Saigon Ink #2: the bookshop at 738 Cach mang thang 8 street
The second post on Hanoi Ink’s recent visit to HCM City. Read the first post here.
I found the bookshop at 738 Cách mạng tháng 8 street in District 10 completely by chance. Actually, a friend was taking me to some shop he found on this street that apparently has an enormous range of hats for sale at cheap prices. (Hats? books? each to their own I guess.) Anyway, the hat shop was closed and we passed by without realizing it. About a kilometre further along we noticed this old bookshop and stopped for a look.
The shop was quite well stocked and had the intangible but immediately recognizable feel of a decent second-hand bookshop. The shopkeeper was very reserved, however, and in the end I did not take any pictures at all, even from the outside, as she was really not keen. She said that she did not want to attract foreign customers, as she could not speak English.
I found a couple of intriguing thin volumes in French here from the 1960s with the publisher indicated as South Vietnam: Liberation (Gia Phong) Editions.
The first of these—La Fleur sauvage, 94 pages—was published in 1969. It is a collection of five stories about women working for the resistance in the south, written by various authors during the 1960s. The eponymous story of the collection by Dương Thị Minh Hương describes a troop of exhausted soldiers travelling through an area subject to frequent bombing by US B.52 planes, guided by Phuoc, a young girl from the resistance in the local area. Aware of the grave risk, she hurries the exhausted soldiers along despite their requests for a break. At first they are critical of her, but when heavy bombing starts on a section of the trail that they have recently passed, they realize her value. Phuoc’s description of the wildflowers she gathers along the trail becomes a metaphor for the young women like herself who are participating in the resistance despite the great risks and hardships involved:
“Elles ont l’apparence fragile, mais elles résistent à la tempête et aux averses les plus violentes.” (“They appear fragile, but they resist storms and the most violent downpours.”)
The second book, Cette voie qui fut la tienne (maybe something like “The path that he took”) tells the story of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, a member of the NLF who was captured in Saigon in 1963 while attempting to assassinate visiting US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and future ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Nguyễn Văn Trỗi was executed by the southern regime in 1964 at 17 years old, dying bravely and becoming the first NLF member to be publicly executed.
South Vietnam: Liberation (Gia Phong) Editions: printed in Hanoi and carried south?
I first became aware of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi through a striking picture of him at his execution that was included in a recent pictorial retrospective of the war on a Vietnamese online news site. While his case was largely ignored in the Western media, he remains well known in Vietnam where he is portrayed as a hero and national martyr. The book was written by his widow, Phan Thị Quyên, in 1965 and published in various languages, including this French edition as well as an English edition with the title Nguyen Van Troi As He Was.
A while ago in Hanoi I came across volume one of Nguyen Trung Thanh’s book Dat Quang: A South Vietnamese Novel, which was published in 1974 by the same publishing house. I have been wondering since then whether that book, which clearly paints a positive picture of the southern resistance, could really in fact have been printed in the south prior to 1975, either legally or clandestinely in Saigon or inside an NLF base. The improbability of this is noted in this bibliography of Vietnamese resources, which suggests that books from this publisher were most likely printed in Hanoi. Presumably they were then carried south down the Ho Chi Minh trail for distribution.
I picked up a copy of The Victorious Tay Nguyen Campaign, by Major-General Hoang Minh Thao, published in English by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Hanoi in 1979. This effectively serves as a companion volume to General Van Tien Dung’s Our Great Spring Victory, giving a more detailed account on the campaign in the Central Highlands region, with its unique population, geography and history. I’m not expecting detailed insights into the Central Highlands from this book, but maybe some insights into Vietnamese military perceptions of the region as an important context for subsequent developments including the armed conflict with FULRO forces from 1975 through the early 1990s and the increasing economic exploitation of the area during the same period, as well as more recent events in Tay Nguyen.
I was also able to add to my collection of the Vietnamese Studies series edited by Nguyễn Khắc Viện, including No. 6: Health Organization in the D.R.V. (1965) and No. 45: Saigon (i): From the beginnings to 1945 (1977).