh mandarins ruling over the uplands also sought to exploit the ethnic minorities.

 This policy provoked frequent revolts among the mountain-dwelling minorities, and this was for centuries one of the weak points of the feudal monarchies. The Thai of the northwest rose in revolt in Lai Chau in 1432, in Son La in 1439 and in Thuan Chau in 1440; the Tay of Lang Son, Cao Band and Tuyen Quang also did on many occasions. In the western part of Nghe An, the head of the Cam family succeeded in holding out from 1428 to 1437.

 All these revolts were firmly suppressed by the Le troops. The secession advocated by the rebel chiefs also ran counter to historical trends, the deltas and the highlands being complementary economically. But antagonism among ethnic groups was to disappear only with the advent of socialism.

…and that’s it for the “ethnic minority policy.” That’s the whole thing.

“Ethnic minority policy” seems like a very modern sub-head for a historian to use in describing something that happened in the 1400s. Does he mean that from the 1400s up until the advent of socialism, the relationships among ethnic groups in Vietnam were antagonistic but now that socialism is here, it’s over, and there’s nothing new to be said?

The majority of the Viet Nam population is from the Kinh group: 85%. There are 53 other different minority groups that make up 15% of the population. They speak dialects of languages belonging to five different language groups. One language group – Australo-Asian – is similar to Vietnamese; the others are more similar to Sanskrit, Sino-Tibetan or groups I have never heard of. The Kinh are everywhere: “We are Kinh,” said a colleague, gesturing around the room to include his whole faculty. I asked how you could tell if someone was some other ethnicity: do they look different? Yes, apparently, but not in a way I can discern.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, Pine Ridge, and Black Lives Matter

I started writing this post around Thanksgiving Day, 2015 and now it’s more than two months later, February 2016. Around Thanksgiving, this American has thoughts about the arrival in Massachusetts of my English ancestors, about Pine Ridge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Ridge_Indian_Reservation) and about Black Lives Matter. As inequality increases in the US, the lives of minorities get harder. Viet Nam is committed to an economy that will increase inequality. How will this affect the lives on minority people? However, mentioning this to Vietnamese in the context of ethnic minority policy produces the blankest of blank stares.

I have been hoping for some more clarity before posting my thoughts.

Are there prejudices that make minority progress difficult?

In the January 31, 2016 issue of Viet Nam News, the National English Language Daily, (obviously written for an English-phile readership, since there is a glossary on page 12 keyed to an article about the Sacred Turtle of Reclaimed Sword Lake, who died) there is a full-page article about how a tug-of-war contest, a traditional part of an ethnic minority agricultural festival, has been awarded UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status. The description of the contest includes the following:

The local people believe that if the team that faces the south wins, the weather will be good throughout the year and they will get bumper crops. If the team facing the north wins, they believe that they will get only a good white bean crop, while the rest of will not be that good.

They really believe that? This is a statement from the same newspaper that has a full-page article explaining why Norway, despite having become rich from the North Sea oil, will not be affected by the drop in price of oil: the oil revenue has been invested at 4% and the interest, not the original revenue, is what Norway is spending. Do I need to put on a different hat to read each article?

Last night at dinner in Hanoi with a young couple who have been involved in education and education assessment in Viet Nam for a long time, we learned the word used by the Kinh people to refer to ethnic minority people: Dan Toc. With a hat on both the “a” and the “o” and a dot under the “o”, and the “D” is pronounced as a “z”. It means: those people, the local people, the stupid ones, those other people, the ones that can’t think very much. This word is used easily without self-consciousness in ordinary conversation.

The woman who told us this is Vietnamese but grew up among Hmong people. Both of them have experience working for the Vietnamese government and with ethnic minority communities in NGO-type poverty alleviation programs.

An Ethnic Minority Village and a Performance

Around Thanksgiving we went to Da Lat City with Vinh and Tinh. They took us first to an “ethnic minority village” and then to an “ethnic minority performance.”

The village, Cau Lan, was about 26 K out of Da Lat by taxi. Da Lat is in the Central Highlands. You bought a ticket to go in a gate and then down many steep flights of stairs through beautiful jungle, across a bamboo suspended bridge, and then along a small pretty stream past thatch-roof houses and out onto what looked like a big playing field. A jeep full of tourists came rattling down the stream bed splashing everyone and making mud.

From all the informational signs I could read, this may have once been an actual ethnic minority village. Now it is a retreat center used for conferences, team-building and tourism. There is a restaurant and a gift shop. To experience a stilt house, you climb up a ladder, but the top of the ladder was a large female boob, so to get off the top of the ladder you have to grab the boob. Inside the stilt house were some life-size wooden carved statues including one of a tiger apparently raping a woman. You could probably sculpt a tiger-woman sex scene that looked consensual, but this wasn’t it. There was a restaurant, a meeting room with Gaugin-esque framed paintings, and more carvings, mostly semi-naked women but one large monkey with a limp dick. I began to feel as if I was being entertained by fantasies of primitive sexuality.

