books with soul

•July 1, 2013 • 3 Comments

A quick post to spread the word about my new favourite little bookshop in central Vietnam. Chili Books has been open now for about a year at 96 Trần Phú street in Da Nang.

Chili Books in Da Nang

Chili Books in Da Nang

Pretty much one whole wall of the small shop is taken up with Vietnamese translations of international literature. It is an impressive selection for such a small shop, and one of the best showcases I’ve seen lately of the breadth and depth of international literature now available in Vietnamese. Kafka and Nabokov, Kiran Desai and Brett Easton Ellis, John Steinbeck and Herman Hesse, Patrick Süskind and a whole bunch of other more recent authors.

 Nabokov's Lolita in translation

Nabokov’s Lolita in translation

The Game of Thrones series is there, together with J.K. Rowling’s post-Potter book The Casual Vacancy, all in Vietnamese. It looks like the translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, published in Viet Nam earlier this year, has already sold out.

There is a small selection of English-language books at the rear of the shop, heavily weighted towards Nobel Prize winners and similar authors. Novels I’ve read and others that I ought to have read. I’m impressed to find works by Doris Lessing and Jorge Luis Borges here.

Just when I’m wondering if there are any works from Vietnamese authors, I hit the other long wall, which is dominated by a relatively small but very fresh and thoughtful selection of recent Vietnamese fiction, supplemented by a few poetry collections. There is also a book exchange for used books. Towards the rear on this side there is a decent selection of Vietnamese and translated non-fiction works, sitting alongside a bunch of children’s books in translation, including some of my childhood favourites by Astrid Lindgren, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit and A.A. Milne.

Out front of the shop

Books for young people on display out front

I asked Linh, the owner, what inspired her to open Chili. She answered simply that she had studied literature and loves books. Which is pretty much the most obvious and best reason to open a bookshop, I guess. The slogan of the shop, displayed in English above the entrance and on their Facebook page [link], is “From book to soul”.

So what did I buy? Well, first of all a large volume of works by poet Nguyen Duy, taken from his various collections published from 1973 through 1997. And I couldn’t resist the Vietnamese translation of Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Lê’s award winning 2008 collection The Boat (Du thuyền). I have the English original, but hadn’t realized it had been published in Vietnam in 2011.

I balanced this with the English translation of Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần’s 2002 children’s book Open the Window, Eyes Closed (Vừa nhắm mắt vừa mở cửa số). I’ve been on the lookout for this since seeing some excerpts published in an online newspaper.


I also took with me what was probably the oldest book in the shop, a non-fiction work in English printed in 1979 by Progress Publishers, Moscow. As previous posts attest, I’m somewhat obsessed with their books. The Nearest neighbor is 170 km away, by Dutch author Dick Walda, is a sympathetic account of the USSR aimed at a Western European audience, based on the author’s repeated visits.

Skimming the book, it is interesting to see how Walda dealt with the rather thorny issue of State censorship in the USSR. He recounts a discussion with poet Bella Akhmadulina about a poem of hers that had recently been rejected by publishers for being too ‘decadent’. She questioned the decision, but argued for the vitality of poetry in the USSR at that time: “I am convinced that real talent will win through against the bureaucratic obstacles which are sometimes put up”. Walda follows this up with an account of another discussion, this time with poet and writer Bulat Okudzhava:

“Okudzhava was amused when I told him that in the Netherlands there is a committee to fight censorship which, among other things, seeks out books that have not been published in the USSR and publishes them in the West. Okudzhava told me about the contacts he had had with similar unsavoury champions of the freedom of the press. He said he suspected strongly that such people were motivated by the prospect of fat profits for which goal they are not above playing on the pride and ambition of some Soviet writers…”

The final set of books I came away with was the first five volumes of the journal Suoi Nguon, published in 2011 and 2012 in Ho Chi Minh City. Suoi Nguon is produced by the Trung Tâm Dịch Thuật Hán Nôm Huệ Quang (Huệ Quang Centre for Hán Nôm translation). Hán Nôm is a script used in Viet Nam until the 1920s for writing literary works, using both standard classical Chinese characters as well as other characters to represent vernacular Vietnamese vocabulary. The Centre is based in Huệ Quang Pagoda in Tân Phú district of Ho Chi Minh City.

Suoi Nguon journal

Suoi Nguon journal

The scope of the journal seems to be much broader than the study of Hán Nôm, however:

“Suối Nguồn is an academic and ideological product based on the study of Hán Nôm and the fields of Literature, History, Philosophy and Religion, contributing to upholding Buddhist dharma, preserving the national literature and building the culture of the nation, adapted to the new conditions of the times and the specific historical circumstances of the current period of the country.” (From the Foreword, my translation).

The journal very much reminds me of Buddhist publications from Sai Gon in the 1960s and associated with Vạn Hạnh University, where lecturers and writers like Thích Nhất Hạnh and Phạm Công Thiện sought to bridge Eastern and Western philosophy and to apply a kind of engaged Buddhism in the context of politics and violent conflict at that time.

The connection seems to be more than just in the style: the Foreword of the first issue was written by Thích Nhất Hạnh himself, and includes an article on Phạm Công Thiện, exploring his poem Bất nhị and littered with references to some of Phạm Công Thiện’s prime literary interests, including Satre, Heidegger, Neitzche, Krishnamurti, Henry Miller, Nikos Kazantzakis and Phạm Công Thiện’s own contemporary Bùi Giáng.

So that was my visit to Chili Books, and a bit more besides. It reminded me of how much I love small bookshops, where you can least glance at just about every book in the place in a single visit. Chili has an international feel, with an up-to-date selection of translated titles and black-and-white pictures of famous foreign authors above the shelves. It forms its own small world in downtown Da Nang, its borders defined by the careful selection of the works on sale. If you are in the area, go and take a look.

Game of Thrones...

Game of Thrones…

Japanese authors in translation

Japanese authors in translation


the edges of things

•March 24, 2013 • 5 Comments

A cursory glance (mine) at the work of Vietnamese poet Bùi Giáng suggests that he had something of an obsession with littoral spaces. I mean with the edges of things. Coastlines and riverbanks. Changes of the seasons. Thresholds. Points of crossing over. Places on the border between two like or unlike things. Zones that divide, and join. Where things bleed into each other, and may be neither one thing nor the other. Or may be strongly demarcated. Ambiguity and ambivalence. Certainty and precision. Metamorphic spaces. Ruled lines.

