poet suburbia: kicking around Quy Nhon

Before the third entry in my little tour of southern poetry, I’m going to make a slight detour to write about a bookshop that I recently found while escaping grey Hanoi for the sunshine on the south-central coast.

Right before the lunar year just over 12 months ago, I made a trip to Quy Nhơn in Bình Định province and took the opportunity to visit Quy Hòa, where poet Hàn Mặc Tử spent the final years of his life, as well as his tomb at Ghềnh Ráng. Quy Nhơn and the surrounding areas have a lot of literary connections, particularly due to the Bình Định group of poets: Hàn Mặc Tử, Chế Lan Viên, Quách Tấn and Yến Lan. It is common to see lines of poetry in calligraphy hanging on the walls of cafes and shops throughout the city and its surrounding areas.

Returning to Quy Nhơn a year later, I thought I should make a bit more of a serious search for bookshops. Quy Nhơn has the usual well-stocked FAHASA bookshop downtown, but previously I had been unable to track down any old bookshops. I scoured the internet, asked local friends and drove around without success, but finally by chance a wrong turn quite close to my hotel took me past the second-hand bookshop at 116 Tăng Bạt Hổ street.

Mr. Thành inside his bookshop

Mr. Thành in his bookshop at 116 Tăng Bạt Hổ street, Quy Nhơn 

The bookseller, Mr. Thành, was very friendly and keen to share his life experiences in and around Binh Dinh province, including some interesting stories of his youth as well as photos and certificates of his extended family members living in Philadelphia in the United States. Mr. Thành also writes poetry, and he showed me some of his pieces published in local collections on his hometown of Quy Nhơn, on Christmas Day, and on the grave of Hàn Mặc Tử.

As Mr. Thành pointed out several times while I browsed, the majority of the stock in the bookshop is more suitable to students, with the usual range of textbooks and resources for learning English. As far as foreign language materials, aside from various ESL resources I saw a few old books in French, as well as some novels and a couple of beautifully illustrated children’s books in Russian.

Learning that I was interested in old books, Mr. Thành insisted on giving me a souvenir of my visit: a copy of Carl Jung’s Essai d’exploration de l’inconscient, translated by Vũ Đình Lưu and published as Thăm dò tim thc by Hoang Dong Phuong Publishing House in Saigon in 1967. Apparently this Vietnamese translation pre-dated the English edition, under the title Man and His Symbols, by around a decade.

I also explored the fairly dusty contents of an old glass-fronted cabinet that seemed to be the literature section. There was quite a large range of Russian novels in Vietnamese, with a fair number of different authors in this somewhat tattered selection. There were a few other foreign books published in Vietnam in the 1980s as well. The strong cover art of the Vietnamese edition of Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy caught my eye, as well as the first copies of works by Herman Hesse that I’ve seen here in translation.

Mr. Thanh in front of his bookshop

Mr. Thành in front of his bookshop

I found a copy of Eric Maria Remarque’s 1945 novel Arc de Triomphe, translated from the French with reference to the Russian edition as well, and published in 1988 under the title Khi Hoàn Môn. I picked this up for a friend in Hanoi who is interested in his books. Jules Verne and a couple of other American names rounded out the collection of translated literature.

The rest of the cabinet contained Vietnamese novels. I chose a couple of volumes by Nguyễn Khải, the first of which contained two of his novels, Gp g cui năm from 1981 and Thi Gian Ca Ngưi from 1983. Gp g cui năm is one of the still relatively few Vietnamese novels available in English. It was translated by Phan Thanh Hao and Wayne Karlin and published by Curbstone Press in the United States in 2001 under the title Past Continuous as part of their Voices from Vietnam series. I previously wrote a bit more about the English translation, including a rough recollection of the main characters, in the comments section of this post. This joint volume was published in 1987, with a print run of 50,000 copies, which was a pretty large number for that time. Together with this book I found a copy of his 1987 book Vòng Sóng Dến Vô Cùng.

I also picked up a couple of 1980s reprints of stories by two key authors from the 1930s. The first of these was Khái Hưng’s Na Chng Xuân from 1934. Khái Hưng was a co-founder of the Tự Lực văn đoàn (Self-Reliance Literary Movement) in 1933 together with the writer Nhất Linh, and was one of Vietnam’s most famous writers in the 1930s.  There is a bit more information on him, as well as a translation of one of his short stories from 1939, here.

Book press in Quy Nhon

This old book press from Hong Kong is still getting plenty of use in Quy Nhơn

The other book was Thế Lữ’s Truyn Chn Lc (Selected Stories), with several of his stories from the 1930s and 1940s. A poet and a playwright, Thế Lữ was well known within the New Poetry movement and also a member of Tự Lực văn đoàn. He joined the revolution alongside other poets and writers associated with that group, including the famous 1930s poet Xuân Diệu. In the early 1950s these writers severed their ties with that movement and subjected their work of that period to criticism as not conforming to the tenets of socialist realism, and being corrupted by individualism and a desire for fame.

These two volumes, published in 1987 and 1989, really symbolize for me the dynamism of the late 1980s, where there seems to have been an incredible output of both old and new Vietnamese works being published alongside a wide range of translated foreign works following the adoption of the Đi mi policy. I guess these may have been among the first reprints of these works in several decades.

Cover of Co Be Treo Mung by Hoang Ngoc Tuan

Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn’s short story collection Cô Bé Treo Mùng, published in Saigon in 1972

The final book that I picked up was Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn’s collection of short stories Cô Bé Treo Mùng, published in Saigon in 1972. I was initially attracted to this volume by its really gorgeous cover art. Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn seems to have been a prolific writer in the south in the early 1970s, with four collections of stories published by Trí Đăng Publishing House within a couple of years. Apparently the author has been living in Australia since 1983. There is more information about his more recent publications here.


~ by hanoi ink on February 23, 2012.

2 Responses to “poet suburbia: kicking around Quy Nhon”

  1. Nice post. “Hanoi” Ink seems to be a less and less suitable title for you 🙂

  2. Dear David, Flash Back: Last time I was in Quy Nhon was January 1969. The beauty of the coastal setting was visceral & spell binding. As we approached from the south, I remember seeing a remote Buddhist Monastery perched high on a mountain pillar. It looked like an oasis of peace (like a Bali Hai) nested amongst the agony and turmoil.
    I had three days left in-country and was on one final courier run. That night we were shelled with mortar and perhaps Russian rockets. Not knowing where the bunkers were, I spent the remainder of the night under the protective cover of two bunk mattresses with my pathetic 45 in hand. I made it through my tour without shooting anyone, a minor success on my part. I also remember the Catholic hospital where children, adults and no doubt some Cong were sheltered and cared for. One of the sisters asked me what would do. I couldn’t answer her. It really ripped me.
    Haven’t heard from you in a long time. Please let me know where we are with the book from Vinh City, “Ky uc duong Troung Son”. Tim Nash

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