in search of southern treasure

Escaping cold Hanoi for the lovely weather in Ho Chi Minh City, I stole a few hours to visit Quang Huy bookshop.

One of the better known traders in rare and second-hand books in Ho Chi Minh City, Quang Huy is located on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai street, one of several famous ‘book streets’ in the city. The bookshops are clustered together near the start of the street, close to the intersection of Districts 1, 3, 5 and 10.

Bookshops on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai street

Bookshops on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai street

Quang Huy is a reasonably sized shop, although the huge volume of books here means that everything is pretty tight. There is an incredible range of books: hundreds of manuals and text books of different vintages in Vietnamese, English and other languages; high quality boxed sets of Vietnamese literary surveys and annual publications; a very large wall full of dictionaries; and of course in English the usual set of potboilers and pulp fiction interspersed with occasional classics and modern gems.

The shop has been famous in the past for its range of antique books from both the pre-colonial and colonial periods. The word around town is that not much is still available, and that what is left is now very highly priced. Certainly I came across some gorgeous and interesting books in French from the 1940s and 1950s, but they were rather few and far between, with prices starting at around 1 million VND. I will probably write a separate entry at some point on the book Chasses et Faune d’Indochine in the picture below.

Mid-20th century French books in Quang Huy bookshop

Mid-20th century French books, some published in Saigon

There is a rough order overall, although within each section and stack there is still usually quite a range of authors, genres, topics and periods. Narrow aisles and very tall stacks of books mean that it is actually quite hard to browse here. I prefer to pick out odd titles with interesting covers at random and to flick through the pages to get a feel for what I’m looking at, but trying that here risks setting off a small avalanche of books. After my first near catastrophe the very friendly staff made a gentle but firm suggestion that I just point out the volumes I wanted to look at, taking a lot of the spontaneity out of the browsing experience.

In the end I settled on two volumes in English: Essays on Vietnamese Music by Đào Trọng Từ, Huy Trân and Tú Ngọc, published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi in 1984, and Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam by General Văn Tiến Dũng, originally published as Đại thắng mùa xuân in 1977, with this translation by John Spragens, Jr. published in 2000 by Thế Giới Publishers in Hanoi.

Quang Huy bookshop, HCM City

Inside Huy Quang Bookshop, HCM City

It was a bit embarrassing to realize that I had traveled down to Ho Chi Minh City  just to purchase books published in Hanoi.

I tried to make up for this somewhat by going to one of the neighboring book shops dealing in new books and purchasing the short story collection Cánh đông bất tận (Endless Fields) by Cà Mau author Nguyễn Ngọc Tư. She is the current star of the Vietnamese literary scene: the title story in this volume was the basis for a play produced at the Small Stage Theater in Ho Chi Minh City in 2009 and more recently was adapted for the big screen. The film released in 2010 stars Dustin Nguyen and Đỗ Thị Hải Yến and has been screened at various international festivals under the English title Floating Lives. Evidently it was not my fate to completely shake my “northern roots”, however: when I asked for the business card of this shop it turned out to be called Hanoi Books (Sách Hà Nội).

Hanoi Bookshop, HCM City

Ground floor of Hanoi Books on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai street

Meeting by chance with a Hanoian friend who recently moved to HCM City (lately this seems to be quite the thing to do), she offered to take me to Xưa&Nay (Then and Now) bookshop on Bạch Mã street in District 10. Unfortunately by the time we found this little street the shop was closed. I had hoped to visit some of the other main book streets in the city, like Trần Nhân Tôn and Trần Huy Liệu, but that will need to wait for another visit.

~ by hanoi ink on January 18, 2011.

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