The word bờ (coast, bank, shore, edge, rim, hedge, fence…) occurs repeatedly in the titles and contents of his poems: Bờ lúa, Bờ mây, Bờ nước cũ, Bờ xuân, Bờ trần gian… Lines in another poem of his also play with edges and transitions, the early beginnings and late almost endings of the phases of the day (bên chiều) and of the seasons (sớm xuân).

In around June last year I made some rough sketches over a 2-day period towards a translation of one of these poems for a Nối Hà nội spoken word night held at the second incarnation of Nguyễn Quí Đức’s bar Tadioto. The poem, Bờ lúa, was included in Bùi Giáng’s first big collection, Mưa nguồn, published in Saigon in 1962.

The intent of my section of the event was to illustrate one personal translation process as well as to highlight some of the recurring issues and ambiguities in translating poetry from Vietnamese into English. Another kind of bờ perhaps. Participants read different working versions of my translation, moving from a more literal and wordy first or second take to a (hopefully) more polished and compact version that I would like to believe perhaps began in some ways to move back closer to the feel of the original version.

Since then, I’ve been sporadically returning to the poem every few months. Trying different line lengths and arrangements of words. Going back and forward between the different versions. Translations of course are rarely really finished, but I’m ready to rule a line under this one for the moment.


Em chết bên bờ lúa
Để lại trên đường mòn
Một dấu chân bước của
Một bàn chân bé con

Anh qua miền cao nguyên
Nhìn mây trời bữa nọ
Đêm cuồng mưa khóc điên
Trăng cuồng khuya trốn gió

Mười năm sau xuống ruộng
Đếm lại lúa bờ liền
Máu trong mình mòn ruỗng
Xương trong mình rã riêng

Anh đi về đô hội
Ngó phố thị mơ màng
Anh vùi thân trong tội lỗi
Chợt đêm nào gió bờ nọ bay sang


Bùi Giáng, Mưa nguồn, 1962


You died by the rice field
All that was left behind
The single impression
Of a young girl’s foot

I passed through high places
Watching the clouds that day
Wild night crazy rain wept
Midnight moon fled the wind

Ten years on I went back
Counting off fields and banks
My blood was draining out
My bones were all crumbling

I came back to the city
Dreaming, eyeing the streets
I buried my body in sin
At night by that field a sudden wind blew


Bùi Giáng Mưa nguồn, Saigon, 1962

Fishing for Tigers

•October 18, 2012 • 7 Comments

Emily Maguire’s new book Fishing for Tigers made me think, and feel, so much. About living in Hanoi (12 years and counting) and about being an expat. About love, and lust, and being broken, and putting together the pieces. About whether expatriates here are really as much in need of Hanoi as the characters in her book. And, if so, what does that mean, and where does it leave us? About being young, and getting old. About age differences, and trajectories, and who is fucking whom. And about my hometown of Sydney—“cool, spacious and clean”—with its vast and sterile shopping malls, neat and quiet parks and wide, empty footpaths.

Fishing for Tigers book cover

I read it partly in Sydney, and north of there, staying on the coast. And on the ‘plane back. And then, mostly, in Hanoi, in the lovely autumn weather. In small cafes and in my cool, spacious and clean Hanoi apartment. As I read, I remembered sitting with the author a couple of times in Hanoi, over coffee or something stronger, while she was editing the book. I’m unconnected enough to the world of writers to still feel excitement in those flashes of presumed insight, the moments of “I know where that sentence came from. Well, maybe”.

The writing is strong, walking the line between insight-born-of-experience-plus-research and occasional-probably-necessary-cliché, bearing in mind that the intended primary readership does not live in Hanoi. And there are some awesome moments, like this description of a one-night stand when the main character is back in Sydney:

“I went back to his house and we had sex and afterwards I felt my face morph into the same smile I’d had after ordering an omelette and being served a duck foetus at a rural street-food stall. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I was thankful that my blundering attempts at communication had resulted in any food at all.”

Sitting with friends on the pavement on the inevitable small blue plastic stools over glasses of bia tuoi with ice or around a thit bo nuong flame for a meal enhanced with good wine in proper glasses (our latest expat affectation), I found myself talking about this book. Wanting friends here to read it. And occasionally wondering aloud to myself if it was the reason for my feeling more ‘expat’ than usual: frustration at the traffic, and reactions to being misunderstood.

I’m about to set my copy free in Hanoi.

This is a reflection, not a review. So I’m not going to pull out the money quotes, or try to pin down the main themes. You can read the back cover blurb here. I’m just going to offer my opinion that Emily Maguire has clearly done the hard emotional and analytical work of being a writer, first and foremost, and also of being an expat, however temporary, and a self-confessed Hanoi obsessive.

So enough gushing. Get your hands on a copy and read it!

Tran Huy Lieu book street, HCM City

•June 25, 2012 • 1 Comment

A few spare moments during a work trip to Ho Chi Minh City back in late April allowed a visit to another of the city’s book streets. After quite a few more moments since returning north, here is the Hanoi Ink rundown on Trần Huy Liệu street in Phú Nhuận district.

Duy Tue book shop

The first place I came to, Duy Tuệ Book Shop at 175 Trần Huy Liệu, would have to be the neatest and best-organized second-hand book shop I’ve ever been into in Vietnam. So much so that at first glance I assumed they only sold new books. But the sign out front said old books (sách cũ), so in I went. It turned out that all of the stock was second-hand, although the books were almost all in very good condition and arranged carefully on the shelves without any over-stocking. They were mostly fairly recent publications, and I didn’t find too much of interest, other than a series of miniature poetry collections by a wide range of famous Vietnamese poets, including Nguyễn Khuyến, Xuân Quỳnh, Nguyễn Bính, Xuân Diệu, Tản Đà and Hồ Xuân Hương.

