Attended the opening ceremony of the translation conference this morning — hundreds of people in the new, monumental National Convention Center. There was dancing and singing and speech-making and then lunch. I met a lot of the writers — American and Vietnamese — that I’ve corresponded with over the years, or seen in passing on one of my trips. I’m not crazy about being stuck out at the West Lake compound, but I’ve been able to get off on my own enough to get some work done on the classes I will begin teaching next week. And I’ll spend the last couple of days of my trip back down town, so it’s all good. I feel energized and excited about developing some translation projects, work that will begin tomorrow when we begin doing small-scale workshops.
My Vietnamese must be improving. Walking back to my hotel after dinner this evening, I watched as a big garbage truck picked up the Vietnamese version of dumpsters and without thinking about it read the motto on the side of the truck: Green — Clean — Beautiful. Civic uplift is the same everywhere, apparently. And during dinner I was able to tell in a rough way what the Vietnamese couple seated near me were talking about.
It’s a blustery evening in Hanoi. I’m sitting in a cafe near the cathedral drinking tea and watching the world go by. I’m much looser, less brittle, than on my last trip, who knows why? But I’m definitely living in calmer psychic weather, even as the leathery leaves of the trees along the street whip around and tear loose, swirling through the neon dusk. Trees and lakes and a tragic history: this is a poet’s city.
Walked around the Old Quarter this afternoon, but didn’t take the camera — just wanted to stroll about and stare at things. I did find a market I want to get some pictures of, though, if only to demonstrate to my students the, let us say, catholic range of Vietnamese foodstuffs. Lots of eels and crabs and fish and frogs and all manner of fowl as well and all of them alive in basins, tubs, and cages: this is a cook’s city.
I went into the cathedral here in Hanoi for the first time yesterday. I’ve photographed its exterior before, but was never drawn to go inside. It’s Gothic interior is restrained and there are large stained glass windows in the nave. Below is a picture from my first walk in the city on Christmas evening, then a shot of the interior taken the next day.
I am well and truly here, now that I have had my first cup of cafe nau nong–literally, hot brown coffee–at a cafe beside Hoan Kiem Lake. On my first morning in Hanoi, almost fourteen years ago now, I stumbled out of my hotel and found a small cafe, where I had my first taste of Vietnamese coffee and ever since then I have associated the taste of sweet strong coffee with this city. At home, I drink my coffee black, but here I have cafe nau nong, a small cup of black coffee which conceals a dollop of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom of the cup. Stirred up, the milk just barely changes the color of the coffee from black to dark brown. After my coffee and a croissant I strolled slowly around the familiar streets north of the lake, an old gentleman in a black fedora. From the side or back, I might have been mistaken for a Vietnamese grandfather taking his morning constitutional–well, if I had been wearing my belt up around my navel, that is.