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.
Ekleksographia is a very cool new online poetry publication. And I’m not just saying that because my friend Anny Ballardini has selected some work of mine to appear in the forthcoming issue. The inimitable Jesse Glass of Ahadada Books is the spirit behind the effort and as with all his projects, Ek (as I am affectionately calling it), has a smart/sweet (as in sweet spot) vibe to it. Ek has the potential to be the new century’s Kayak. And not just because of the letter K, either. Anny has selected the opening section of my version of the 18th century Vietnamese poem, The Lament of the Soldier’s Wife (Chinh Phu Ngam), which I had worked on years ago when I was in Vietnam and recently pulled out again to see if I could get back into it — the original is more than 800 lines long!
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.
The taxi’s route to the airport passes through a number of suburban neighborhoods of varying degrees of prosperity and in each I noticed well cared for dogs on people’s stoops. I’d noticed this in Hanoi, too, and it was one of the differences from eight years ago, when the few pet dogs I saw looked skinny and flea-bitten. Then there are the jokes about eating dog meat, but that practice seems to be receeding to the margins, confined mostly to older men concerned about their verility. In the old days, I never saw anyone walking a dog on a lead, but the practice has become fairly common in Hanoi, where, in the mornings, people go down to the lake to exercise, many taking their dogs, who for the most part sit quietly waiting for their masters to finish their calesthenics or their badmitton game. The happy and contented dogs are a mark of increasing prosperity, I think. For purely sentimental reasons, I’m happy to see the change.
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!