Miniature poetry books from HCM City

It was starting to rain, so I hurried across to the General Old Book Shop 160 (Sách cũ tổng hợp 160). This was also fairly carefully arranged, but as usual the shelves were pretty overstocked, with piles of books reaching to the ceiling. I spent a fair bit of time browsing here, and left with a bunch of different books including a 1985 Vietnamese edition of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1950s book Thời gian để sống và thời gian để chết (Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, i.e. Time to Live and Time to Die) which I grabbed for a friend in Hanoi who is on a one-person mission to popularize this author in Vietnam. I also found a few more of the poetry miniatures, including collections from Chế Lan Viên and Hàn Mặc Tử from the Bình Định group of poets.


The next shop along, at 198 Trần Huy Liệu, was a bit of a disaster zone, with books and magazines piled up everywhere in a very haphazard fashion. To be honest, this kind of arrangement always raises my hopes of some random find, a forgotten treasure buried under the pulp fiction and back issues of current magazines. And while I didn’t really have the serious time required for this kind of excavation, I did find a few interesting things, including an English-language collection of poems from Soviet Tatar poet Mussa Jalil (Musa Cälil) that was probably my favourite purchase of the day. The collection was published by Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1981.

As a young man, Musa Cälil wrote revolutionary poetry and joined an underground Komsomol cell in his hometown of Orenburg in 1919. His poems were published in Tatar during the 1920s, and then in Russian translations during the 1930s. During WWII, he volunteered for the Red Army, and was captured by the Germans together with his unit in June 1942. As the Germans sought to form anti-Soviet national legions from the Eastern European nationals in their POW camps, he undertook resistance activities against the Nazis under an assumed name, infiltrating a newspaper and printing anti-fascist leaflets. He was arrested for these activities in August 1943, imprisoned in Moabit Prison in Berlin, and finally executed by the Nazis a year later, on August 25, 1944.

Musa Cälil’s poems written during his imprisonment were preserved by two other Tatar prisoners, and eventually published after the war as Moabit Däftäre (The Moabit Notebooks). He was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union award for his resistance activities, and the Lenin Prize for his poetry.

You can read the Foreword to the English anthology by Raphael Mustafin here. The English translations generally follow a fairly forced and simplistic rhyming scheme and honestly don’t read that well. I would love to know more about his use of Tatar language, what traditions he drew on, what forms he used, and what innovations he made.


The English anthology includes many of his Moabit poems, which generally express his bravery and commitment in the face of imprisonment and his death sentence. But the poem that particularly caught my eye was written in 1932, looking back more than a decade to his youth and early political activities, with a very sweet and human aspect. In translation it opens like this:

I imagine it was quite amusing

Our puppy YCLer* crush.

Members of one regional committee,

To the congress we were being rushed.

I recall

The train in clouds of freezing vapour

And us freezing under one fur coat.

(Excerpt from Our Love by Musa Cälil)

*YCL = Komsomol i.e. Communist Youth Union.

In this book shop I also picked up an old Soviet atlas and a slim, beautifully designed and extremely fiery undated but presumably 1960s publication from l’action etudiante contre l’oppression, denouncing imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, social injustice, totalitarianism and militarism in South Africa, Algeria, Nicaragua, Spain, Haiti, Angola, Mozambique and a bunch of other countries.

Based on information here it seems possible that a publication like this may have had Soviet funding. Although there is also an article strongly opposing totalitarianism and state interference in universities in East Germany…

1960s international student publication


Book Shop 207 had probably the most interesting books and magazines of all the shops I visited on this street. They directed me first to a bunch of English-language novels halfway down the shop by authors including J.D. Salinger, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert, Chinua Achebe and a bunch of others.  They seemed pretty aware of their authors, also, noting the ones I was interested in and bringing out similar stuff. It was a bit like being plugged into the old Gnod music database, or “Customers who bought this item also bought…”. The books were not in pristine condition but were pretty reasonably priced with some gorgeous cover art, and my stack of purchases was becoming a small hill at this point.

The book shop at 207 Tran Huy Lieu street

They weren’t done with me yet, though. The next stop in this shop was a series of stacks of magazines, including a very few pre-1975 publications and several different and very attractive sets of Soviet magazines from the late 1970s and 1980s. Seeing my interest in old magazines, they pulled out a bunch of smaller pre-1975 Saigon periodicals.

The most interesting of these was Edition 12 from April 1966 of the Vạn Hạnh journal, presumably linked to Vạn Hạnh pagoda and the former Vạn Hạnh university in Saigon. The university was established by Thích Minh Châu, and is notable for its association with 1960s faculty members such as Thích Nhất Hạnh—Martin Luther King Jr.’s nomination for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize—and Phạm Công Thiện.


The title of Volume 12, executed on the cover and spine in very simple calligraphy without any illustration, is Nghĩ về chiến tranh Việt nam (Thinking about the war in Vietnam). I may come back to this in a future post.

I also went into the shop next door, however a quick look didn’t really turn up anything new. One common feature of the bookshops along this street, neat or otherwise, was the friendliness of the shopkeepers. They were also very helpful in trying to work out what I was after, noting my purchases from earlier shops and bringing out similar stuff. But by this stage I was pretty much done, and very hungry, so I headed back to District 1.

piled up books in Hue

•May 10, 2012 • 2 Comments

A recent work trip took me through Huế a few days ahead of the biannual Hue Festival. Having performed at the festival a few years back, I was a bit nostalgic seeing all the preparations underway. One big improvement since that time is that they have moved the festival from June to April, when it is much less hot. It was a bit of a killer performing outside in the heat, and not so great for the audience either.

This time I was on a short work visit with a pretty full schedule, but I was keen to sneak away for an hour or so looking for a few old bookshops I had read about online.

The first of these, Hoàng Thổ Book Shop, was not so difficult to find. It is located on Hùng Vương street, in a small row of shops more-or-less opposite the Thừa Thiên-Huế Radio and Television (TRT) building, and just down from the Hue Pedagogical College (Trường Cao Đẳng Sư Phạm Huế).

Once inside the shop, however, actually finding out what was there was not so easy. The shelves are very full, with some very precarious stacks (it is possible that I may have precipitated a small avalanche at one point). On quite a few shelves, including most of the Vietnamese literature section, the stock is stacked in piles with the spines not facing outwards, making it very difficult to browse.

