Sunday morning after sleeping nearly 18 hours, maybe more


Coffee shop in the Duong So 8 neighborhood; houses worth $1M, occupied by state employees and businessmen. Along the river; across it, we could see the orange-red tower of the new TDT library. 

Friday was very full. We “the foreign experts” have a very fancy, brand new office over in C Building, room 206. Four comfortable armchairs, beautiful dark wood desks, new computer WITH PRINTER, padded desk chairs! And the elegant tea set that I thought only Department Chairs had. View right out onto the new Library, of which more later.

We met with Vinh at 8:30 am and she set us up with TDT email accounts and then dove into Joe’s class, which is a combination of the Northouse-text-based Leadership class (all management-side perspective) and the Handbook that we wrote with Vinh last time but never quite finished (it needs another swipe of translation and some cuts, plus Joe is hoping that Vinh and Ms. La will put a chapter on VN labor history in the front.) I learned the email system while they went week by week through the class. I mention this because this is a different way of vetting the class than last time. Very cooperative and productive, and Vinh has VERY good, fresh and positive teaching ideas.

Classes still have to be submitted and approved by the representatives of the Ministry of Education and Training office, so everyone being on the same page about the purpose of each session is critical.

Dean Hoa came by about 11:30 and organized us all to go to lunch, via taxi, at a very good Hue-style restaurant down in a neighborhood somewhat to the southeast. We were joined by Kim Scipes and Valerie (Vandy) Wilkinson who is here in VN on a research venture and wanted to report on her teaching experiment last March with the English teaching faculty. She teaches in Japan, and had never encountered a situation in which she was asked to teach a group of 300. She split the groups into 60, drew 90 for each group, did 6 different presentations and managed, using “dojo” one-on-one conversational exercises, to actually get some participation despite the size of the group. She took this plan back to Japan and used it in an engineering program, then wrote it up and will present it at a conference in Romania!!! The theoretical value of this process was a little opaque to IR people but it is a recognizable unit of analysis for sociocultural-historical people. We ate phenomenal food; Vinh and Dean Hoa ordered something that was encased in lotus blossoms.

Then back to the office where I went through the same vetting process about my class, with both Dean Hoa and Vinh. My class was originally approved based on a different text; last April, when I started working on it, I decided I would just plunge ahead and “do it first and apologize later” rather than try to get permission for something pretty fancy. I chose the 2015 Katz, Kochan and Colvin text on Labor in a Globalizing World. I sent Dean Hoa a copy and he approved it; from then on, I simply wrote the class the way I thought it should be done. We sat together with Vinh and went through the whole process. I was very happy that they both approved the class student research projects  which begin with interviewing the oldest working person in their family. Vinh stepped forward to pick up the aspects of comparative labor relations that are specific to Viet Nam, which will be a share (30 minutes plus) of each class. The overall result is that our approach was approved, including making the Katz book the official  class book, but Dean Hoa has to re-submit some paperwork for approval. I have a lot of work to do this weekend (I had not finished the powerpoints) and Vinh volunteered to put them on the TDT logo slides for me, which is asking a lot, since she’s supposed to be away and busy all weekend.

Altogether it was quite exciting. I felt that an entirely new level of flexibility and possibility had been achieved, in the matter of accommodating the MOET approval process and allowing innovations from someone from outside. I have also NEVER had a Dean be as genuinely interested in the design of a course I was teaching! Mostly, as long as I took care of everthing, they were happy to know nothing about what was going on.

Friday night we had dinner with Kim Scipes at one of the street food places across from TDT, then came home and crashed. Saturday (yesterday) we sat with our computers all morning, trying to get our classes under control, and then took the bus to the Lotte Mart to spend some of our 9M dong wages! I bought a pair of comfortable leather sandals with thick padded soles, for about $48, much like the ones I bought last time which I  now wear daily, but which cost 900,000 dong or $39. Followed by dinner at the Beef Noodle place that is always a fallback favorite and a short walk around some of the streets surrounding. Almost every street front seems to be a coffee shop now, with lots of greenery under the awnings.

