flowers and grass: poet Bui Giang

•February 7, 2012 • 13 Comments

My previous post ended with a prediction that the next stop on my little tour of southern poetry would be the “brilliantly mad” Bùi Giáng. So here I am, weeks later, having spend quite some time grappling with a small translation project on one of his poems: eight short lines, challenging to tease out but also quite entrancing.

First, a bit about this prolific poet, scholar, philosopher, literary critic, translator and essayist; a goat herder who would neither sell nor kill his goats, and a beatnik wanderer.

Poet Bui Giang

Bui Giang was born in Duy Xuyen district of Quang Nam province in central Vietnam in late 1926. His father was of the 16th generation of the Bùi lineage in Quang Nam, with the only two-story house in Thanh Chau village. In 1939 he entered the Thuan Hoa School in Hue, where his teachers included renowned scholars such as Cao Xuan Huy, Hoai Thanh and Dao Duy Anh. Despite the turmoil of war and the Japanese occupation, he managed to graduate in 1945. He returned home, married, and became famous locally as the young man who grazed his beloved herd of goats in the mountains with a thick French book in his hand.

In 1949 he joined the war against France, serving with a unit of army engineers. Having completed a special course organized by Military Region V, in around 1950 he was selected to undertake further study and set out on foot from Quang Nam to Ha Tinh. The journey took more than one and a half months, but after reaching his destination Bui Giang decided to abandon his studies and return home. He undertook further studies on literature in Hue in around 1952. In 1956, after the death of his wife due to illness, he finally left the central region and moved to Saigon. Apparently, he again abandoned university studies and worked independently as a poet, scholar, writer, translator and private teacher. In addition to French he taught himself German, and translated Heidegger, Camus and other Western authors. His first major poetry collection, Mưa nguồn, was published in Saigon in 1962.

In 1965, the poet’s house burnt down, destroying many of his manuscripts. In 1969 he entered what he described as his period of “brilliant madness”, leaving home to wander through southern provinces such as Long Xuyen. In 1971 he returned to live in Saigon. His translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince was first published in Saigon in 1973.

He continued to live rough at times, and became a legendary figure in Saigon’s literary circles. Linh Dinh’s 2010 novel, Love Like Hate, provides further information on Bui Giang’s upbringing in Quang Nam and paints a vivid picture of the poet towards the end of his life. He died of a stroke in HCM City in 1998, a couple of months short of his 72nd birthday.

Bui Giang has been getting quite a bit of attention lately in Vietnam. His poems are again being read and discussed. Various artworks inspired by his life and writing have been exhibited in the south, and a seminar on his poetry was recently held at the French Cultural Centre in Hanoi.

Bui Giang writes from an existentialist perspective, and his poems are abstract, non-linear and even illogical. His language is very evocative, but also obscure and maybe archaic in some cases, with borrowings from Nguyen Du’s Truyện Kiều and probably some phrases of his own creation. I had been warned that his poems are difficult to understand even in their original language, ambiguous and open to different interpretation by each reader, and hence basically untranslatable. So of course I thought I’d take a look for myself.

The mountains of Duy Xuyen district, Quang Nam

  Looking across the river from Hoi An to the mountains of Quang Nam where Bui Giang herded goats

Some poets make their name with, or are particularly known for, just one or a few of their poems. Bui Giang wrote a large number of poems, and seems to be more famous for his collections overall than for individual poems. It was hard to pin down which were considered the most significant. His poem Nỗi lòng Tô Vũ, based on his experiences herding goats in the mountains of his homeland, is often mentioned. But it runs to 60 lines, and after the warnings I had received it seemed a bit ambitious to take on a poem of this length first up. In the end, I chose another poem from his first major collection, Mưa nguồn. At only eight lines long, and with an intriguing title that seemed to preempt his later wanderings, Cỏ Hoa Hồn Du Mục (Nomadic Soul of Flowers and Grass) felt like as good a place as any to make a start.

In Vietnamese the poem has no punctuation marks at all, enhancing the ambiguity of lines that basically put a series of sometimes-obscure individual and compound words together. Time takes footsteps, softly falling water echoes to the mountain tops, and we are told to listen to the sky.

The biggest challenge came at the end of the first line, with the compound nguyên khê. I was quite stumped by this, and the Vietnamese friends I initially queried were also at a loss. Google just pointed me to the name of a location near Hanoi and a bunch of real estate advertisements. For a long time I had to put it aside while working on the rest of the poem. Finally, a couple of well-read friends came up with suggestions that were confirmed through a friend by a teacher of literature: together the two words imply something like a spring welling up from the foot of the mountains. The simple ‘mountain spring’ felt too straightforward compared to the original. I considered something like ‘tor burn’, somewhat obscure words in English with a similar meaning. But I wasn’t completely comfortable with the implication of a Scottish or English setting. Considering karst limestone a more appropriate landscape for Vietnam, I came across the topographical term karst fenster, meaning “a place where an underground stream emerges onto the surface between layers of rock, cascades some feet, then disappears back down, often into a sinkhole”, which seemed quite suitable given the following line.