Hoang Tho book shop, Hue

I think my camera is losing focus 😦

Curiously, the bookshop had what was probably the smallest collection of English and other foreign-language fiction I have yet encountered in a second-hand bookshop in Vietnam. Mr. Huy, the owner, pulled out a couple of half-boxes: maybe 40 books in all, in a mix of languages. There was a bit of an African American theme in one box, with works including the 1964 book The Negro in America by Arnold Marshall Rose, as well as the predicable Roots by Alex Hayley alongside a much less predictable Dutch language edition of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, The Heart of a Woman (Het Hart Van Den Vrouw).

The shop is apparently pretty active about re-binding books, with a large proportion of the books in re-taped bindings with hand-written titles on the spines. A couple of the English-language novels had apparently lost their title pages along with the covers before being repaired, as they had been re-bound with the carefully handwritten book titles “Preface” or “Contents” on the new cover and spine.

I didn’t find anything too amazing here, but walked away with a bunch of books anyway, including couple of different soft-cover high school textbook editions of Nguyễn Du’s classic Truyện Kiều from 1972 and 1984, and a collection of essays from 2003 on the poet Chế Lan Viên.

I also grabbed a German edition of Phạm Thị Hoài’s 1995 short story collection Sonntagsmenü (Sunday Menu) which I plan to pass on to a German friend in Hanoi. And a copy of poet Xuân Diệu’s Công việc làm thơ (The work of writing poetry) from 1984 for another friend who collects his books.

My final finds were a couple more charming publications from the former USSR. The first was a bit surprising: I grew up reading Gerald Durrell’s books, starting with My Family and Other Animals, and it turns out that so did probably many children in Russia. But still it is interesting that back in 1969 there was an English-language version of his 1961 book The Whispering Land published by Education Publishers (Издательство “просвещение”) in Moscow.

The second of these Soviet finds was Fata Morgana and Other Stories, an English-language collection of translated stories by the 19th and early 20th century Ukrainian author Mikhailo Kotsyubinsky, published by Dnipro Publishers in Kiev in 1980. A socialist and a contemporary and friend of Russian author Maxim Gorky, Kotsyubinsky’s writings drew on Ukrainian rural society. He contributed to the development of various literary styles including ethnographic realism, modernism and impressionism. His work was later honored in the Soviet Union during the period when social realism (i.e. “social romanticism”) was the dominant literary form.

At a little over 100 pages in this edition, the main story in the collection, Fata Morgana, is set in the Ukraine in first years of the 20th century. It recounts a story of the peasant families living in a village by a large landed estate who, together with similar villages all over the country, are beginning to move towards political awareness and direct action against the landlords and factory owners. Their efforts dissolve into nothing, however, due to lack of organization and because many people just want either to wreck and loot the estates and factories that have oppressed them, to secure slightly better terms to their oppression, or just to have a small piece of land for themselves. The ending is brutal. The message of the book is that a complete transformation is needed, not these short-sighted and piecemeal efforts chasing after a mirage, a “fata morgana”.

There is a lot in Mikhailo Kotsyubinsky’s writing that reminds me of Vietnam’s early efforts towards similar socially engaged pre-revolutionary writing, such as Nguyễn Công Hoan’s Bước đường cùng (Impasse) and – Ngô Tất Tố’s Tắt đèn (The light is out) from the late 1930s.

I had to cut short my browsing in the Vietnamese literature section to rush back to a meeting. Having come across vague rumours of another bookshop on Phan Bội Châu street, as well as some sidewalk sellers on Nguyễn Trường Tộ, I stole a half hour more at the end of the day looking for these, without success: the bookshop was not to be found and the evening rain washed away my hopes of any sidewalk finds.

by the eastern door: philosopher-poet Pham Cong Thien

•March 8, 2012 • 4 Comments

The third and final post in my current brief exploration of southern poetry focuses on Phạm Công Thiện, a poet, scholar, essayist and translator who wrote and lectured extensively on philosophy and Buddhism. Today is the first anniversary of his death.

I first heard about Phạm Công Thiện after he passed away in Houston, Texas on March 8, 2011. One of the members of the Vietnam Studies Group email list posted some brief information about his passing, with a link to his Wikipedia entry in Vietnamese. Almost immediately, others on the list responded, pointing out the errors and exaggeration in the Wikipedia entry: he did not, they contended, actually become a professor at Van Hanh University in Saigon at the age of 19, or have responsibility for formulating the whole curriculum of the university. They also highlighted some of the more overweening statements attributed to him: “Socrates the most stupid” and “Goethe and Dante the ignorant buffoons”.

Pham Cong Thien

Others responded, largely accepting these corrections and related points, but also noting his prodigious talent at a young age, his seemingly extraordinary capacity for languages, and his contributions to translating European philosophers into Vietnamese together with bold and innovative critical analysis of their ideas. These contributors, including some of his former students, emphasized his profound and inspiring capacity as a writer and a speaker, and in particular his ability to provide wide-ranging analyses of Western philosophers and ultimately to connect these Western ideas with Eastern philosophy, bringing his Vietnamese audience back to their own roots. Along with Bùi Giáng he seems to have been a kind of Young Turk interpreting Western philosophy and literature at that time: the enfant terrible of the active Saigon literary scene in the late 1960s.

Phạm Công Thiện was born in Mỹ Tho in 1941. His Anh ngữ Tính âm Từ điển (Dictionary of English Linguistics and Phonetics) was published in 1957 when he was just 16 years old. His published works in the 1960s included Ý thức mới trong văn nghệ và triết học (New Thoughts in Literature and Philosophy) from 1965 and Hố thẳm của tư tưởng (The Abyss of Ideas) from 1967. He also wrote about and translated the works of authors including Henry Miller, Rainer Maria Rilke and Krishnamurti.

He was appointed Lecturer in Philosophy and later Dean of the Faculty of Literature and at Van Hanh University in Saigon during the second half of the 1960s, despite his young age and never having completed his high school diploma. He left Vietnam in the early 1970s, living thereafter in a number of different countries including the United States.

