Well, the full craziness of taking a two-week trip to Vietnam over Christmas break has now sunk in, at least partly. It will fully sink in, I suppose, next week when I am in the think of grading final exams and essays. I wouldn’t have chosen to make a trip like this at this time, but I really could not turn down the invitation from the Writer’s Association. And it will be good to meet others interested in Vietnamese literature in translation — there will be writers and scholars from Japan and China as well as the US. I’m also looking forward to some real down-home Vietnamese feasts — when I’ve been out with folks from the Association previously, they took me to some of the best places in Hanoi, often around corners and down alleys where I never would have found them. So, I’m feeling like a very lucky man, but also anticipating being exhausted when I return to my classes, which will have begun without me! Thanks to the internet and helpful colleagues, I’ll be able to kick my Understanding Vietnam class off with films and an online chat.
1. I just heard that I’m going to have two poems in The Georgia Review.
2. It looks very likely that I will be taking a group of Clarkson students to Vietnam next May.
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!
I’ve been sitting in the Vancouver BC airport for four hours after flying in from Ottawa. My flight to Hong Kong doesn’t leave for another four hours and lasts thirteen hours! Yikes! Then I have to hang around the HK airport for several hours before flying to Hanoi. I’m unlikely to have a working brain cell by the time I get there. Had a lovely drive to the airport with Carole today — we left early enough to stop on the Black Dog Cafe in Manotick for lunch. It’s one of our favorite places and it set me up nicely for my flight. I had a window seat for this leg of my journey and the approach to Vancouver over the Cascades was breathtaking — sheer snowy ridges receding into the distance, then giving way to the green lowland plain. Breathtaking. I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen on my iPod and reading a Patrick O’Brien sea novel, “The Truelove,” which has the virtue of holding one’s attention without taxing it. also picked up a volume of Margaret Atwood short stories that I’m looking forward to.
A couple of disappointments to report: The workshop on political poetry I was going to give at the University of Minnesota was cancelled for lack of students — I’m consoling myself that it’s the tough economy. I had also just sent off a book proposal to Oxford University Press for a little book about Vietnam and got a response today saying that it’s a great idea, which is why they recently accepted a similar proposal. I’ll send it elsewhere, but I think it would have been perfect in Oxford’s elegant series of Very Short Introductions. I have only myself to blame — I thought of this a couple of years ago but only recently typed up a proposal and sent it off. Poor timing is in some ways the story of my life.
Yesterday was the day the Vietnamese officially* celebrate the founding of the nation by honoring the Hung Kings and so I am starting my VN diary on — or at least near — an auspicious day a week before I leave the US. The goldfinches have begun turning gold here in South Colton, but yesterday rain mixed with snow splattered out of the sky all day and then last night turned to snow. It is still snowing. We have about six inches of heavy wet snow on the ground this morning. I’m ready for some warm weather, which will really be getting going by the time I arrive in Hanoi, though I’ll also be heading into the summer monsoon season, so it’s going to be wet. But it will also be green, which will be a relief after the long winter and recent brown thaw here.
So what is it about Vietnam? The history with the US makes it an interesting place, of course, fraught with analytical and moral peril; but for me that’s not really the center of my interest. Dana Sachs says simply what I have tried to say in various complicated ways over the years, that Vietnamese society is different and appealing even while it is strange and sometimes difficult for an American. I wrote a diffuse and impressionistic response to Vietnam during my second trip to Hanoi ten years ago, but rereading it now I have the sense that I was skating over the surface, imposing my patterns of perception on the my experience of the city. [That page of diary entries is, I see, a hodgepodge of things written at different times over two trips -- not sure how that particular document came into existence: I was writing for a now-defunct poetry magazine. --jd] I touch on some of this nystery† in a light-hearted way in my recent interview with Ly Lan.
What draws me? Something that seems at once completely clear and at the same time obscure. There is one paragraph from those earlier diary entries that I would keep:
With Dao Kim Hoa Iíve just finished translating five poems by Huu Thinh and I may have learned more about Vietnam from this process than I did in my two months in the country. What I learned, however, seems impossible to describe. Literally impossible. I can tell you about the tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter, and I can tell you about the riverside cafes of Hoi An; I can even have a shot at describing the sense of holiness I felt visiting a little pagoda of no particular significance out among the orchards of the central coast. I could tell you how the older monk laughed with me when we managed to piece together a few sentence in “Vietlish” about the beauty of the evening, and how the two young monks stood smiling among the fruit trees in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary. I could tell you about the lunch prepared by the boatmanís wife on the Perfume River outside Hue. But the mental and spiritual world I have just begun to see into by learning the language is completely beyond my powers of description. Every time I open my Vietnamese dictionary I feel as if I have been granted access to a world that until three years ago might as well have been in another galaxy.
In recent weeks I have been intensifying my study of Vietnamese and over the last few days have begun to understand sentences. This makes me very happy and I think represents a new set of possibilities for my understanding of Vietnam and of Vietnamese poetry.I’m going to try to write something here nearly every day during my travels in the coming weeks.
*The festival itself is scheduled according to the lunar calendar, but the national holiday occurs on April 6th each year on the Gregorian calendar for the convenience of businesses and government offices.