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Vietnamese salon workers in US devastated by pandemic, hate attacks



For ethnic Vietnamese working in nail salons in the U.S., Covid-19 and racist violence targeting Asians in the last few months are a double whammy.

Le Nguyen, 46, emigrated to the U.S. more than 10 years ago and spent years working for a nail salon in California’s Orange County before opening her own in 2018.

But not too long afterward she was forced to close it as the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.

To put food the table for her five-member family, she went to customers’ house and did their nails outdoors, “as long as I could make some money.”

Then began the violence and hatred against Asian-Americans.

“My Vietnamese friends and I are shocked and scared. It has hit our livelihoods, feeling of safety and our lives,” Nguyen says.

According to a study by the UCLA Labor Center and the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (CHNSC), the nail salon workforce is 81 percent female and 79 percent foreign-born. Of the latter, some three-quarters are from Vietnam.

A nail salon opens in Georgia, U.S., April 25, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Maranie Staab.

A nail salon opens in Georgia, U.S., April 25, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Maranie Staab.

Many of them have seen their incomes disappear since their salons have been shut for months as a precaution against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Vicky Tran, who left Saigon for the U.S. 7 years ago when she was 22, used to work at her friend’s nail salon seven days a week before her livelihood was taken away last year. She used to earn US$2,700 a month.

“I wake up every morning and ask myself what I should do today to survive.”

According to the study UCLA Labor Center and the CHNSC, more than 50 percent of nail salon owners face difficulties in paying their rent and 91 percent of manicurists applied for unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

But even when they are allowed to open their business, Vietnamese-American manicurists have been living in fear of being infected by their customers.

Winnie Kao of the Asian Law Caucus, the U.S.’s first legal aid and civil rights organization serving the low-income Asia-Pacific-American communities, says health and safety are the biggest worries for manicurists.

Most are anxious since their customers do not adopt preventive measures and refuse to wear masks.

“I want to work and earn money to pay my rent and buy food for my family, but I don’t want to bring that virus home, I am scared,” Tran says.

The pandemic also has also led to another problem: racism. Last month’s shooting at the Atlanta spas killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.

Local authorities claimed it was early to know the motive behind these attacks. But it has sparked widespread fear among owners and employees at Asian-owned businesses, including Vietnamese, who had already been struggling with a wave of racism and hate attacks driven by the pandemic.

Non-profit coalition Stop AAPI Hate, which has been tracking reports of racism, harassment and discrimination against Asians, said it received at least 3,795 firsthand complaints since 2020 from all 50 states, including 503 anti-Asian hate incidents in the first two months of this year.

“As an Asian-American woman who owns nail salons, a target for racism, violence and hate crimes against Asian women, I saw my own face, my daughters, my mother, my grandmothers, my aunties, my sisters, my staff, my friends,” Tran Wills, owner of Base Coat Nail Salons chain, said on Instagram after the deadly shootings in Atlanta.

Many salon owners and manicurists across California, which has the largest ethnic Vietnamese population in the U.S., are feeling vulnerable and worried about their incomes and safety amid the surge in hate crimes.

Vicky Tran says with anger: “I am terrified for my co-workers. Hatred and xenophobia are stalking us.”

People hold placards during a vigil at a makeshift memorial outside the Gold Spa following the deadly shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. March 21, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Shannon Stapleton.

People hold placards during a vigil at a makeshift memorial outside the Gold Spa following the deadly shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. March 21, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Shannon Stapleton.

To stand up or to quit?

Many Vietnamese who have reopened their beauty salons are now taking all kinds of precautions.

Nguyen has installed metal bars outside her salon window to prevent people from smashing it, closes her business before sunset and goes straight home.

“I want my staff to be safe, and so I always tell them to go home before dark, and make sure they have someone to accompany them in case they have to walk in the dark.”

She now only accepts customers who have made appointments and locks the door after one enters or leaves.

Other people have gone even further, learning how to use tasers and pepper sprays.

Nguyen too has thought about acquiring a firearm safety certificate to be eligible to buy a gun.

“After more than a decade in America, I finally think about owning a gun to protect myself and my business.”

CHNSC has worked to support local and national efforts including providing safety and racial justice training to manicurists at nail salons and pushing for legislation that calls for safe workplaces and linguistically appropriate victim-support services.

But hate attacks and their reduced incomes has caused some manicurists to give up their jobs.

In Oakland, Le Thi Thanh, 34, stopped working at her relative’s nail salon on March 20, four days after the shootings occurred at the three spas and massage parlors in the metropolitan area of Atlanta.

“My husband and sons begged me to stay at home; they did not want to worry about my safety every day I went for work,” she says.

She is thinking about selling Vietnamese food to earn money.

Though, as more and more people are vaccinated, some nail salons are seeing business improve, Vietnamese nail salon workers and owners know that their industry will never be the same since hatred and violence are likely to stay.