For the second line, I was at least able to work out a basic literal meaning: golden words/sounds (Tiếng vàng) | falling (from the beautifully expressive construction rụng rớt gieo) | and then động xanh, two words that I seem to encounter quite often in Vietnamese poems: the noun động meaning cave/grotto/void, however with its adjective here xanh posing a bit more of a question. Xanh as a colour covers both blue and green, with the precise shade determined either by context alone or by a further qualifier (grass-green, ocean-blue, etc.). When the particular shade is unclear, blue-green or teal are the cop-out options. But xanh can also mean young or fresh, particularly in poetry. In this case I went back and forth between different options, finally aiming for both meanings with ‘verdant’.

Another challenge was bóng cành in the third line, however I happened to come across the same compound in Truyện Kiều, in the line Tường đông lay động bóng cành, rendered as “Then on the eastern wall the shadows of the branches danced”.

The fifth line was also difficult, and once again I relied in the end on guidance from a friend, who suggested that references to sông (river) and bến (wharf, jetty) were linked to the tears (khóc) of a nomad at the pain of departure and forever traveling in unfamiliar places far from home.

The poem is written in the lục bát (6-8) form, and the first six lines at least follow the standard rhyming pattern: i.e. the 6th syllable of the first line (khê) rhymes with the 6th syllable of the second line (về), while the 8th syllable of the second line (xanh) rhymes with the 6th syllable of the third line (cành) and hence with the 6th syllable of the following line as well (thành), and so on. He also follows the standard rules for tones that apply to lục bát forms, based on the designation of the six Vietnamese tones as either flat (bằng) or sharp (trắc).

While the final two lines have the expected number of syllables and tonal concordance, they do not seem to follow the rhyming scheme so closely. I am not sure whether the poet is deliberately breaking rhyme here, or whether xuân, đồng and em are considered to be acceptable ‘poor rhymes’ (vần nghèo).

Aside from the lục bát form, similar sounds are also repeated in slightly modified forms in these compact rhymes, with different meanings: bên and bến, as well as động and đồng (and also rộng, sông, ruộng…).

In my translation I did consider adopting some kind of fixed metre and rhyming scheme, but ultimately decided against it, as it was pretty much beyond me, and was forcing both the meaning and tone of the poem in English in undesirable directions.

So here is the poem, and my translation. I’m hoping that if you can imagine this written in a formal (and quite complex) rhyming and tonal format, using evocative, impressionistic and sometimes obscure and confusing language that is open to different interpretations and prompts varied responses, then just maybe it is the beginning of an opening into Bui Giang’s poetry.

Cỏ Hoa Hồn Du Mục

Bùi Giáng

Nghe trời đổ lộn nguyên khê
Tiếng vàng rụng rớt gieo về động xanh
Gót chân khơi rộng bóng cành
Nhịp vang đầu núi vọng thành lũy siêu
Thời gian chắc bước bên chiều
Khóc sông bến lạ mưa chiều sớm xuân
Cỏ hoa từ bỏ ruộng đồng
Hồn du mục cũ xa gần hử em


Nomadic Soul of Flowers and Grass

Bui Giang

Hear the sky and gushing fenster blend
Golden sounds fall into a verdant void
Heel-dug hollow in the shadow of branches
Reverberating to the peaks, echoing to the ramparts
Time treads firmly in the gloom of ending day
Tears flow at an unfamiliar pier; late rain in early spring
Flowers and grass forsake their meadows
The ancient nomadic spirit is everywhere my love


I’m posting here with some trepidation, as I really struggled with this translation. And I’m expecting some push back from more capable users than I of one or both languages. I hope you will let me know what you think in the comments. But please be gentle!


a southern deluge

•January 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment

[Lately, I seem unable to escape the pull of Ho Chi Minh City and the south. This is probably the first of three entries that are in some way or other related to southern poetry.]

This is not an entry about The DelugeNew Vietnamese Poetry, the English-language anthology of Vietnamese poetry translated by Linh Dinh that Vietnamese-American poet Hai-Dang Phan writes about in this recent essay for Asymptote Journal. It can’t be, really, as the anthology itself won’t be available until later this year. (Hai-Dang Phan’s essay will apparently be the introduction to the anthology.) So lets just say that it is a reflection on his essay, which is a long and very worthwhile read in itself.

