No. 5 Bat Dan street
Like most journeys, this one has many starting points. But I am more than happy to nominate Nhà Sách Cũ at No. 5 Bat Dan street as my point of departure. A true old quarter institution operating out of a private house, it has the reputation as the king of old bookshops in Hanoi.
I had been warned of somewhat irregular opening hours. Arriving to a half-open door, I was waved inside with a smile, and invited to wander among the books on the ground floor while waiting for the owner to return.
The ground floor room has bookshelves on three sides: history and geography, ethnography and folklore, politics and international relations. Mostly Vietnamese, with a scattering of Russian, French and English titles. One section is devoted to a kind of area studies, giving the history of the Party and the revolution in different provinces and districts, rural communes and urban wards.
Scanning a book on Vietnamese diplomacy over the 5 decades from independence, I come across a reference to Watergate (Oa-tơ-ghêt). The view from Hanoi as those events unfolded must surely have been one of the most interesting of all, with more at stake even than for Nixon and the others with their dirty hands in Washington. It reminds me of stumbling across the alternate speech written for Nixon before his 1974 resignation under threat of impeachment, the one with the inspired defense of his presidency, explaining why he must not resign for the sake of the institution of President and national interest. I try to remember those two speeches—the one he gave and the one he didn’t—as an example of how words can bend to any cause.
I return the book to the shelf as the owner arrives. Mr. Phan Trác Cảnh is in every sense an old Hanoian, with an obvious passion for the books around him. The kind of person who welcomes you as an honored guest on the first visit, and an old friend on the second.
Through a mixture of his French and my Vietnamese we reach an understanding: I am interested in literature. We climb a couple of flights of stairs to another room full of books, more in French here and occasional titles in English. But still mostly in Vietnamese: more folklore and ethnographic studies, a full wall on literary criticism. Old newspapers and journals from the war era framed above the bookshelves proclaim victory and liberation. Particular titles are produced on request from yet other rooms after a moment’s thought.
In the end I depart with several volumes:
- Tô Hoài, Sổ tay viết văn (A Writing Handbook), 1977
- Vũ Trọng Phụng, Kỹ nghệ lấy Tây (The Industry of Marrying a Westerner), 1936
- Nguyễn Khắc Viện and Hữu Ngọc (eds.) Vietnamese Literature: Historical Context and Texts
- Yevgeny Kobelev, Hồ Chí Minh, 1989
- John F. Embree and Lillian Ota Dotson, Bibliography of the Peoples and Cultures of Mainland South East Asia, 1950
More on all these later.