More details on his life and work are given in this condolence notice from The Writer’s Post (scroll down to around half way down the page).

The discussion on the academic list evolved to a particular focus on an excerpt from one of his poems from around 1966, entitled Ngày sanh của rắn (The snake’s day of birth). These lines seemed to have had a profound impact on some of the list members as young students in the south, staying with them ever since. In the words of one list member, they became her lullaby: “a perfect encapsulation of the inner conflict of the time – the strife between East and West, the unrelenting discord, and the gentle, hard-won denouement at the end. In poetry, there is resolution!”

Ngay Sanh Cua Ran by Pham Cong Thien

“Ngày sanh của rắn” by Phạm Công Thiện

A few people on the list spontaneously offered their own attempts at an English translation. The translation that seemed to resonate most with commentators on the email list came from current Hanoi resident Nguyễn Quí Đức. A while back, he was kind enough to consent for me to post his translation on Hanoi Ink, so here it is, together with Phạm Công Thiện’s original.

An excerpt from the poem Ngày sanh của rắn by Phạm Công Thiện:

“Bất nhị” (Not Two)

Mười năm qua gió thổi đồi tây
Tôi long đong theo bóng chim gầy
Một sớm em về ru giấc ngủ
Bông trời bay trắng cả rừng cây

Gió thổi đồi tây hay đồi đông
Hiu hắt quê hương bến cỏ hồng
Trong mơ em vẫn còn bên cửa
Tôi đứng trên đồi mây trổ bông

Gió thổi đồi thu qua đồi thông
Mưa hạ ly hương nước ngược dòng
Tôi đau trong tiếng gà xơ xác
Một sớm bông hồng nở cửa đông.


And Nguyen Qui Duc’s translation:

For ten years, a wind has stayed on the western hill,
I’ve stayed unsteady as a scrawny bird’s shadow.
You appeared early one morning, a lullaby,
The entire forest turning white with the clouds.

Wind on western hill, on eastern,
The homeland a fragile gathering of rose-colored grass.
You stand, in dream, still by the door
Me, atop the hill, under clouds in bloom.

A wind takes autumn across to the pine hill–
That summer’s separation, rain fell against the stream,
A rooster crowed while I held my pain,
And a winter rose bloomed by the eastern door.


Pham Cong Thien publications

Various editions of original works and translations by Pham Cong Thien

poet suburbia: kicking around Quy Nhon

•February 23, 2012 • 2 Comments

Before the third entry in my little tour of southern poetry, I’m going to make a slight detour to write about a bookshop that I recently found while escaping grey Hanoi for the sunshine on the south-central coast.

Right before the lunar year just over 12 months ago, I made a trip to Quy Nhơn in Bình Định province and took the opportunity to visit Quy Hòa, where poet Hàn Mặc Tử spent the final years of his life, as well as his tomb at Ghềnh Ráng. Quy Nhơn and the surrounding areas have a lot of literary connections, particularly due to the Bình Định group of poets: Hàn Mặc Tử, Chế Lan Viên, Quách Tấn and Yến Lan. It is common to see lines of poetry in calligraphy hanging on the walls of cafes and shops throughout the city and its surrounding areas.

Returning to Quy Nhơn a year later, I thought I should make a bit more of a serious search for bookshops. Quy Nhơn has the usual well-stocked FAHASA bookshop downtown, but previously I had been unable to track down any old bookshops. I scoured the internet, asked local friends and drove around without success, but finally by chance a wrong turn quite close to my hotel took me past the second-hand bookshop at 116 Tăng Bạt Hổ street.

Mr. Thành inside his bookshop

Mr. Thành in his bookshop at 116 Tăng Bạt Hổ street, Quy Nhơn 

The bookseller, Mr. Thành, was very friendly and keen to share his life experiences in and around Binh Dinh province, including some interesting stories of his youth as well as photos and certificates of his extended family members living in Philadelphia in the United States. Mr. Thành also writes poetry, and he showed me some of his pieces published in local collections on his hometown of Quy Nhơn, on Christmas Day, and on the grave of Hàn Mặc Tử.

As Mr. Thành pointed out several times while I browsed, the majority of the stock in the bookshop is more suitable to students, with the usual range of textbooks and resources for learning English. As far as foreign language materials, aside from various ESL resources I saw a few old books in French, as well as some novels and a couple of beautifully illustrated children’s books in Russian.

Learning that I was interested in old books, Mr. Thành insisted on giving me a souvenir of my visit: a copy of Carl Jung’s Essai d’exploration de l’inconscient, translated by Vũ Đình Lưu and published as Thăm dò tim thc by Hoang Dong Phuong Publishing House in Saigon in 1967. Apparently this Vietnamese translation pre-dated the English edition, under the title Man and His Symbols, by around a decade.

I also explored the fairly dusty contents of an old glass-fronted cabinet that seemed to be the literature section. There was quite a large range of Russian novels in Vietnamese, with a fair number of different authors in this somewhat tattered selection. There were a few other foreign books published in Vietnam in the 1980s as well. The strong cover art of the Vietnamese edition of Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy caught my eye, as well as the first copies of works by Herman Hesse that I’ve seen here in translation.

Mr. Thanh in front of his bookshop

Mr. Thành in front of his bookshop

I found a copy of Eric Maria Remarque’s 1945 novel Arc de Triomphe, translated from the French with reference to the Russian edition as well, and published in 1988 under the title Khi Hoàn Môn. I picked this up for a friend in Hanoi who is interested in his books. Jules Verne and a couple of other American names rounded out the collection of translated literature.

The rest of the cabinet contained Vietnamese novels. I chose a couple of volumes by Nguyễn Khải, the first of which contained two of his novels, Gp g cui năm from 1981 and Thi Gian Ca Ngưi from 1983. Gp g cui năm is one of the still relatively few Vietnamese novels available in English. It was translated by Phan Thanh Hao and Wayne Karlin and published by Curbstone Press in the United States in 2001 under the title Past Continuous as part of their Voices from Vietnam series. I previously wrote a bit more about the English translation, including a rough recollection of the main characters, in the comments section of this post. This joint volume was published in 1987, with a print run of 50,000 copies, which was a pretty large number for that time. Together with this book I found a copy of his 1987 book Vòng Sóng Dến Vô Cùng.