Obviously Hai-Dang Phan’s introductory essay got me thinking. For days. I love writing like this: well-written, thoughtful and sincere, informed by a wide range of sources, and about a topic I’m deeply interested in. Best of all, he is not just writing stuff that confirms my existing opinions or biases. In some ways quite the opposite in fact. Hence the days of thinking.

I read it straining to see Vietnam through the author’s eyes. At least until after the half-way mark, it felt like I was looking through a backward telescope, all circular borders and reverse magnification, with no overall sense of the wider scene. Peephole glimpses of both the anthology and of Vietnam itself. At some point I realized I was maybe looking for more of a catalogue, an explanation, even a taxonomy of the anthology contents and what they have to say about Vietnam right now. A Wikipedia entry perhaps?

I wondered what this said about me. Particularly when, in fact, among many, many other things he does offer lists of poets, and categorizations:

“This anthology consists of twelve poets living and writing in Vietnam, and of nearly an equal number overseas. Also, nearly half represent the generation who witnessed the war in Vietnam as either civilians or combatants, and the other half the generation who either grew up or were born after the war.”

Maybe it is just that I am proving one of Hai-Dang Phan’s key points. That—apart from Bui Chat and Ly Doi from the Mở Miệng (Open Mouth) group and a couple of others—I am not familiar enough with poets rarely published here to quickly assimilate his ideas into my existing reference points and mental maps. A poet’s name is also a shorthand for his writing and experience; not recognizing enough names or having the anthology itself in hand I’m somewhat broadsided.

He writes of visiting bookshops in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, looking for evidence of the state of things, much as I do and probably equally obsessively. Though to some extent it feels like we are in different Vietnams, noticing different authors, drawing different conclusions. Perhaps we are just drawn to different embers, hoping to fan different sparks into flame in our search for heat and light. I have some small advantages, time in country and some inside access to Hanoi political culture. And my life was not torn asunder by this all before I was even born. But those things of course are also half my problem, with the other half being the persisting language barrier. Clearly the balance of clear-sightedness is tilted in his favor.

And Hai-Dang Phan is certainly aiming for balance in his comments on Vietnam here and now and developments over the past couple decades. His paralleled “it must be admitted… it must be admitted…” tracks this, weighing the reality of opening up against ongoing constraints. He quotes in support a northern émigré voice, Pham Thi Hoai no less, with her wry comparison of the different extents to which domestic products (“bath soap, toothbrushes and tampons”) and culture have been privatized. But it leaves me, admittedly long enmeshed in Hanoi politics and perspectives, wanting a more precise definition of the direction and pace of change and endpoints that diaspora poets and writers would commit to and applaud.

A decade ago, the direction of change seemed to me, from my limited personal perspective sitting in Hanoi, to be all positive. The only real argument was over the pace. But things are becoming much more complicated now as the market starts to bite. Better and worse, better and worse, all the time. Though sometimes it seems like the debate over culture is whether to acknowledge the worse, to bring it into creative works and then maybe to start to grapple with it and transform it. Countered as ever with the concern that bringing such ugly realities into so-called ‘pure’ literary forms both debases those forms and popularizes ugliness. That is kind of how I see the debate over Nguyen Thanh Phong’s recent book of illustrated slang, and it maybe also explains the current suspension of its distribution.

Hai-Dang Phan doesn’t say much about the Vietnamese language of these domestic and diaspora poets. I want to know more about his: how do they draw on, and maybe play with, older forms, currents and traditions in Vietnamese poetry? If I recall correctly, Ho Xuan Huong’s exquisite command of language carved a space for her poems, despite their racy half-hidden meanings (okay, maybe also because of them). Do these poets make a way for themselves, and their ideas, through a breathtaking mastery of Vietnamese language? I really hope we will see Vietnamese originals alongside translations when the anthology comes out.

Linh Dinh apparently worked on these translations while staying in HCM City in daily contact with many of the Vietnam-based poets. I’m deeply curious about Linh Dinh’s translation process: How far has he come with “relearning” Vietnamese? Did any of the poets (including those born or educated outside Vietnam and presumably in at least most cases fluent in English) comment directly on his translations of their work? What were his, and maybe their, key struggles and contentions in the always contested terrain of translation?

There is clearly an aspiration to share southern writing. Hai-Dang Phan states that southern voices were written out of the national literature after 1975, noting the exception of Bui Giang. In fairness, he also alludes to northern voices, Hoang Cam and others, that were basically unheard for decades after the 1950s. But these northern poets at least have been given some attention of late. And I guess he captures what I also see, 1930s writings being re-loved and reconsidered as Vietnam again grapples with how far to embrace the West, and 1950s poets being published, read and discussed again though mostly now posthumously.

