small is beautiful
Giang Bookshop is located at 27D Ngô Thì Nhậm street, about a block south of the Youth Theater. The shop is narrow, at most two metres wide, with shelves lining the walls along each side. Space is really tight here, and there are small piles of books on the floor and above the stairs connecting the floors.
The awning above the shopfront indicates that the shop buys, sells and exchanges books on research, literature, history, culture, science and technology, economics, foreign literature and reference books. In fact, they have second hand magazines and some comic books also. While I am there someone comes by with a stack of books and magazines to sell to the shop. A set of scales are standing by for items priced by weight.
The room downstairs is dominated by books aimed at Vietnamese students of English and other foreign languages: primers, dictionaries and dated reference works. Works here also for foreign students, Vietnamese dictionaries for many foreign languages including Han Chinese, Indonesian, Spanish, Russian and Thai. I call a friend to ask if he wants a H’mong-Kinh dictionary for a children’s book being developed by a literacy project working in the northern mountains, but it turns out his interest in H’mong language does not extend that far.
It is the upstairs floor that interests me most. Entering from the stairwell, the shelves on the left contain assorted foreign language books, mostly English with French, Russian and other languages mixed in. No real order here, books catch your eye at random. The Ethical Slut and the Bob Dylan Chronicles compete with Dostoevsky in English and Dickens in French. Jeffrey Archer sits next to Flaubert; Tom Clancy slouches on the shelf along from Edward Said and John Steinbeck.
I find a copy of Max Havelaar by Multatuli, an important Dutch novel and one of the earliest and most interesting critiques of Western colonialism. I’ve been wanting to read it ever since coming across references to it in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet from Indonesia years ago. I also grab a novel by Australian author (and former seminarian) Morris West, whom I have been wanting to read for his insights into the power structures within the Vatican. A steal at 70,000 VND for the pair.
This floor also has a fairly large section on language exercises, both for Vietnamese students of English, and foreigners learning Vietnamese. The Vietnamese literature section has some poetry and literary criticism, but the range is neither extensive nor particularly amazing. Cartoons loosely tied with string are piled up near the stairs, including a couple of stacks of Archie comics published in Vietnamese a few years ago. Also an interesting array of foreign literature translated into Vietnamese from English and other languages during the 1980s and 1990s. I add to my pile a couple of anthologies from Văn Học (Culture) Publishing House published in 1976 on patriotic poems from 1858-1900 and patriotic and revolutionary poems from 1900-1930.
The place is small enough to browse without feeling overwhelmed, and Mr. Giang is very friendly and keen to attract more foreign customers. Despite my purchases of the two anthologies this is not really the first place I would come seeking Vietnamese literature. But for foreign language books it is really worth a look – especially given the prices.