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Reviewed by:
  • It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today ed. by Gerard Sasges
  • Reema B. Jagtiani (bio)
It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today. Edited by Gerard Sasges. Singapore: NUS Press, 2013. xviii+313 pp.

It’s a Living contains a selection of sixty-seven out of 150 interviews conducted over 2010–13 as part of Project Kiếm ăn, which sought to “develop a better understanding of the reality of working in Vietnam” and “living in a period of incredible change” (pp. xiv–xv). Led by Gerard Sasges, the project involved collaboration between students in the University of California’s Education Abroad Programme in Vietnam and Hanoi University’s Faculties of Management and International Studies. [End Page 279]

The book’s strengths are reflected in the range of its interviews and the organization of these accounts. Each of the fifteen chapters is named after the occupational function of the interviewees. For example, Chapter One on “Growing” provides the stories of a farmer and a bonsai-grower; Chapter Two on “Feeding” treats a rice liquor maker and a KFC employee; and Chapter Twelve on “Grooming” features the accounts of a grey-hair plucker. These accounts capture a cross-section of Vietnamese society across age, income level, gender and occupation. The majority of the interviews were conducted in the Hanoi metropolitan area; others were conducted in northern cities and provinces, as well as further south in Ho Chi Minh City (pp. 156, 118). The pervasive nature of temporary or semi-permanent migration from rural to urban spaces within Vietnam means that many of the conversations in Hanoi also contain anecdotal information on the social and economic changes taking place in other parts of the country. There are also a few odd choices, interviews that do not seem to fit with the theme of the book, including interviews with Vietnamese immigrants living in Singapore (p. 266) and the United States (pp. 51, 207, 238).

The narrative arc employed by the book begins with life (farming) and ends with death (bone cleaning or exhumation). This device not only ensures that the accounts reflect the material and spiritual aspects of life and the afterlife, but it also — through the bone-cleaner’s and farmer’s common association with the soil — mirrors the country’s development trajectory and the inevitable tussle over the use of land as Vietnam continues to transform and develop its rural economy (p. 6). In addition, the value of the book’s narrative and the interviews’ collective ability to capture the “sweep of Vietnam’s recent history” (p. 1) are complemented by its introduction, which provides a concise but informative overview of significant economic, social and political events in Vietnam’s history from 1975 to 2011. Indeed, the breadth of the accounts allows them collectively to illuminate important policy changes in Vietnam whilst retaining a certain universality. In the course of making a living — kiếm ăn in Vietnamese, literally “looking for food” — people perform work that take on various meanings and has various effects: work entails [End Page 280] passion (electrical-appliance repairman, pp. 217–20), building trust (domestic helper, pp. 230–43) and negotiating definitions of honour and success (adult-store salesperson, pp. 130–49). And sometimes it is just dull (bank employee, pp. 174).

The accounts also reveal how the policy of Đổi Mới introduced in 1986 created new jobs, made others obsolete, and threw many Vietnamese into precarious forms of employment. The occupations of the flower seller (p. 130) and the shoeshiner (p. 234) as street vendors, for example, have been “labelled … ‘illegal’ “(p. 133) by the government. However, the book also highlights the ways in which the reforms have also brought positive effects to some communities. For example, Chapter Fourteen relates the experience of an elementary school teacher in Yên Bái who was afforded the opportunity to earn a higher salary and whose students — most of whom came from one of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups — benefitted from improved educational facilities, both as a result of the government policy “intended to support development in remote regions” (p. 286).

While It’s a Living successfully conveys the “experience...


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