Yen Bai is a town of some 60,000 people in North Vietnam, about 200 kilometres north of Hanoi. I was there early in 1998 on an exploratory visit, getting ready to organize their first radio survey. As part of the preparations, I had the idea of doing a consensus group.
The local radio and TV station has an imposing building on a hill, and I thought we might get more honest answers if the group was held at somebody's home, not at the station. We were short of time, so I asked the staff if somebody who was not an on-air identity would be willing to hold the group at their home. It would need to begin at 7 o'clock that night, I specified. We wanted between 8 and 10 people who listened to the station at least once a week, a roughly equal mixture of men and women, old and young. One woman agreed. She could invite her neighbours and friends, I told her, and we'd pay them 20,000 dong (about 2 dollars) each for their trouble.
(Yes, I know this is hardly the most scientific way to design a sample, but in the absence of any other knowledge it would at least give us an idea of the range of opinions and activities relating to radio.)
Just before 7pm, our party rolled up in our van. Back home, I'd probably have run such a group by myself. But in Vietnam, everything takes a lot more people. There was Jan from Swedish Radio (the funding agency), our interpreter, our driver, the assistant station manager, and probably a few others.
We went into the house. It opened onto a main street. As it was a mild night, the front door was wide open, as were the windows. The woman of the house proudly let us in, and showed us about 15 people in the front room.
I sighed. I'd asked for a maximum of 10, so that we could all sit around a table - but the lure of 2 dollars was probably too great. The room was long, narrow, and L-shaped, so the 15 people - over 20, including the official party - were scattered everywhere: around the table, on couches, and on the floor.
This was a very unwieldy situation, not at all suited for the exchange of confidences. But it was all I had, so I began the proceedings. The interpreter translated what I said to the people, translated what they said back to me, and between breaths kept asking the children to keep quiet.
Children? I hadn't noticed them before. But they gradually appeared, filling every space on the tiled floor. I pressed on with the discussion, but it was now obvious it would never work. I was sitting near the front door, with my back to it. At one stage there was a burst of laughter from behind me. I looked around. The doorway was crowded with faces - and so were both windows. Children were clinging to the window-bars like lizards.
Everybody thought it was hilarious. All the neighbours who weren't taking part in the group had come along to see the sight - two mad longnoses, who were actually PAYING people to TALK! Yen Bai had never seen anything like this before.
Here's a photo, which we took at the end of the group. By then, a lot of people had lost interest and gone away. Imagine double this number, crowding the doorway, blocking the windows, and covering the floor.
If I ever do another consensus group in Yen Bai, I think it will be at the radio station.