“No matter how long I live in the U.S. and how much tax I pay, I will never be seen as an ‘American’ because of my Asian appearance,” Nguyen says with a sigh.



Toy story: how a Saigon public bus pimps its ride



Driver Pham Ngoc Tuyen and assistant Pham Van Sang of public bus 146 have delighted passengers by decorating it with stuffed animals and plushies.

It is 12:30 p.m. when Tuyen completes his final trip from the Hiep Thanh Bus Station in District 12 to the Mien Dong Bus Station in Binh Thanh District. After the bus comes to a complete stop, Sang runs off to sign the logbook.

The 49-year-old bus assistant does not rush back to the bus, though.

He goes to try his luck with two claw machines in the bus station. Inserting a VND10,000 ($0.43) bill into the slot in exchange for two coins corresponding to two chances, Sang begins to move the lever and press the button. He manages to pluck a red buffalo soft toy with his second chance.

When his colleague brings the brand new toy, driver Tuyen is thrilled. “What a cool addition to our collection. It would have been nice if we’d got this one and hung it up during in time for Tet to welcome the Lunar New Year (Year of the Buffalo). Are there any left in the machine? You should try to get another one in the evening so we can hang it on the other side and make it look symmetrical.”

“Okay, I will try to get another one later,” Sang replies.

Pham Van Sang (L) and Pham Ngoc Tuyen (R) posing for photo in the Bus 146. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Pham Van Sang (L) and Pham Ngoc Tuyen in the public bus 146 that they have decorated with stuffed animals and plushies. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Tuyen and Sang have been friends for a long time, but have only worked together on bus 146 for about two years. When he was assigned as the new driver of this bus, Sang discovered that there was a staff member who was very good at picking up stuffed animals, so he often bought them at a cheap price for his grandchildren and also put a few up on the bus ceiling.

When they found that passengers were happy and impressed with the decorative touch, Sang decided to conquer the game and get more toys.

During the Covid-19 outbreak last year, the number of bus trips was reduced and the staff had a long time off, so he had the opportunity to try and win many plushies.

At first, he failed often and barely caught any toy with the claws. But he persisted and with a lot of experience, managed to pick the toys frequently. Over more than a year now, Sang has lost count of how many stuffed animals he has picked up. He plays one or two times a day almost every day, turning the bus into a “kingdom” of stuffed animals.

Toan, 60, Sang’s colleague who is another driver of bus 146, said: “Whenever I change shift with the two, I also feel very happy since I have the chance to drive the stuffed animal bus. All the commuters compliment us. They say that looking at the stuffed animals swaying around is a lot of fun and gives them a different feel from sitting on a normal bus.”

Stuff animals are dangling inside the bus. Photo by VnExpress/ Diep Phan.

A passenger buys a ticket inside bus 146 that is festooned with stuff toys. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

The toy lottery

Whenever he wins a new toy, Sang gives away an old one or that looks similar to regular customers, children or students. In order to create a happy atmosphere for passengers on the bus, especially during peak hours when students are out of school, Sang organizes a game to give away stuffed animals. After selling tickets to all guests, he randomly announces three digits. Whoever has a ticket number with matching last digits wins a toy.

“If a customer likes any one of the toys, I give it to them. The job of a driver and bus assistant is stressful, so doing this makes us and the customers happy,” Sang said, smiling.

Their unusually decorated bus also attracts unusual attention. Once, Sang saw a motorbike suddenly speed up to overtake the bus. When the bus stopped at a street light, two young people waiting by the sidewalk came close to the glass windows, took pictures of the bus full of stuffed animals, returned to their motorbike and drove away.

Thu Huyen, 20, a student at the from Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City, uses bus 146 often to go to school: “I take many different buses, but the bus of Tuyen and Sang is the most special because they decorate it hundreds of stuffed animals. Their stuffed animals usually new and clean and are frequently updated. I have noticed that some of the new toys that I see in the machine make their way to the bus in a few days.”

The bus parks at Mien Dong Bus Station at noon on May 12, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Bus 146 parked at the Mien Dong Bus Station at noon, May 12, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

After completing a trip to the Hiep Thanh Bus Station, the two friends take turns inviting each other for lunch. With about 20 minutes remaining during the lunch break, they discuss removing all the stuffed toys and repositioning them in the evening.

The toys don’t just occupy the ceiling. They are also placed on armrests, in the front and other places. Sometimes they are hung in color clusters, sometimes in a symmetrical order, and in some other order at different times.

“Since the day we started having them, we are also much more diligent in cleaning the bus. We clean the bus, clean the air-conditioner fans so that the stuffed animals won’t be dangling in dust,” Tuyen said.

