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.
Arrived after a day and a half in transit, my back aching and my legs a little wobbly, but in good spirits. I’m staying in the same hotel as last spring and it feels as if I’ve hardly been away. On the drive in from the airport — through the Red river swamps and paddies and orchards — I no longer have the sense of having been dropped into an alien world. Photos from the new Nikon coming soon. Time to hit the sack and see if I can get my body onto local time.
I’m sitting in the Syracuse airport waiting to get on the plane to JFK and thence to Anchorage, Taipei, and then Hanoi on Christmas day. It’s snowing, but they are keeping the runways clear and the flights are running on time or just a little late, so I don’t have the sense that I’m going to be stranded.
Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.
I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more intensely religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)
I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others interested in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.