Morning in the Old Quarter (VN Diary No. 7)

Woke up early to the bells of St. Joseph's Cathedral, which is right across the street from my hotel, and went out for a walk. Hanoi does not get up terribly early -- things begin to open up between seven and eight -- so I took a walk around Ho Hoan Kiem, the lake in the center of the city, just south of the old quarter. By the time I'd walked around the lake -- where thousands of people gather informally to do a combination of tai chi and calisthenics, some to music, some not -- I found a cafe open and ordered coffee and bread, managing to make myself understood in Vietnamese. After that I set off into the Old Quarter north of the lake and got completely lost. This is a part of Hanoi I claim to know well and so I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I got completely turned around. I bought a bottle of water and some bananas -- using Vietnamese -- and asked directions, eventually finding my way back to the lake and thus to the hotel. Hanoi is a wonderfully friendly city, a city with a sense of humor. The young woman who sold me bananas smiled ant my language skills and was very sweet, even as she insisted that, no, I did not want two bananas but three. How could I disagree? They cost about 25 cents each and are of the medium sixed, medium sweet variety. I didn't see any of the tiny. thumb-sized and intensly sweet variety that I've only ever had in Vietnam. My everyday life in New York is so quiet and regular that it's quite a shock to the system to be set down in the middle of Hanoi; but it's a salubrious kind of shock that does me good, gets me out of myself. It is terribly easy to fall into the habit of thinking that one's own way of life is the only way -- not even out of a sense of superority (though that's common enough), but out of habit -- and it is good to be reminded of the wild variety of human modes of being. I am fortunate to have found this place. I'm still tired from my trip here. It's only 9:30 in the morning and I already feel as if I've had a full day. I'm going to read, then do some language drill on the computer, then go investigate taking some cooking classes, though it looks as if it might rain this afternoon. Real work can wait until Monday.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.