Someday I’ll have to put the check-in procedures at Noi Bai into a story — no one would believe it as non-fiction travel writing. I always start too early for the airport, but today my early start paid off. Traffic was bad on the drive out of Hanoi and there was chaos at the airport as hundreds of Vietnamese workers on labor contracts were processed through to Cambodia and Laos. Their extended families came to see them off. And of course I had excess baggage, then there was no ticket number in the system for me. At various points I was separated from both my baggage and my passport for varying lengths of time. In any case, I’m now drinking iced coffee in the airport’s internet cafe, so all is well. And I must give the Vietnam Airline staff people props. I was frustrated and sweating, but they were calm and professional amid the chaos. Must be because they get a lot of practice driving to work!
Well, it took me a bit longer to recover than I’d anticipated and now I’m taking electrolytes and acidophilus to recover from the antibiotics. Ah, the joys of foreign travel! This morning, though, I feel great and even though it is blazingly hot alread at ten in the morning, I’m going to head out and buy gifts for friends and a couple of things for the house. I often get discounts in the shops as a reward from my efforts to speak Vietnamese, but I find that the closer I get to going home the more I find myself falling back on English.
I’ve had a good and relatively productive trip, but I’m feeling ready to come home. When I was younger, I loved travel and always fantasized about “getting away,” but these days my instincts are profoundly domestic. I’m looking forward to gettng home to Carole and the dogs; I want to plant some herbs and peppers while it’s still early enough in the year; and I am anxious to sit in my own little study and write — I’ve filled a notebook here, but I can’t really do serious writing while I’m traveling.
Well, all the preparation is complete. I’ve picked up my travel funds from the university, gotten travelers checks, made sure my prescriptions are filled, taken my old car to the dealer who has my new one on order, packed most of my things, sent all the necessary emails, and now I feel as if I am on a little vacation before I go on Tuesday. My trip is shaping up a little differently than I had originally expected, its shape determined to some extent by who can help me and who is available to meet with. I’ll probably spend a bit less time in Hanoi and a bit more in HCMC, with a few days in Hue it now appears. I spent a couple of lovely days in Hue in 1998, so I’m looking forward to getting to meet writers there. And I have a strong bias toward Hanoi and the north, so it will be good to explore the virtues of HCMC and the south. With luck I will get out to Chau Doc to see the Lady of the Realm, the center of a relatively new cult in Vietnam, which is famous for inventing a wild variety of syncretic religions. I’m curious about the degree to which a tendency toward syncretic pragmatism might affect contemporary Vietnamese writers.
I guess I could have begun counting from the final day of classes last semester, but today is the first day I would have gone into the classroom had I been teaching, so this feels like the first official day of my sabbatical. Have I said that I am wildly grateful for such a luxury? If I haven’t, I am. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are losing their jobs, don’t have health insurance, lack adequate housing, etc., to be paid to sit home & think feels almost immoral. Perhaps that’s an old streak of Protestantism coming to the surface; if so, it’s a reminder that Protestantism was originally about social justice and individual dignity / responsibility. The best way I can see to redeem — don’t you love how the religious vocabulary emerges? — my time is to make effective use of it. So far, this has been a pretty lazy winter break: I’ve done a lot of reading, but dropped studying Vietnamese; I wrote a couple of stories, but haven’t looked at any of my poems in weeks; I’ve shoveled a good deal of snow, but I have been very lazy in the kitchen, falling into auto-cook mode most of the time.
I’m going to try to blog regularly during the sabbatical, mostly as a form of self-discipline & self-reflection. I’m not oing to make any foolhardy commitments to post something every day, but that will be my goal, even if it’s just a squib or a report on local bird life or what I cooked for dinner. With luck, there will also be more substantial bits as well. Anyway, it’s cold & snowy this morning & I probably won’t go farther afield today than the post office (though Carole is heading off to work in a few minutes), so the weather is cooperating: no excuse but to get some real work done.
As I prepare to go to Vietnam in the spring, I have been in contact with friends there, asking them about poetry in contemporary Vietnam. Part of my project involves interviewing Vietnamese poets and that means thinking of the sorts of questions I want to ask. I know a bit about the history of Vietnam and its literature, particularly in the 20th century, but I want to know how that history is affecting the making of poems now, in the first decade of the 21st century. Here is a first pass at some questions, or pre-questions — the sort of questions I need to ask in order to find out what the real questions are:
- Who are the most interesting poets now working in Vietnam?
- To what extent is contemporary Vietnamese poetry connected to the poetry of the past?
- What is the nature of the connection, to the extent that it exists?
- Do contemporary poets make use of the extensive folk traditions, for example, of Ca Dao?
- What has been the effect of urbanization of Vietnamese poetry over the last twenty years or so?
- Have the changes in the Vietnamese economy over the last generation affected Vietnamese poets?
- Are there marked generational differences among younger and older Vietnamese poets?
- To what extent are Vietnamese poets aware of and interested in poetries in other languages?
Those are the questions I’ll be asking poets I already know as I get ready to go to Vietnam; presumably, these questions will lead to others that are more detailed and take into account the individual situations of the writers I’ll be meeting. If anyone happens by this space who has answers to the questions posed above, please feel free to chime in.
One of the perks of being a college professor is paid travel. Yes, you have to write the grant, but when you go it is on someone else’s dime. And of course you have to have some project and come back and write it up, but most of us consider that an additional benefit. We like writing stuff up, that’s why we became academics in the first place. All of which is by way of preview to announcing that I will be returning to Vietnam this spring for a six-week visit. I’ll be spending most of my time in Hanoi, where I lived what I was a Fulbright scholar in 2000-2001, but I’ll also be going to the south. My plan is to record interviews with Vietnamese poets and collect poems for translation. I am particularly interested in placing contemporary Vietnamese poetry in its cultural and historical context. Vietnamese culture has long venerated the art of poetry above all others and I am interested to see how that attitude is holding up in the globalizing market economy that has taken hold with a vengeance in VN over the last fifteen years of so.
On a personal level, I feel a deep connection with the city of Hanoi. Unaccountably, living there I felt at home. Perhaps because I was free to be a flâneur, roaming the city at will & mostly without a need to do more than show up occasionaly at the offices of the publishing house where I was acting as an editor / consultant. In fact, all the freedom made me a little crazed at times, given to fits of obsessive compulsive walking. For a few weeks I went about in a kind of flaming daze, before returning to myself shortly before coming back to the states. Even that was lovely, in its way — “I have a great capacity for joy,” I repeated to myself incessantly as I walked the tree-lined streets and narrow back alleys of Thanh Long, the city of the rising dragon.