Changes, the appearance of new wealth

Which leads me to the issue of money and wealth. In the nearly 2 years since we were here, there seems to have been quite a bit of money flowing around, at least in this district. The physical plant at TDT is maybe 20% larger, with two new buildings including the library which specifically is like something from a Hollywood movie. There are other signs: more cars, compared to scooters. Only a few silver bikes, ridden by old women carrying loads of various kinds of goods. Seemingly less traffic overall, and less pollution (maybe we just were out at the wrong time.) The Lotte Mart is significantly up-scaled! The upper floor of the market has been re-habbed into a high-end coffee pavilion with wooden floors. The lower level is fully built out into a deli where people are sitting and eating. The fish market is where the fruit market was. And all the little shop spaces are full — no empty ones. While it’s true that some of the checkout clerks still look as if they didn’t get enough good food while growing up, the general appearance of people is healthy and well-fed. Fewer women wearing “women’s clothes” are on the street –there were so few that I started noticing it. Also, the sidewalks seem to have been cleared. I read something that said there’s a campaign to get small vendors off the sidewalks, with a controversy thereabout, but it sure is different to be able to walk along the sidewalk instead of having to go into the street and dodge traffic.

Then Monday we got another perspective on the sidewalk-clearing issue from a friend who lives here and speaks Vietnamese. He says that the way it works is that someone makes a phone call and says they’re on their way, so everyone throws all the tables and chairs back into the restaurant and people help the vendors try to clear things away, but if it’s not all clear when they come, “they” being police, things just get swept away.

We had dinner last night at 24/24 Pho down the street. Nghia took us to this two years ago. Taxi drivers eat there, and sure enough, there were taxis pulled up on the sidewalk. Two years ago it had concrete floors, a few tables, and a metal cart out near the sidewalk where the pho was cooking. A bowl of pho was 25 dong. Last night we saw a place with white ceramic tile floors, walls that went from floor to ceiling and were clean, maybe freshly painted, there were at least 2 new long shiny aluminum tables with plenty of chairs plus two long wooden tables, real furniture, with chairs. The cooking table had been moved back into the shop and sat on one of the nicely-made wooden tables. The young man who brought us the pho, which was excellent, looked well-fed. A child about 4 years old came hopping down the spiral metal staircase from what must be a living space above. And the pho was now 35 dong.


Notice the huge pots on the stove. That’s how you make pho. It cooks forever.

So maybe the economic growth rate is spilling some money into the denizens of District 7. How far this goes we can’t see, and I can only guess what is going on in the mountains and outer provinces. The big worry, of course, is inequality. In the US I am so used to seeing everything get worse as inequality increases. You just know that streets won’t get re-paved, libraries will have to rely on private funding, parks will charge fees, no one is repairing the bathrooms in public schools. To see things actually looking better makes me blink. But what else is going on? Is it possible to manage inequality?

Christian Appy’s Book, American Reckoning

Last point, and then I’ll quit — On the way over I read Christian G. Appy’s 2015 book, American Reckoning: The Viet Nam War and our National identity, Penguin/Random House. This is an essential book for Americans. It places the Vietnam War in our history in a way that makes sense to me in a way that nothing else has. It tells a coherent story about US national identity starting post WWII (my era; my dad fought in the Pacific, in the Navy) and up through Obama, with the “Vietnam experience” as the pivot around which our economy and culture tilted. It is a much better way to understand Trump voters than, for example, the awful Hillbilly Elegy. Appy wrote Patriots, a compendium of interviews with people from all sides of the war; out of this he taught a class in the Viet nam war at Amherst, and you can tell that he has really hammered this topic through conversations with students, many of whom probably had no idea how their own sense of being American had been formed by the Vietnam war. This is the first time I have ever read a full history of the last 60 years in which I could place myself consistently as a participant and actor, warts and all, and the lives of people I’ve known, from draft resisters to college classmates to hedge fund hoppers and people who couldn’t tell whether they were for or against the Iraq war — all into one coherent story. I really hope that everyone on this list buys that book and reads it. I feel that it changed my sense of who I am here in Viet Nam –it kind of drew a boundary line around myself as an American. Maybe it’s putting things a bit strongly, but I feel less guilt and more admiration; it frees me to smile when I think of one particular student who, when she came up with something that must have taken a whole lot of work, whispered just loud enough for me to hear: “That’s why we won.”

Ha Do came by and picked us up to go to a lovely coffee shop along the other side of the river, and tonight we will get together with Vy and An. In the meantime, I have to make a whole bunch of powerpoint slides.

RIVERThe curved rooftop shape in the distance across the river is the gymnasium at TDT.

Published by helenaworthen

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

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