List: November in Hanoi

Note: Before coming to Hanoi I loaded up my Kindle with several things I thought would suit the short attention span of traveling. Among the things I downloaded was Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986 - 2014. When Marcus is not showcasing his mastery of the most obscure details of popular culture, he is an incisive analyst of contemporary American myth. While I do not aspire to anything so engaged, I have decided to adopt the literary genre of the list, posting an occasional list of items here. The list as not-quite-literary form has the advantage of cutting short the compulsion toward completion, a fatal check, ironically, to finishing anything. My lists will not always run to ten items, but ten will be the upper limit--otherwise infinity might beckon. I’ll begin with a list of five items:
  1. Phương works in a restaurant & goes to college, studying English. I met her because, standing behind me & speaking to another waiter, I found I could understand her Vietnamese. (Usually, I get anywhere from ten to thirty percent of overheard conversations.) I introduced myself & the next day she took me for a cup of coffee. (I’m so old now that young Vietnamese women know they need have no fear of me.) When I mentioned that there was a character in a Graham Greene novel who shared her name, Phương corrected me: “Phượng has the low short tone (nặng) and means phoenix, but my name has the level tone (ngang) and means way or direction.” One wonders whether Graham Greene was aware of this distinction, since he spells the name stripped of it’s diacritical marks.
  2. Hanoi streets in the hour before dinner: Jammed with traffic ranging from bicycles & cyclos to motorbikes in all stages of repair, trucks & cars from little Korean compacts to Land Rovers & BMWs. Sitting in my taxi, stopped dead in a shoal of these vehicles, I gaze out the window at a family of three sitting on their motorbike, each looking placid ahead as the massive tide of traffic pauses & prepares to surge forward again.
  3. 70º in Hanoi & most Vietnamese are wearing jackets, even parkas; tourists in tee shirts & shorts.
  4. A version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” playing on the restaurant sound system that can only be described as bubblegum-disco, produced & performed by people who do not know what the words mean. Or if they do know . . .
  5. Rainy morning on Lý Quốc Sư across from the ugly cathedral: the usually snarled traffic even more snarled because a work crew in bright blue ponchos is running new wires under the street. I suppose this means that the overhead tangles of electrical wires will eventually be replaced, leaving visitors one less thing to be astonished by.

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.