Making a Living: Work and Its Implications in Post-War Saigon

                                                           Created by: Daniela C. Armas ‘20

“In the first couple months when I came to U.S. and I [was so stressed] because I kept talking with all the people and just stay home and cleaning and cooking and Stephen [went] to work for all day and he just back home at nighttime. I think a lot of people same like me because [they were] new, you know? After three or four month my daughter go to preschool and I start to work and then [I felt] better.” – Thuy "Mary" Hong

There are few entities that punctuate time quite like the daily grind. As consistent as the tides, the need to earn a living remains one of life’s few guarantees. The awareness that prosperity, in whatever form it might take, is inextricably linked to the myriad ways people spend their waking hours is a uniquely shared experience. Even among those populations who don’t need to log work hours every day – the privileged, sick, or retired – there is an understanding that whatever financial reservoir sustaining them was filled by someone else, at some point. In short, we’re all occupied with occupations and the singular potential they have to both radically improve or drastically diminish one’s quality of life.

The quotation above demonstrates one side of that coin. Thuy “Mary” Hong is a Vietnamese immigrant I had the pleasure of interviewing for The Dartmouth Vietnam Project. Her time is largely dominated by her job, as is the case for her husband’s family and was for her mother before her. Despite this, Mary had virtually no complaints beyond the average qualms that come with working long hours at a physical occupation. On the contrary, Mary expressed a love for what she does throughout the length of our conversation, which you can listen to fully here. Sure, work is mainly a means of feeding her family. But in Mary’s case, it also serves as a platform for relationship-building, a conduit for new cultural knowledge, and a vehicle for identity-consolidation in a foreign context. In this way, work is essential to the construction of Mary’s self-concept. So, too, can it inform understandings of social responsibility, urbanization, and trans-national identity – as this exhibit will demonstrate to you momentarily.

I welcome you to explore this website and gain some familiarity with the many voices of Saigon. Some historical context is provided below, should you find that helpful. The first page offers a glimpse into Vietnamese labor force, exploring cultural attitudes toward work and deconstructing how laborers frame the narratives of their lives. The second page studies work as a kinship obligation and reveals how work interacted with prescribed gender roles in Saigon. The third and final section explores how economic necessity often prompts migration on a trans-national scale.

Taken, together these pages should shed light on labor’s centrality to the revitalization of Vietnam and its people in the wake of war and economic transition. In a deeper sense, however, I intend this exhibit to serve as a humble reminder of the sentiment Professor Gerard Sasges puts forth in his collection on labor in urban Vietnam: “Work can be much more than just a way to make a living, and that paradise is where we find it.”

Just in Case: Historical Context

Despite the ubiquity of the labored experience, work obviously preoccupies some more than others. Work assumed a profound new significance in the decades following the Vietnam War. Following the first few years of Vietnam’s unification, the new government adopted instituted a doctrine of collectivization in the south characterized by expropriation of land, factories, and private wealth. These measures resulted in drastic dips in Vietnam’s GDP, per capital incomes, and economic growth rates. By 1986, annual inflation rates had reached 100 percent, and virtually all state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were operating in the red. The country was also embroiled in a bloody and expensive armed conflict with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The death of then-Secretary General Le Duan in 1986 proved to be an economic turning point for the newly-unified nation.

Following his death, the Politburo promptly (though discreetly) denounced Le Duan’s administration as managerially incompetent and his southern economic policies as ineffectual. The  Sixth National Congress was held in December of 1986 and with it came the implementation of Đổi Mới, or renovation. This campaign was intended to transition the centrally-planned Vietnamese economy to a market-based model and was spearheaded by new General Secretary Nguyễn Văn Linh. Đổi Mới was a radical success, prompting high levels of economic growth and a serious reduction in poverty. The numbers don’t lie; from 1986-2006, Vietnam’s average GDP growth rate was 7.5 percent, then-marking it as the second-fastest growing country in Asia. It was only runner-up to China. Vietnam’s poverty rate also dropped down to 14.7 in 2010 from 58 percent in 1993. Another remarkable statistic relates to their exports. Đổi Mới’s emphasis on expanding international markets and attracting direct foreign investment resulted in a 20 percent increase in exports annually from less than $4 billion in 1992 to $73 billion in 2010, reflecting a 71 percent share of Vietnamese GDP. Political economist Le Hong Hiep, verbalizes the significance of Đổi Mới reform, writing that it “helped transform the country’s international image from Vietnam as a war to Vietnam as an economic success story.”

Vietnam’s Đổi Mới and foreign policy initiatives have helped transform its economy. This is demonstrated by President Bill Clinton’s official visit to Vietnam in 2000 and the singing of the U.S.-SRV Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) in July of the same year. These market-based reforms arguably culminated with Vietnam’s induction as the 150th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This event signified its full incorporation into the  world economy after two long and arduous decades of economic reform.