sun, surf, sand and…books?
A recent work trip took me to Nha Trang on the south-central coast of Vietnam. The city is mostly famous for its beachfront, bay and various resorts, and for hosting seemingly endless beauty pageants over the past few years. It is not really known as a centre of books and writing, but as usual I thought I would steal a few moments to see what was around.
An online search before departing did not turn up any references to old bookshops in the city, apart from a book exchange in the backpacker area. Based on experiences elsewhere, I was pretty sure there must be at least something to find. With a few spare hours on Sunday afternoon I drove around a bit, passing the usual large Phuong Nam bookstore and café near the central railway station, as well as the FAHASA bookshop with its gorgeous retro façade. But there was almost nothing suggesting a trade in used books.
FAHASA bookshop in Nha Trang: new stock behind an old façade
Nha Trang is quite a bit smaller than Can Tho or Danang, and it is not really known as a university town apart from the Nha Trang Pasteur Institute, established by French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin, and the Nha Trang Oceanography Institute and Marine Animal Museum. Driving back and forth around the main grid of streets in the city centre, past the Cham temple to Po Nagar north of the city centre and then back along the beach, I didn’t even really see any of the usual small suburban bookshops that mainly subsist by renting out Doraemon comics, although Nha Trang is fairly spread out and I certainly didn’t come close to reaching every street.
Finally I came across Mr. Nghe selling books on the sidewalk not far from the centre of town. His stock mainly consisted of new or near-new Vietnamese language books, primarily foreign titles in translation but a few Vietnamese authors as well. He also had a stack of used magazines and (mostly) children’s books and comics. I purchased a volume of Nguyen Cong Hoan’s short stories and asked him about the second-hand bookshop scene in the city; he basically indicated that he was it.
Mr. Nghe sells books on the sidewalk
With my day job demanding most of my remaining time, I was contemplating defeat until I came across a brief entry from 2009 on a local Nha Trang internet forum by a Mr. Van of Trúc Vân Bookshop, listing several old books for sale, together with his address and phone number. I sent a message to the number, and shortly afterward Mr. Van called me back and invited me to visit his home.
Mr. Van’s house (131/68/38A Duong 2 Thang 4, P. Van Thang, Nha Trang) is reached through a series of connecting narrow lanes, which are a bit confusing at first but not too difficult if you are basically familiar with the normal system of numbering lanes, sub-lanes and houses in Vietnam. If you call in advance, Mr. Van will send his granddaughter to wait for you where you turn into the first lane from the main road.
Originally from Nam Dinh in the Red River Delta, Mr. Van retains a northern accent. He explained that he previously had a shop dealing in second-hand books in Nha Trang town centre; however in 2006 he developed heart troubles and had to close the shop. He has relocated his remaining stock to his home, where he is happy to welcome visitors who are interested in old books.
He invited me to take as much time as I liked browsing through his bookshelves, and I suppose I went through around 300 or so books, including several binders with fragile older volumes and some quite old magazines.
Retired bookseller Mr. Van at home in Nha Trang
Compared to other shops I have visited elsewhere, I found quite a lot of books printed in the south before 1975, including long-discontinued magazines, periodicals and pamphlets from Saigon and several versions of Nguyen Du’s Truyen Kieu from the 1960s.
A surprising number of the books and pamphlets of different vintages here dating from the 1950s onwards had a focus on discovering people’s destiny and character through palm-reading and other forms of fortune telling, including a whole series of the early 1970s weekly Saigon magazine Huyền Bí (The Occult). This magazine, running to about 30 pages each week, included articles on different fortune telling practices such as palm-reading, the zodiac and Egyptian tarot cards. The cover of each edition featured a famous Vietnamese female singer of the period; the edition then provided a detailed analysis of the singer’s fortune applying the techniques promoted in the magazine. Different editions also analyzed the fortunes of famous (and infamous) personalities including former RVN President Ngo Dinh Diem as well as Adolf Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun.
Huyen Bi (Occult) magazine: Khanh Ly, famous singer of Trinh Cong Son’s compositions, is on the right
Sitting alongside the lunar calendars for calculating fortunes each year were various old Buddhist and Christian books and pamphlets. Mr. Van has the usual stacks of dictionaries, as well as quite a few reference books and teaching materials on learning Han Chinese.
I found an undated quarto-sized children’s book on the life of Ho Chi Minh (Bác Hồ Kính Yêu) printed in the USSR with a range of stories and illustrations that my colleagues remembered well, dating probably from the late 1970s. There was also a Handbook on the Ethnic Groups of Vietnam (Sổ Tay về các Dân Tộc ở Việt nam) compiled by the Institute of Ethnology in Hanoi and published by NXB Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi in 1983. And several pamphlets with famous old stories in poem form such as part one of Phạm Công – Cúc Hoa, a 4,610-line poem in lục bát form written in the 18th century. These pamphlets were printed by Phạm Văn Cường Bookshop at 171 Đại lộ Khổng Tử, Cholon in the 1960s, with lovely wood-block style cover art.
Books from Mr. Van in Nha Trang
Other items that caught my eye included a Vietnamese translation of Herbert N. Casson’s 1932 book The Art of Handling People (with the title Thuật Dụng Người), published in 1955 by P. Văn Tươi publishing house in Saigon, and a massively thick mid-20th century Larousse encyclopedia on France.
Mr. Van also took me through his house to a second set of shelves in an open-walled back room with had a few hundred more books, but I only had time for a quick look here, noting volume after volume of the works of Lenin, the usual pulp fiction and mafia stories in translation, school textbooks and some more recent magazines.
In the end, I departed with a set of the Huyền Bí magazines, the Ho Chi Minh book, the story pamphlets, the handbook on ethnic groups, and some other miscellaneous items that caught my eye. Mr. Van also gave me an old set of postcards with pictures of Ho Chi Minh, printed in HCM City in 1997. I remember the somewhat notorious postcard sellers of Hoan Kiem late hawking these to tourists when I first arrived in Hanoi more than a decade ago. Familiar items that you take for granted until, encountered again by chance, you realize they are no longer around.