Balloon Girl

There are lots of bicycle-based businesses in Vietnam. In the late afternoon on days when there is mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, balloon sellers station themselves around the square so that after mass mothers and fathers can buy a toy for their kids. I snapped this picture on a street leading toward the cathedral.

baloon girl hanoi sm

I’m working on a couple of longer pieces for the blog, but until they are ready I’ll occasionally post photos from my recent trip to Vietnam.

The Sidewalk Poets (VN Diary No. 28)

Just returned from morning coffee with “the sidewalk poets,” an informal group of friends — poets, novelists, editors — who meet in cafes and pass around samizdat copies of poems and stories. They also publish in official channels and actually have a private (non-government) press, called Trash. I’m still digesting a lot of what I heard, but I learned more about contemporary Vietnamese poetry in two hours with these guys than in three weeks knocking on official doors in Hanoi.

The Tale of the Two Spring Hotels (VN Diary No. 27)

I had a post up yesterday briefly about my unpleasant experience checking out of my hotel in Hanoi, but I took it down because I wanted to verify the facts. Here is what happened: While I was still in the US, my friend G booked a room for me at the Spring Hotel No.1, where she has put other foreign visitors in the past. G gave me the email address of the hotel and I wrote to them to arrange a car to pick me up at the airport and to confirm the reservation. In that email, I specifically mentioned that my friend had already booked a room. The car picked me up, but took me, not to the Spring Hotel No. 1, but to the Spring Hotel No. 2, which is owned by the same family, but is more expensive. A lot more expensive. Turns out the two hotels have the same email address and when I emailed, they chose to ignore my information that G had already booked a room and confirmed a price. It was late when I arrived and I had the vague sense that it was not the right address, but it was, I knew, the right neighborhood, so I didn’t worry about it. And I didn’t varify the price because my friend Giang had already told me it was $16 / night. Imagine my surprise yesterday, then, when I was told I had been paying $50 / a night. Now, it’s a nice enough hotel, though there is no restaurant and the service consists of sweeping the floor and making the bed each day, but I have stayed in several hotels in Hanoi and there is absolutely nothing that makes the room I stayed in worth $50. Thirty dollars tops. My friend G agrees with me that the owners took advantage of me and intentionally pulled the switch. So if you’re headed to Hanoi, my advice would be to avoid both the Spring Hotel No. 1 and the Spring Hotel No. 2. They treated me less than honestly.


I hesitate to post this poem, written just this afternoon, fearing that it is insufficiently respectful; but whatever disrespect it exhibits is only an attempt to express a more profound respect. One never gets entirely outside the lecture room, of course; but one chafes. The seat is hard, the oscillating fan insufficient to ventilate the musty smell of old books in a tropical climate.

A Lecture on Vietnamese Culture

The professor tells the visitors
that today they will learn about
the betel leaf and the areca nut,
which is the history of Vietnam

in one small package, he says,
and then recites a song
for his audience, who have
been brought captive by a guide

to listen, though they would
be walking the narrow
streets lost in the heat blinded
by the haze of burning paper

from the temples, the sidewalks
filled with families eating soup
and gossiping, but they will
never be allowed outside —

today it’s the betel leaf
and the areca nut and slaked lime
for them, Vietnam as a quid
pro quo, their being here to hear

the lecture, offered many times
to others and polished smooth
as a Buddha’s toe kissed for
centuries, rubbed for good luck.

They are allowed nothing else.
Not the State’s music spilling
from the loudspeakers nor
the singing from the Cathedral

punctuated by the air horns
of tourist buses and the tinkle
of cyclo bells, the calls of women
hawking fish and fresh bread.

Tomorrow it will be coconuts
and when they are finished with
nuts they will move on to fruit
and flowers. And if they come

every day, before long they will
be allowed to discuss weather
and international relations,
which are very like the betel leaf.

(Hanoi, April 2009)

What Has Changed? (VN Diary No. 19)

When peope I meet — both Vietnamese and Westerners — hear that I have returned to Vietnam after eight years away, they invariably ask what has changed. Much has stayed the same. The essential character of Hanoi is the same, as does the ambience. Folks still spend a great deal of time out on the street because houses and apartments are small and the weather is hot; there are still boradcasts of irritating music and occasional propaganda broadcast over loudspeakes by the state, there are still many poor women who come in from the country every morning carrying two baskets on shoulder poles to sell vegitables, flowers, and other produce; there is still a fair amount of business activity specifically geared to expats and tourists. The traffic is worse, not so much in total volume, but because of the addition of many more cars to the million motorbikes; but it is somewhat better behaved because of the addition of a pretty effective system of traffic lights. It’s still chaotic, but perhaps a little more predictable. Another change is the almost total absence of touts and postcard boys in the center of town; there are still lots of guys lounging on Hondas who will offer to give you a ride — it’s called xe om, meaning hang on — but they are much less aggressive than they were before, asking once and then letting it go. At heart, though, Hanoi remains a cultured, friendly city in a developing country. That’s what I liked about it before and that’s what I still like about it.