Reading The Idiot in Hanoi (I)

Note: I began this post almost a month ago, thinking to post a multi-part essay over the course of my few weeks in Vietnam, but I never got beyond what’s here. I still intend to finish the essay, but thought I’d go ahead and post this opening bit to give myself some motivation. I find it hard to do extended writing when traveling; with luck, I’ll finish this as a short essay in the next couple of weeks.

There’s an English language bookshop just off Hang Bai in the French Quarter. There are a lot of art books and books of photographs of Hanoi and the usual range of English language instruction manuals for Vietnamese speakers and Vietnamese language manuals for English speakers, but the real value of the place is its extensive collection of (mostly) British classic texts from the 19th and early 20th century — Wordsworth editions of copyright-free texts on cheap paper that sell here for a couple of dollars — and since I increasingly find myself turning to the comforts of narrative, I feel grateful for the shelves full of Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, Daniel Defoe, George Elliot, and many others, including Dostoevsky’s great novel, which I read when I was an undergraduate but have mostly forgotten since, except for Myshkin’s winning and sometimes infuriating innocence. I bought the book on my second day in town — I almost got Robinson Crusoe, which I read last time I was here — but settled on the more ambitious project of The Idiot. I’ve been reading a few pages each evening without hurry, enjoying the switchbacks and asides as the narrative gathers way.

My days in Hanoi over my first two weeks in town had been alternately busy and dull. Vietnamese literary institutions move at their own pace, as they do in most places, no doubt; but it had seemed to me that the Writers Association, for example, though they have a designated “expert in external relations,” was not terribly interested in making connections and setting up meetings. As an organization, they seemed turned distinctly inward, creating a situation in which the foreign writer is welcomed ceremonially to hear a speech about cooperation and friendship. And then dismissed. Or, if that’s too harsh a judgment, just benignly ignored. The building in which the Writers Association is housed is a late French colonial affair of four floors with a staircase up the middle leading onto little warrens of offices. One suspects that it has always housed bureaucrats.

The Idiot begins with a journey. Prince Myshkin is returning to Russia, but it is an odd sort of return. It is as if he is returning to a place he has never been. That is something like the way I have felt coming back to Hanoi after eight years. [To be continued]

Rest Day (VN Diary No. 32)

After going out this morning to cash some travelers’ checks, I’m spending most of the day in my hotel room. I spent the last couple of days in Hue walking around in the heat and yesterday (wearing a t-shirt) I got a bit of sunburn on my neck. Nothing serious, but all the sun and walking have made me tired so I’m relaxing and writing in my notebook and starting to pack for the short hop up to Hanoi early tomorrow morning.

Last night, though, I had a great dinner. There are three small restaurants on Dinh Tien Hoang Street, all owned by the same extended family as far as I can tell, and specializing in banh khoi and bun bo, two Hue specialties. The firsst is a cross between an omelet and a pancake and is filled with onions and bean sprouts and served with a peanut sauce and spicy herbs; the second is Hue’s version of pho, a beef noodle soup that here in Hue is quite spicy. I had banh khoi in one little restaurant, then went next door for bun bo, then took a cyclo back to the hotel.

HCMC (VN Diary No. 26)

I’m in HCMC now and the place is frankly overwhelming. I was here ten years ago and it didn’t seem quite such a daunting place. But my friend Lan is a good guide and she took me out for noodles last night, which were superb. I’ve just walked around my neighborhood in Cholon a couple of times today without trying to see anything in particular, just to get a feel for the place. And the feeling is pretty overwhelming. Loud, crowded, busy, a little chaotic. Not unfriendly. And because I am far from the tourist heart of Saigon, there is none of the usual attempt to get me to buy things. The Vietnamese are doing plenty of buying and selling without my participation, not that they mind if I have a coffee and a banh my (sandwich) at a table on the sidewalk. I like the food better in the south, I think — more flavor, sweeter, more chilis. Lan has set up a bunch of literary meeting for me over tomorrow and the next day. I’ll have made more meaningful contacts in a week here than in almost three weeks in Hanoi, where the literary scene is either dead or has simply refused to show itself to me. Perhaps I offended somone there and the word has gone out. Or perhaps the literary institutions are simply moribund and I don’t have enough Vietnamese to penetrate the informal networks on my own. I had thought I had a couple of folks who were going to help me out, but they have fallen silent. Khong sao.