I also picked up a couple of 1980s reprints of stories by two key authors from the 1930s. The first of these was Khái Hưng’s Na Chng Xuân from 1934. Khái Hưng was a co-founder of the Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliance Literary Movement) in 1933 together with the writer Nhất Linh, and was one of Vietnam’s most famous writers in the 1930s.  There is a bit more information on him, as well as a translation of one of his short stories from 1939, here.

Book press in Quy Nhon

This old book press from Hong Kong is still getting plenty of use in Quy Nhơn

The other book was Thế Lữ’s Truyn Chn Lc (Selected Stories), with several of his stories from the 1930s and 1940s. A poet and a playwright, Thế Lữ was well known within the New Poetry movement and also a member of Tự Lực văn đoàn. He joined the revolution alongside other poets and writers associated with that group, including the famous 1930s poet Xuân Diệu. In the early 1950s these writers severed their ties with that movement and subjected their work of that period to criticism as not conforming to the tenets of socialist realism, and being corrupted by individualism and a desire for fame.

These two volumes, published in 1987 and 1989, really symbolize for me the dynamism of the late 1980s, where there seems to have been an incredible output of both old and new Vietnamese works being published alongside a wide range of translated foreign works following the adoption of the Đi mi policy. I guess these may have been among the first reprints of these works in several decades.

Cover of Co Be Treo Mung by Hoang Ngoc Tuan

Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn’s short story collection Cô Bé Treo Mùng, published in Saigon in 1972

The final book that I picked up was Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn’s collection of short stories Cô Bé Treo Mùng, published in Saigon in 1972. I was initially attracted to this volume by its really gorgeous cover art. Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn seems to have been a prolific writer in the south in the early 1970s, with four collections of stories published by Trí Đăng Publishing House within a couple of years. Apparently the author has been living in Australia since 1983. There is more information about his more recent publications here.

flowers and grass: poet Bui Giang

•February 7, 2012 • 13 Comments

My previous post ended with a prediction that the next stop on my little tour of southern poetry would be the “brilliantly mad” Bùi Giáng. So here I am, weeks later, having spend quite some time grappling with a small translation project on one of his poems: eight short lines, challenging to tease out but also quite entrancing.

First, a bit about this prolific poet, scholar, philosopher, literary critic, translator and essayist; a goat herder who would neither sell nor kill his goats, and a beatnik wanderer.

Poet Bui Giang

Bui Giang was born in Duy Xuyen district of Quang Nam province in central Vietnam in late 1926. His father was of the 16th generation of the Bùi lineage in Quang Nam, with the only two-story house in Thanh Chau village. In 1939 he entered the Thuan Hoa School in Hue, where his teachers included renowned scholars such as Cao Xuan Huy, Hoai Thanh and Dao Duy Anh. Despite the turmoil of war and the Japanese occupation, he managed to graduate in 1945. He returned home, married, and became famous locally as the young man who grazed his beloved herd of goats in the mountains with a thick French book in his hand.

In 1949 he joined the war against France, serving with a unit of army engineers. Having completed a special course organized by Military Region V, in around 1950 he was selected to undertake further study and set out on foot from Quang Nam to Ha Tinh. The journey took more than one and a half months, but after reaching his destination Bui Giang decided to abandon his studies and return home. He undertook further studies on literature in Hue in around 1952. In 1956, after the death of his wife due to illness, he finally left the central region and moved to Saigon. Apparently, he again abandoned university studies and worked independently as a poet, scholar, writer, translator and private teacher. In addition to French he taught himself German, and translated Heidegger, Camus and other Western authors. His first major poetry collection, Mưa nguồn, was published in Saigon in 1962.

In 1965, the poet’s house burnt down, destroying many of his manuscripts. In 1969 he entered what he described as his period of “brilliant madness”, leaving home to wander through southern provinces such as Long Xuyen. In 1971 he returned to live in Saigon. His translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince was first published in Saigon in 1973.

He continued to live rough at times, and became a legendary figure in Saigon’s literary circles. Linh Dinh’s 2010 novel, Love Like Hate, provides further information on Bui Giang’s upbringing in Quang Nam and paints a vivid picture of the poet towards the end of his life. He died of a stroke in HCM City in 1998, a couple of months short of his 72nd birthday.

Bui Giang has been getting quite a bit of attention lately in Vietnam. His poems are again being read and discussed. Various artworks inspired by his life and writing have been exhibited in the south, and a seminar on his poetry was recently held at the French Cultural Centre in Hanoi.

Bui Giang writes from an existentialist perspective, and his poems are abstract, non-linear and even illogical. His language is very evocative, but also obscure and maybe archaic in some cases, with borrowings from Nguyen Du’s Truyện Kiều and probably some phrases of his own creation. I had been warned that his poems are difficult to understand even in their original language, ambiguous and open to different interpretation by each reader, and hence basically untranslatable. So of course I thought I’d take a look for myself.

The mountains of Duy Xuyen district, Quang Nam

  Looking across the river from Hoi An to the mountains of Quang Nam where Bui Giang herded goats

Some poets make their name with, or are particularly known for, just one or a few of their poems. Bui Giang wrote a large number of poems, and seems to be more famous for his collections overall than for individual poems. It was hard to pin down which were considered the most significant. His poem Nỗi lòng Tô Vũ, based on his experiences herding goats in the mountains of his homeland, is often mentioned. But it runs to 60 lines, and after the warnings I had received it seemed a bit ambitious to take on a poem of this length first up. In the end, I chose another poem from his first major collection, Mưa nguồn. At only eight lines long, and with an intriguing title that seemed to preempt his later wanderings, Cỏ Hoa Hồn Du Mục (Nomadic Soul of Flowers and Grass) felt like as good a place as any to make a start.

In Vietnamese the poem has no punctuation marks at all, enhancing the ambiguity of lines that basically put a series of sometimes-obscure individual and compound words together. Time takes footsteps, softly falling water echoes to the mountain tops, and we are told to listen to the sky.