Although he spends VND10,000-20,000 of his hard earned money every day to “picking” up the stuffed animals just to decorate and give to customers, Sang says has no intention of stopping. He is only worried that the owner of the claw machines might remove them because he wins too many of the toys.

“Last year there were four machines, but now there are only two. I would be very sad if all of them were removed. Picking up stuffed animals is my entertainment and the passengers are also happy.

“Instead of drinking coffee at a café, now I brew my own and bring it. Since we don’t smoke, we use that extra money to pick up the stuffed animals.”


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Photographic exhibition introduces Italian mountains to Vietnamese audience



Dante Brandi, Consul General of Italy in HCMC, speaks at a press conference on the “Italian Routes – Mountains, mountaineering, climate change” exhibition – PHOTO: MINH TUAN

HCMC – The Consulate General of Italy in HCMC will organize the “Italian Routes” photographic exhibition introducing the Italian mountains and mountaineering from May 20 until June 12, 2021, at the HCMC Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition will continue in Hanoi from June 25 to July 25 at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.

The “Italian Routes – Mountains, mountaineering, climate change” exhibition is a project of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, showcasing the outstanding work of photographer Fabiano Ventura and will be promoted by the Embassies and Consulates General of Italy in the world, heading to the COP26 co-chaired by the UK and Italy at the end of 2021 in Glasgow.

“Vietnam has been chosen as the first destination thanks to the country’s effective containment of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dante Brandi, Consul General of Italy in HCMC.

The aim of the exhibition is to highlight to an international audience the great Italian tradition linked to mountain culture and mountaineering as a means of understanding the mountain territory, its environmental value and the importance of environmental awareness in the practices of accessing natural habitats to preserve the ecosystems.

The central part of the exhibition, “Italian Mountains”, is an ideal journey that from the Gran Paradiso range explores the entire Alpine arc from west to east, crossing the massifs of Mont Blanc, Mount Rosa and Cervino, Bernina, Ortles-Cevedale and Adamello, moving on to the east, reaching the Dolomites and the Julian Alps. The Italian route ends with the main Apennine mountain group, the Gran Sasso.

Each of the nine mountain groups is represented by large-format photographs that highlight their evocative landscape aspects and by comparative historical and contemporary images that highlight the evolution of the glacial masses, underlining the effects of climate change on the mountain landscape.

Each group is accompanied by an introduction panel illustrating its geographical, historical and geo-glaciological characteristics, together with a suggested itinerary. Finally, each mountain section is enriched with reproductions of documents and historical material on the first alpine explorations.

The photographic section is accompanied by video recordings of the expedition, “On the Trails of the Glaciers – Alps 2020”, made in the same places as the nine proposed stages.

The final section, “A Look at the World”, extends the perspective to the Earth’s most important mountain ranges, underlining the continuity of mountaineering culture at a global level.

The Consulate General of Italy will also combine the Italian Routes exhibition with a complementary exhibition titled “Landscapes of Vietnam – Ecological Diversity, New Climate Pattern, New Discovery” by remarkable Vietnamese photographers Hoang The Nhiem, Hoang Giang Hai and Tran Dang Dang Khoa on the subject of Vietnamese caves and mountains.

The exhibition will offer a glimpse into local mountain areas through the eyes of prominent local artists, providing a great addition to the audience with a comparative approach.

This duo exhibition with well-curated photography is an opportunity for visitors to see the distinctiveness of nature and beautiful landscapes of the two countries.

All events organized by the Consulate General of Italy will strictly comply with preventive measures of Covid-19. All attendees are requested to wear face masks and disinfect their hands with sanitizer.


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‘Nothing is more important than independence and freedom’: A westerner’s view of Hồ Chí Minh



President Hồ Chí Minh during one of his trips to the home of resistance up in the northern mountains. May 19, 2021, is his 131st birthday. VNA File Photo

Tom Wilber*

I am an American of the generation in the wake of armed aggressors who attacked Việt Nam from 1964 until the peace accords were signed in 1973. I was a teenager then and too young to be conscripted. However, my father, Walter Eugene (Gene) Wilber, was very much a part of the American war of aggression against the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam.

He was a pilot, a fighter squadron commanding officer, shot down and captured in 1968. When Gene Wilber arrived in Hà Nội, President Hồ Chi Minh was in the last full year of his life, and would, sadly, pass away on the 24th anniversary of independence on September 2, 1969.

In Hoả Lò prison in June of 1968, Wilber began his deep personal reflection on his role in the troubling and disappointing actions the US was taking against Việt Nam. Wilber concluded that the war was illegal. He chose to act, voluntarily, to communicate to others that the US should depart Việt Nam immediately. He recorded his statements in Hoả Lò prison. They were broadcast on radio from Hà Nội and heard by US troops in Southeast Asia and the international community around the world.