The performance, that same evening,  took place in a purpose-built amphitheater. The other group there was a tour bus full of Russians, who had a great time. I was appalled: the ethnic minority members (who were apparently really members of their ethnic minority) first called the men from the audience into a circle and lit torches and started a bonfire, then had the men join them in a circle dance to pretend to go fishing and hunt animals, then had the women come and join a circle dance to do rice planting and getting water from the stream, etc, followed by some other dances. I thought: Is this really what you want to say about this ethnic minority? That it hunts animals and harvests rice? It was like watching a minstrel show.

I guess I was hoping to see something like a play by August Wilson.

“Ethnic minority” may be one of those English words used by Vietnamese because they can be pretty sure what it means to English speakers. I tried explaining “indigenous”, “First Nations,””tribal,” and “Native Americans,” but none of the more nuanced alternatives did the trick. “Local people” is frequent substitute for “ethnic minority,” but on our bike trip, “local people” also meant whoever was living along our route, whether or not they were ethnic minority.

Ethnic Minority Dolls: A book and the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi

We have a book called “Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam” which lists all 54 ethnic minorities, including the Kinh, and tells about where they live, what language group their language belongs to, what kinds of costumes they wear, what their handicrafts are like, whether they are matrilineal or patrilineal, and what their spiritual beliefs are, if any. All are treated equally – 3 to 5 pages for each. They range in population from less that 500 to over a million. Based on this book, you could make a set of dolls for each ethnic minority. No discussion of the anthropological studies that may be going on or have gone on, no evidence that any of the displays were designed by members of the tribes themselves. No mention of the integration or non-integration of ethnic minorities into the Kinh mainstream, loss of indigenous languages, schooling policy, economic development. Although I have heard that there are export processing zones in minority areas – with lower minimum wages – the ethnic minorities are 100% depicted as making a living from selling handicrafts.

We went to the Vietnam Ethnology Museum in Hanoi, which is organized in the same way as the book. It’s thorough. It’s got curving walls. Each minority has its display of garments, handicrafts, a map, tools, sometimes an example of a typical house, and a film of some key celebration. This museum is definitely worth going to. Every minority is treated equally, and each one with the same respect. But it’s as if the curators said, “Let’s stop while we’re ahead.”

This is as if to confirm what Nguyen Kach Vien said: “But antagonism among ethnic groups was to disappear only with the advent of socialism”, or, once socialism had arrived, antagonism among ethnic groups disappeared.

Two great antagonisms disappeared, in other words: the ones involving ethnic minorities vs the 85% of Vietnamese who are Kinh, and the antagonism between labor and employers.

Bringing my experience as an American to what I am looking at in Viet Nam, I feel anxious, as if something is missing.

We are due to visit Sapa, up in the mountains in the north West, along the border with China, in February. Sapa is a central town for a network of towns that are market places for ethnic minorities. I can’t believe that people choose freely to be simply the makers and sellers of labor intensive handicrafts for the tourist market. I can’t believe that we are not looking at a problem coming down the road.


I was so unsure of my reactions to this issue that I postponed posting it until we were actually in Sapa, February 4th (Lorenzo and Massimo’s birthdays!). I will follow it with some of the things I’m thinking now that we’re here.

This is the cabin we got on the Sapa Express. We had the lower bunks. The train leaves Hanoi at 10 pm, arrives in Sapa at 6:30 am. Joe slept fine; I don’t sleep on trains. I get up and wander around (not all that much) and look out the window and try the various bathrooms.

Sapa Express

Addendum written in April: Here is a link posted on Nha Thi Vu’s New Research on Development Issues in Viet Nam email distribution list included this link (this is the only thing I read, there are plenty of others). I read a chapter (#5, I think) on a study of Bihar people int he Central Highlands (probably near where we were in Dalat) that goes into this quite deeply, confirming my worst fears. There are some mentions of the state of things for the Hmong up in Sapa, too. Click on the link for the full free text of the book.

Connected and Disconnected in Viet Nam: Remaking Social Relations in a Post-socialist Nation.

Philip Taylor. ANU Press, 2016.

 Abstract: Vietnam’s shift to a market-based society has brought about profound realignments in its people’s relations with each other. As the nation continues its retreat from the legacies of war and socialism, significant social rifts have emerged that divide citizens by class, region and ethnicity. By drawing on social connections as a traditional resource, Vietnamese are able to accumulate wealth, overcome marginalisation and achieve social mobility. However, such relationship-building strategies are also fraught with peril for they have the potential to entrench pre-existing social divisions and lead to new forms of disconnectedness. This book examines the dynamics of connection and disconnection in the lives of contemporary Vietnamese. It features 11 chapters by anthropologists who draw upon research in both highland and lowland contexts to shed light on social capital disparities, migration inequalities and the benefits and perils of gift exchange. The authors investigate ethnic minority networks, the politics of poverty, patriotic citizenship, and the ‘heritagisation’ of culture. Tracing shifts in how Vietnamese people relate to their consociates and others, the chapters elucidate the social legacies of socialism, nation-building and the transition to a globalised market-based economy. With compelling case studies and including many previously unheard perspectives, this book offers original insights into social ties and divisions among the modern Vietnamese. Free full text http://press.anu.edu.au/titles/vietnam-series/connected-and-disconnected-in-viet-nam/.