books in the ‘hood
I paid a first visit this afternoon to Bac Dan’s second-hand bookshop at 352 Thụy Khuê street, Hanoi. This little shop is fairly near my house, and I initially thought it was just the usual kind of small local bookshop that primarily sells and rents cartoons like Doraemon for local kids. In fact, the shelves at the front of the shop are stocked with cartoons, but there is a lot more inside.
I suppose the shop is around 25 square metres in total, with bookshelves down each side and also in a kind of four-sided island in between, with a few odd angles and additional stacks of books here and there. Bắc Dân presides over the shop from a kind of booth just inside the door, which affords her a good view of the shop and street and also provides a counter and extra shelving space for stock.
Bac Dan surrounded by books
There is a lot of material here of different vintages for Vietnamese students of foreign languages, particularly English but also French, Russian and other languages. Some resources are also available for foreigners studying Vietnamese. The shop has the usual basic sections on Vietnamese literature, reference books and particularly school textbooks on various subjects, and a reasonably sized random assortment of foreign novels and other books in English. A particularly random find was a 2006 book on the Sex Pistols in Russian.
There are stacks and stacks of old magazines and journals here, including lots of back issues of various monthly publications such as Văn nghệ (Arts and Literature), Văn học nước ngoài (Foreign Literature), and Thơ (Poetry). I also came across some issues of the teen-oriented music magazine Thế Giới Âm Nhạc (Music World) from the late 1990s with the posters intact, including of course the Backstreet Boys. This may well go some way to explaining why the aging “boys” are playing shows in Hanoi and HCM City next week to their hordes Vietnamese fans now in their late-20s. Perhaps someone could take the poster along to their show and get it autographed?
The oldest books are mainly Russian and Vietnamese. I ended up buying a copy of Marx and Engel’s work Về Văn Học và Nghệ Thuật (On Literature and Art) published by NXB Sự Thật (Truth Publishing House) in 1958. The Foreword to the book is a letter from the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party dated 20th February 1957 and addressed to the 2nd conference of the National Literature and Arts Association. The letter recalls the 12-year period since independence was declared, in which writers and artists contributed to the fighting against the French—some at the cost of their lives—as well as the 3 years since peace and partitioning of the country in 1954. It outlines key tasks for the contribution of literature and arts to building a new revolutionary society in the north, and supporting the efforts for reunification of the country.
Obviously looming large in the minds of both the authors and recipients of this letter were the events of the previous 2-3 years, when the group of writers and artists referred to as the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm group had been critical of restrictions on artistic expression in this new society. These recent events are not named but clearly referenced in the latter part of the letter (in my rough translation):
It is necessary to ensure that good work that is useful to the revolutionary cause is published widely. We resolutely oppose any narrow-minded attitude, factionalism, irresponsibility, abandoning good works, discouraging talent. At the same time we also resolutely oppose irresponsible liberalism that is harmful to the revolutionary cause of our people.
Another important issue is the promotion of healthy criticism. Healthy criticism always enlarges the development of literature and art. The movement for criticism and self-criticism recently helped to identify a number of shortcomings and mistakes in the area of literature and arts that we worked together to repair. But on the other hand, we have also had some deviant phenomena with an incorrect basis and orientation, with a negative impact on the unity of the literature and arts sector. Amongst the people, we apply criticism in order to identify good and interesting products, to address shortcomings, to identify negative products and those that need to be repaired or prevented.
It seems likely that Party theorist Trường Chinh would have been the prime mover in drafting this letter. I happened to find a copy in English of his Selected Writings, published in 1994 by Thế Giới Publishers. Other purchases included an addition to my little collection of the English-language journal Vietnamese Studies edited by Nguyễn Khắc Viện from the 1960s until the early 1980s, namely No. 29: Chemical Warfare (1971). I also picked up a bilingual Vietnamese-English hard cover photo book on The Mường in the Hung Kings’ Ancestral Land, published in 2001 for the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Phú Thọ province.
The stacked shelves at 357 Thụy Khuê
The Hanoi climate is not so kind to books, especially in these open-fronted shops. Everything here is a bit grimy and browsing quickly leaves you with dirty hands. On the other hand, it would probably be hard to find a cheaper bookshop just about anywhere. So if by chance they have what you want, you can expect a very good deal.