293rd Meeting – Tuesday, September 18th 2007

Life for an English teacher in Present-day Viet Nam

A talk and presentation by Richard Fuller

Richard Nelson-Jones, David Engel, Pierre Chaslin, Louis Gabaude, Peter Hoare, Thomas Ohlson, Bodil Blokker, Guy Cardinal, Dorothy Engmann, Carole Beauclerk, Jim Goodman, Bob Vryheid, Sasha Alyson, Khamla Panyasouk, Mark Hejwar, Vithi Phanichphant, Purin Phanichphant, John Cadet, Kanokwan Cadet, Jay Thirst, Ans Scholten, Mike Long, Ron Emmons, Valerie Veres. An audience of 24

Rich Fuller, now 60, worked as an agricultural volunteer with International Voluntary Services in Viet Nam from 1969 - 1971, and from 1973 to 1975. He returned to Viet Nam in 1993 and met and sang with the late Trinh Cong Son, several of the songs Rich performs in both Vietnamese and English. He speaks 7 languages from this region, including Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese. He is an English teacher at one of the many language centers in Ho Chi Minh City, and operates a cycling tour company for people who want to see interesting and un-touristed yet comfortable parts of Viet Nam. He used to teach for 18 years in Thailand, including at Chiang Mai University from 1984 to 1986.

During the talk Richard compared and contrasted the cultures of modern Viet Nam and Thailand, their approaches to life, and how their very different histories have resulted in very different ways of thinking between two peoples whom he considered quite similar in many, many ways.

Instead of delivering a pre-composed lecture, Richard started by asking the audience what they were interested in and would like to know about Viet Nam. He went through a list of topics that he had prepared and invited the audience to respond.

This is Richard’s summary of his talk

1.      Visas – Audience not interested

2.      Work permit - Audience not interested

3.      Length of stay - Audience not interested

4.      People's attitude – Optimistic, very much like Thailand pre-1997. Go go go!

5.      Desire to go abroad – Everyone wants to travel abroad, especially government officials who want a soft nest if and when they must go. [Note on Sept. 23rd: With Burma suddenly aflame, who knows? When it happens, it happens.]

6.      Contacts are important – This was talked about briefly but not elaborated upon. Much the same as in Thailand.

7.      Attitude toward foreigners - If you speak Vietnamese and develop ties there, they are friends and family for life, unlike in Thailand. [Note: Sept. 23rd: I stand corrected by the incredible Thai people I met in Chiang Mai AFTER I gave the talk, people who remembered me and my name after 18 years of no direct contact. Chiang Mai is an exception, but I didn't know that on Tuesday evening.]

8.      Conflict resolution - Less face-saving syndrome, so emotions can be expressed, even some physical anger, but it can be forgiven, up to a limit. Physical punishment and domestic violence do occur and are a part of Vietnamese life. I know from my own Vietnamese family. In business, more conflict is accepted without the usual Thai way of bumping people off (assassinating them) or gang-jumping on them later. Very rare for these sorts of things to happen in Viet Nam.

9.      Family vs. business - "cam tinh la chin[h]. Tien bac la muoi." means Love is Paramount, but Money is Most Important". Intended to be funny, pales in translation, but it works, I think. Business conflicts have caused me to lose part of my family, maybe for good, including my son, daughter-in-law, and my kid's mom. C'est la vie.

10.  Transport and communications - Behind Thailand, but catching up rapidly. Railway is much smoother and runs faster, with less double track than Thailand's Bangkok to Lopburi sector. However, floods between Ha Noi and Saigon can stop all railway service for days, as happened in August.

Roads are smaller than in Thailand, accident rate is as high or maybe higher due to less experienced drivers. One major hassle in cities is the use of the ancient French custom of forcing all 4-wheeled or more vehicles into one lane on the left (we drive on the right in Viet Nam), making any turns slow and difficult, and frequently backing traffic up for a kilometre or more, this was previously unheard of. Saigon suffers from that. However, traffic light cycles are less than 30 sec. at most intersections, and rarely above 40. They now have counters at most intersections.

These topics generated numerous questions and lively discussion, and the expression of some opposing opinion, throughout the course of Richard’s talk. For example, when Richard said that Saigonese were becoming lazy and poorly motivated as he found Bangkokians and other Thais, one gentleman strongly disagreed saying he found Vietnamese very industrious. In response, Richard explained that he was comparing 40 years ago with now, which affected his perception! Upon reflection he agreed that Vietnamese are industrious when they see a profit for themselves, as opposed to working for the state, and are an amazing labor force.

After a vigorous and informative question and answer session on other aspects of Viet Nam and the Vietnamese, in addition to those on Richard’s list, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Richard in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.