In a statement he made on the US Independence Day holiday in 1971, Wilber told Americans of their country’s many deceits and violent aggressions, summarising: “We were wrong in these actions, and we are still continuing these mistakes.”

“The Vietnamese people have rallied and fight under the words of the father of their country, the late President Hồ Chí Minh: ‘Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,'” he added.

Back in the US in 1973, Wilber was criticised heavily for speaking against the American war. Despite controversy and rejection, he did not falter in his firm belief that the US had been the aggressor in the terribly long struggle for independence by the Vietnamese people.

He remained respectful in his attitude and belief toward Việt Nam, encouraged normal diplomatic relations, even offering to serve as an ambassador, and always spoke kindly about the Vietnamese people until his death in 2015.

I am most grateful to my father for speaking his mind that the war was wrong. Five years of family separation and a lifetime of criticism are minimal costs considering the benefits that my father’s actions presented to me. Through his experiences, Gene Wilber helped me to develop a deep appreciation for the Vietnamese people, including profound respect for the life and leadership of Hồ Chí Minh.

I have made more than 30 visits to Việt Nam. Many of my trips have centred around Nghệ An Province. Wilber parachuted into Nghệ An, Thanh Chương District, Thanh Tiên Commune, travelling to Hà Nội on the trails and roadways of Trường Sơn (also known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail). Not far from Wilber’s entry point into Việt Nam, the childhood home of Uncle Hồ is in Nghệ An, Nam Đàn District, Kim Liên Commune. I have visited the Kim Liên relic several times. In my earlier trips to Nghệ An, it was in realising the humble beginnings for Hồ Chí Minh that I began to sense the meaning of those words that I had overlooked as an American: “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom.”

I consider Nghệ An not only as the birthplace of Hồ Chí Minh but as the birthplace of my awareness borne to me by my father who arrived in Nghệ An. Nghệ An is my portal to insight.

Bùi Bác Văn is a lifelong Nghệ An resident now living in Vinh City. Living in Xã Thanh Tiên in 1968, it was Văn who helped capture my father. When we met in 2015, Văn embraced me as a friend. He took time to teach me, showing me many historic sites in Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh. Not only have we visited bomb-damaged areas from the American war, but he also explained to me the significance of the poet Nguyễn Du in literature and philosophy and the victorious Quang Trung in the history of liberation from foreign invaders. From more recent history, he has illuminated to me Bác Hồ’s childhood village in Kim Liên and the influences of Hồ’s mother Hoàng Thi Loan and Hồ’s educated father Nguyễn Sinh Sắc, along with the inspiration of the nationalist scholar Phan Bội Châu, residing a few kilometres to the east of Kim Liên in Nam Đàn. At an early age, the young Hồ would overhear many deep conversations between his father and Phan about modernisation, patriotism, and freeing the Vietnamese from the grip of colonialism. Based on my education from my friend Văn, who greeted my father, and then, 47 years later, welcomed me, Nghệ An and the area of President Hồ’s childhood have become, for me, rich in meaning.

There are so many things that could be said about Hồ Chí Minh from his beginnings in Kim Liên to the learnings and influences that shaped his ability to develop his plan, as western historian Virginia Morris describes in Hồ Chí Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution (2018). His blueprint allowed Việt Nam to “fight and win a protracted asymmetric war,” as Morris wrote, “against superior powers of the French, and then the United States.”

In his early twenties, Hồ Chí Minh would work his way around the world – to New York, London, Paris – developing his strategy to realise his country’s independence and freedom.

Historian Christopher Goscha, in Vietnam: A New History (2016), chronicles how Hồ Chí Minh’s travels “brought him in contact with a wider range of reformists and anticolonialists”. On the 110th anniversary of his departure from Việt Nam for the West, it is important to remember how Hồ Chí Minh’s exposure to thought, his debates and discussions, the further refining and distillation of purpose – building upon the intellectual and practical influences of his learnings in childhood and youth in Nghệ An – would emerge from this crucible as the precious element from which independence and freedom would be forged.

The people of Việt Nam today enjoy the “happy spring” of reunification. I encourage westerners, especially Americans, to learn more about Hồ Chí Minh and Việt Nam’s sovereign struggle, their inevitable victory, and their role in peaceful international relations. As more people understand how we arrived at the present moment, our mutual recognition of Hồ Chí Minh becomes clear. –

* Tom Wilber is an independent researcher, investigating US prisoners in the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam from 1964 until 1973. In addition to having been a lecturer at Hà Nội University, he assists with special exhibitions at Hoả Lò prison relic. His early research became the source for the 2015 award-winning film produced by Ngọc Dũng, The Flowerpot Story. His essays have been published in Việt Nam News. He is co-author along with Jerry Lembcke of Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (2021). Wilber represents a US-based non-governmental organisation that works on humanitarian projects with Vietnamese organisations.


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