The biggest challenge came at the end of the first line, with the compound nguyên khê. I was quite stumped by this, and the Vietnamese friends I initially queried were also at a loss. Google just pointed me to the name of a location near Hanoi and a bunch of real estate advertisements. For a long time I had to put it aside while working on the rest of the poem. Finally, a couple of well-read friends came up with suggestions that were confirmed through a friend by a teacher of literature: together the two words imply something like a spring welling up from the foot of the mountains. The simple ‘mountain spring’ felt too straightforward compared to the original. I considered something like ‘tor burn’, somewhat obscure words in English with a similar meaning. But I wasn’t completely comfortable with the implication of a Scottish or English setting. Considering karst limestone a more appropriate landscape for Vietnam, I came across the topographical term karst fenster, meaning “a place where an underground stream emerges onto the surface between layers of rock, cascades some feet, then disappears back down, often into a sinkhole”, which seemed quite suitable given the following line.

For the second line, I was at least able to work out a basic literal meaning: golden words/sounds (Tiếng vàng) | falling (from the beautifully expressive construction rụng rớt gieo) | and then động xanh, two words that I seem to encounter quite often in Vietnamese poems: the noun động meaning cave/grotto/void, however with its adjective here xanh posing a bit more of a question. Xanh as a colour covers both blue and green, with the precise shade determined either by context alone or by a further qualifier (grass-green, ocean-blue, etc.). When the particular shade is unclear, blue-green or teal are the cop-out options. But xanh can also mean young or fresh, particularly in poetry. In this case I went back and forth between different options, finally aiming for both meanings with ‘verdant’.

Another challenge was bóng cành in the third line, however I happened to come across the same compound in Truyện Kiều, in the line Tường đông lay động bóng cành, rendered as “Then on the eastern wall the shadows of the branches danced”.

The fifth line was also difficult, and once again I relied in the end on guidance from a friend, who suggested that references to sông (river) and bến (wharf, jetty) were linked to the tears (khóc) of a nomad at the pain of departure and forever traveling in unfamiliar places far from home.

The poem is written in the lục bát (6-8) form, and the first six lines at least follow the standard rhyming pattern: i.e. the 6th syllable of the first line (khê) rhymes with the 6th syllable of the second line (về), while the 8th syllable of the second line (xanh) rhymes with the 6th syllable of the third line (cành) and hence with the 6th syllable of the following line as well (thành), and so on. He also follows the standard rules for tones that apply to lục bát forms, based on the designation of the six Vietnamese tones as either flat (bằng) or sharp (trắc).

While the final two lines have the expected number of syllables and tonal concordance, they do not seem to follow the rhyming scheme so closely. I am not sure whether the poet is deliberately breaking rhyme here, or whether xuân, đồng and em are considered to be acceptable ‘poor rhymes’ (vần nghèo).

Aside from the lục bát form, similar sounds are also repeated in slightly modified forms in these compact rhymes, with different meanings: bên and bến, as well as động and đồng (and also rộng, sông, ruộng…).

In my translation I did consider adopting some kind of fixed metre and rhyming scheme, but ultimately decided against it, as it was pretty much beyond me, and was forcing both the meaning and tone of the poem in English in undesirable directions.

So here is the poem, and my translation. I’m hoping that if you can imagine this written in a formal (and quite complex) rhyming and tonal format, using evocative, impressionistic and sometimes obscure and confusing language that is open to different interpretations and prompts varied responses, then just maybe it is the beginning of an opening into Bui Giang’s poetry.

Cỏ Hoa Hồn Du Mục

Bùi Giáng

Nghe trời đổ lộn nguyên khê
Tiếng vàng rụng rớt gieo về động xanh
Gót chân khơi rộng bóng cành
Nhịp vang đầu núi vọng thành lũy siêu
Thời gian chắc bước bên chiều
Khóc sông bến lạ mưa chiều sớm xuân
Cỏ hoa từ bỏ ruộng đồng
Hồn du mục cũ xa gần hử em


Nomadic Soul of Flowers and Grass

Bui Giang

Hear the sky and gushing fenster blend
Golden sounds fall into a verdant void
Heel-dug hollow in the shadow of branches
Reverberating to the peaks, echoing to the ramparts
Time treads firmly in the gloom of ending day
Tears flow at an unfamiliar pier; late rain in early spring
Flowers and grass forsake their meadows
The ancient nomadic spirit is everywhere my love


I’m posting here with some trepidation, as I really struggled with this translation. And I’m expecting some push back from more capable users than I of one or both languages. I hope you will let me know what you think in the comments. But please be gentle!

a southern deluge

•January 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment

[Lately, I seem unable to escape the pull of Ho Chi Minh City and the south. This is probably the first of three entries that are in some way or other related to southern poetry.]

This is not an entry about The DelugeNew Vietnamese Poetry, the English-language anthology of Vietnamese poetry translated by Linh Dinh that Vietnamese-American poet Hai-Dang Phan writes about in this recent essay for Asymptote Journal. It can’t be, really, as the anthology itself won’t be available until later this year. (Hai-Dang Phan’s essay will apparently be the introduction to the anthology.) So lets just say that it is a reflection on his essay, which is a long and very worthwhile read in itself.

Obviously Hai-Dang Phan’s introductory essay got me thinking. For days. I love writing like this: well-written, thoughtful and sincere, informed by a wide range of sources, and about a topic I’m deeply interested in. Best of all, he is not just writing stuff that confirms my existing opinions or biases. In some ways quite the opposite in fact. Hence the days of thinking.

I read it straining to see Vietnam through the author’s eyes. At least until after the half-way mark, it felt like I was looking through a backward telescope, all circular borders and reverse magnification, with no overall sense of the wider scene. Peephole glimpses of both the anthology and of Vietnam itself. At some point I realized I was maybe looking for more of a catalogue, an explanation, even a taxonomy of the anthology contents and what they have to say about Vietnam right now. A Wikipedia entry perhaps?

I wondered what this said about me. Particularly when, in fact, among many, many other things he does offer lists of poets, and categorizations:

“This anthology consists of twelve poets living and writing in Vietnam, and of nearly an equal number overseas. Also, nearly half represent the generation who witnessed the war in Vietnam as either civilians or combatants, and the other half the generation who either grew up or were born after the war.”

