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.
In Hanoi, lots of businesses are conducted from bicycles. Here, a merchant is selling ceramics carefully tied to her bike and balanced so that she can still ride even with a load that must be a couple of hundred pounds. Most of the pottery like this is made in the Village of Bat Trang outside the city, where the industry served the court in the 18th century, then the colonial urban elite in the 19th and 20th; now, after the revolution, when there was very little production, the industry has revived in a big way, selling mostly inexpensive wares for everyday use. But the Vietnamese have a higly developed sense of style and even ordinary objects are designed and decorated with care. It’s one of the things I like best about Vietnam.
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.
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.
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]