Hanoi Spleen (Another List of Five)

  1. The ugly cathedral really is ugly, a cement monstrosity deposited by the French, who, when the were driven out of Hanoi in 1954 razed the 1000 year old One Pillar Pagoda, an architectural marvel. It has since been rebuilt. Now the city is infested by twenty-something French hipsters smoking their execrable cigarettes in the coffee shops.
  2. The German hipsters are a little less annoying, perhaps because Germans have no history in Vietnam.
  3. There are hardly any American hipsters–just a few fresh-faced college students with almost no awareness of their country’s history in Vietnam.
  4. The Vietnamese word for tourism is du lịch; for history the word is lịch sử. Because the unbarred letter “d” is pronounced “z” the two words sound & look like mirror images of each other, at least to my insensitive Western ear. I know nothing about Vietnamese etymology, but I don’t think lịch is the same word / syllable in these two words, Vietnamese compounds working differently from those in Germanic languages. The joys of false etymologies & strained analogies!
  5. Compared to traffic in HCMC or (from what I have been told) Bangkok, traffic in Hanoi is not so bad, but it is bad enough. For my first four weeks here I was able to join the dance–and it is a dance–but the last few days it’s just seemed chaotic. Usually, at a major intersection, when the light changes there is a liminal period during which the more aggressive motorbikes continue through as the bikes from the perpendicular direction begin moving out. Usually the side with the red slows & stops, though individual scooters will continue to dart through along the edges or go up on the sidewalk to skirt around. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes the liminal period of one direction goes on so long that it overlaps with the period of the other direction, which is when you have chaos, the dance broken down. So, now, go cross the street to get to your favorite coffee shop on the other side.

Why Vietnam?

Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.

I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.

Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.

Hanoi Pictures from Previous Trips

Catching My Breath

Well, my part in my department’s immediate business is winding down & the semester is two-thirds over. I have a couple of days clear & then Spring Break starts, during which I’ll be writing a conference paper on Basho’s & Peter Matthiesen’s representations of suffering in their travel writings, trying to see if there is something distinctively Buddhist in the writing when it depicts suffering. I’m starting, actually, with Auden’s famous “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” as a kind of touchstone. I’m looking at a couple specific passages, my presentation focusing on close reading & a rhetorical analysis. I probably won’t do much tomorrow but clean the house, straighten my office, and get some exercise. On Friday I’ll try to pick up the discussion of Buddhism from a couple of posts back.

“For Wittgenstein”

Found this recording of David Rakowski’s setting of my poem “For Wittgenstein” on You Tube. I received a copy of the CD when it came out, but I’m happy to see it out on the web. It would be nice if whoever posted it had given credit to the author of the text: “For Wittgenstein” is the final poem in my book Magical Thinking (2001), an over-determined triolet written specifically for Rakowski.

Days are like grass the wind moves over:
first the wind & then the silence–
what cannot be said we must pass over
in silence, or play some music over
in our heads. Silently, a wind goes over
(we know from the motion of the grass).
Days are like grass; the wind goes over:
first the wind & then the silence.

There are a lot of performances of Rakowski’s music–mostly for piano–on You Tube. I loved his etude “Fists of Fury,” especially the middle section played at the high end of the piano that sounds like the first message arriving from an alien civilization.

Another American in Vietnam

Through the @VietnamBlogs Twitter feed, I came across the Antidote to Burnout blog, written by American architect Mel Schenck, who lives & works in HCMC. I was fascinated to read this description of why he came to Vietnam. Though he has come here to live & I only return obsessively & though he is drawn to HCMC & I am drawn to Hanoi, we share an admiration for the energy & creativity & openness of Vietnamese society. From his architectural perspective, Schenck writes:

I believe the Vietnamese have an innate sense of good design that creates sophisticated vibrant colors, patterns, sounds, smells, and tastes in the urban environment. Yes, there is messiness and chaos in Vietnamese urban life, but I sense that is a manifestation of the high energy level. By the time the Vietnamese make the urban environment more orderly and convenient, it is likely the energy level will have decreased with that progress.

This strikes me as both true as description & insightful as analysis. Schenck thearchitectis naturally naturally interested in Vietnamese modernist buildings whereas Duemer the poet is more interested in the amalgamation & layering of old & new structures & the inventiveness of the vernacular. There a lot ofgorgeous pictures of new buildings on Antidote to Burnout. I admire them (both the pictures & the buildings), but I don’t love them. Here’s what I love, at least from the outside:

Vernacular Architecture

Americans in Vietnam seem to be either “northerners” or “southerners,” preferring either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Personally, I much prefer Hanoi, with its old trees, many lakes, twisting streets, & admittedly crazy traffic; but I know plenty of people who prefer HCMC, which is certainly more cosmopolitan (Westernized) & international–it’s a port city, after all. The usual formulation is that Hanoi is the political & cultural capital & HCMC the commercial capital & that’s true as far as it goes. There are no doubt deeper differences–HCMC is more Catholic though at the same time more open to the wilder forms of the Cult of the Holy Mother (thoughcome to think of it this makes sense.) In the south, perhaps it’s the religion that is vernacular & layered, like the architecture in the north.