Maybe it is just that I am proving one of Hai-Dang Phan’s key points. That—apart from Bui Chat and Ly Doi from the Mở Miệng (Open Mouth) group and a couple of others—I am not familiar enough with poets rarely published here to quickly assimilate his ideas into my existing reference points and mental maps. A poet’s name is also a shorthand for his writing and experience; not recognizing enough names or having the anthology itself in hand I’m somewhat broadsided.

He writes of visiting bookshops in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, looking for evidence of the state of things, much as I do and probably equally obsessively. Though to some extent it feels like we are in different Vietnams, noticing different authors, drawing different conclusions. Perhaps we are just drawn to different embers, hoping to fan different sparks into flame in our search for heat and light. I have some small advantages, time in country and some inside access to Hanoi political culture. And my life was not torn asunder by this all before I was even born. But those things of course are also half my problem, with the other half being the persisting language barrier. Clearly the balance of clear-sightedness is tilted in his favor.

And Hai-Dang Phan is certainly aiming for balance in his comments on Vietnam here and now and developments over the past couple decades. His paralleled “it must be admitted… it must be admitted…” tracks this, weighing the reality of opening up against ongoing constraints. He quotes in support a northern émigré voice, Pham Thi Hoai no less, with her wry comparison of the different extents to which domestic products (“bath soap, toothbrushes and tampons”) and culture have been privatized. But it leaves me, admittedly long enmeshed in Hanoi politics and perspectives, wanting a more precise definition of the direction and pace of change and endpoints that diaspora poets and writers would commit to and applaud.

A decade ago, the direction of change seemed to me, from my limited personal perspective sitting in Hanoi, to be all positive. The only real argument was over the pace. But things are becoming much more complicated now as the market starts to bite. Better and worse, better and worse, all the time. Though sometimes it seems like the debate over culture is whether to acknowledge the worse, to bring it into creative works and then maybe to start to grapple with it and transform it. Countered as ever with the concern that bringing such ugly realities into so-called ‘pure’ literary forms both debases those forms and popularizes ugliness. That is kind of how I see the debate over Nguyen Thanh Phong’s recent book of illustrated slang, and it maybe also explains the current suspension of its distribution.

Hai-Dang Phan doesn’t say much about the Vietnamese language of these domestic and diaspora poets. I want to know more about his: how do they draw on, and maybe play with, older forms, currents and traditions in Vietnamese poetry? If I recall correctly, Ho Xuan Huong’s exquisite command of language carved a space for her poems, despite their racy half-hidden meanings (okay, maybe also because of them). Do these poets make a way for themselves, and their ideas, through a breathtaking mastery of Vietnamese language? I really hope we will see Vietnamese originals alongside translations when the anthology comes out.

Linh Dinh apparently worked on these translations while staying in HCM City in daily contact with many of the Vietnam-based poets. I’m deeply curious about Linh Dinh’s translation process: How far has he come with “relearning” Vietnamese? Did any of the poets (including those born or educated outside Vietnam and presumably in at least most cases fluent in English) comment directly on his translations of their work? What were his, and maybe their, key struggles and contentions in the always contested terrain of translation?

There is clearly an aspiration to share southern writing. Hai-Dang Phan states that southern voices were written out of the national literature after 1975, noting the exception of Bui Giang. In fairness, he also alludes to northern voices, Hoang Cam and others, that were basically unheard for decades after the 1950s. But these northern poets at least have been given some attention of late. And I guess he captures what I also see, 1930s writings being re-loved and reconsidered as Vietnam again grapples with how far to embrace the West, and 1950s poets being published, read and discussed again though mostly now posthumously.

Some of the hard work of reconciliation of different perspectives seems to be underway currently, at least looking backwards. I hope that this anthology, though published in English and overseas, becomes a part of what is being and must eventually be reconciled. Especially as this essay has been translated into Vietnamese by Hanoi lecturer in literature Hải Ngọc. And Hai-Dang Phan’s own English-language poetry has also been translated into Vietnamese. As Hai-Dang Phan notes, Vietnamese literature is online and finding life in Paris, Sydney, Berlin and of course the US. Though always, and most importantly, in Vietnam itself.

As for me, Hai-Dang Phan’s article pushes me into an area that has been hovering at the back of my mind for quite a while. The feeling that I should seek out more new poetry here, although I’m pretty much assuming that translation of modern forms into English will be beyond me. Nguyen Qui Duc’s translations of another southern poet, Vu Thanh Son, one of which he read at the recent Noi Ha Noi spoken word event, have given me a similar push. Though if I’m completely honest my historical bias will probably take me first to a poet whose works are still widely available and apparently undergoing something of a revival, the “brilliantly mad” Bui Giang, characterized by Hai-Dang Phan as “perhaps the closest thing Vietnam has ever produced to a beatnik poet”.

anthology smackdown

•January 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I recently (well, kind of recently) wrote on Hanoi Grapevine about Strange Roots: Views of Hanoi, an anthology of expatriate writing from the Hanoi Writers’ Collective. That anthology inspired me to dig through my library and various boxes of old stuff looking for my copy of another Hanoi anthology, Once A Book A Time, edited by Elliot Samuels and Connla Stokes in 2003.

The Hanoi Grapevine piece was kind of long and hence posted in three parts. You can read about the new anthology in Part 1, some amateur historifying about the earlier anthology in Part 2, and then of course the head-to-head anthology smackdown section (well, a bit of a comparison at least) in Part 3.

As a kind of companion post, here are some photos of various Tay Nostalgia items I dug out while searching through my rather dusty and disorganized archives.

Books and other literary products of the Hanoi expats

Books, postcards and Connla Stokes’ manifesto ‘The Necessity for Flippancy’. On a bookmark!

Muc: What's on in Hanoi, circa 2002

Copies of Muc, the Hanoi weekly event listing from back when it all fit on a narrow folded strip of paper. Circa 2002.

Hanoi self-published book covers

Self-published books from 2002 and 2003. For the chap-book connoisseurs and trainspotters, printing and binding were carried out by a permanently pajama-clad chap down a small alley off Hang Bong street, using some kind of vinyl sourced from Ha Trung street.