Some of the hard work of reconciliation of different perspectives seems to be underway currently, at least looking backwards. I hope that this anthology, though published in English and overseas, becomes a part of what is being and must eventually be reconciled. Especially as this essay has been translated into Vietnamese by Hanoi lecturer in literature Hải Ngọc. And Hai-Dang Phan’s own English-language poetry has also been translated into Vietnamese. As Hai-Dang Phan notes, Vietnamese literature is online and finding life in Paris, Sydney, Berlin and of course the US. Though always, and most importantly, in Vietnam itself.

As for me, Hai-Dang Phan’s article pushes me into an area that has been hovering at the back of my mind for quite a while. The feeling that I should seek out more new poetry here, although I’m pretty much assuming that translation of modern forms into English will be beyond me. Nguyen Qui Duc’s translations of another southern poet, Vu Thanh Son, one of which he read at the recent Noi Ha Noi spoken word event, have given me a similar push. Though if I’m completely honest my historical bias will probably take me first to a poet whose works are still widely available and apparently undergoing something of a revival, the “brilliantly mad” Bui Giang, characterized by Hai-Dang Phan as “perhaps the closest thing Vietnam has ever produced to a beatnik poet”.

anthology smackdown

•January 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I recently (well, kind of recently) wrote on Hanoi Grapevine about Strange Roots: Views of Hanoi, an anthology of expatriate writing from the Hanoi Writers’ Collective. That anthology inspired me to dig through my library and various boxes of old stuff looking for my copy of another Hanoi anthology, Once A Book A Time, edited by Elliot Samuels and Connla Stokes in 2003.

The Hanoi Grapevine piece was kind of long and hence posted in three parts. You can read about the new anthology in Part 1, some amateur historifying about the earlier anthology in Part 2, and then of course the head-to-head anthology smackdown section (well, a bit of a comparison at least) in Part 3.

As a kind of companion post, here are some photos of various Tay Nostalgia items I dug out while searching through my rather dusty and disorganized archives.

Books and other literary products of the Hanoi expats

Books, postcards and Connla Stokes’ manifesto ‘The Necessity for Flippancy’. On a bookmark!

Muc: What's on in Hanoi, circa 2002

Copies of Muc, the Hanoi weekly event listing from back when it all fit on a narrow folded strip of paper. Circa 2002.

Hanoi self-published book covers

Self-published books from 2002 and 2003. For the chap-book connoisseurs and trainspotters, printing and binding were carried out by a permanently pajama-clad chap down a small alley off Hang Bong street, using some kind of vinyl sourced from Ha Trung street. 

bored as a cockroach? how about some killer art

•November 8, 2011 • 8 Comments

***Update – 3rd February 2012: I happened to spy Nguyễn Thành Phong in a cafe recently in Hanoi, and took the opportunity to introduce myself. He is a friendly guy, and we had a very interesting chat about his work on a modified version of his cartoon book of slang, which he is hoping to re-publish soon, probably under a different title. He also mentioned another related project he is working on, so look out for more from him soon. In the meantime, here is a picture of him with his sketchbook (and the remains of lunch) that he was kind enough to agree for me to take!

Nguyen Thanh Phong with sketchbook in a Hanoi cafe


Hanoi-based illustrator Nguyễn Thành Phong (a.k.a. Thanh Fong, b.1986) has been getting a lot of attention lately for his comic art and other works.

A recurring theme in discussions about both animation as well as comics and illustrated novels in Vietnam focuses on the long-term effort to nurture local talent and develop Vietnamese products that come up to the level of popular imported works, particularly those originating from Japan. Some writers question why Vietnamese young people prefer foreign images and storylines, and worry about the impact of this on the culture and values of the next generation. Others emphasize the creativity, sophistication and production values of Japanese anime and manga as well as big-budget Western products, which (they say) Vietnam can scarcely hope to match for a long time to come. Nguyễn Thành Phong’s work certainly suggests that a new level of savvy is emerging in Vietnam. But not without some controversy along the way.

The first item on the that caught my eye was a news story about his strip Người hóa hổ (“The man who turned into a tiger”) winning an award at the 5th Asian Youth Animation & Comics Contest 2011 organized in Guizhou, China in late August.

It turns out that his work has been published outside Vietnam during the past year or so, including in Volume 2 of Liquid City, an anthology of comics from South-East Asia and beyond. He contributed a piece based on his trip to Korea to participate in the Bucheon International Comics Festival (BICOF).

He has also been published in various forms in Vietnam, the most recent of these being his quixotic and irreverent collection Sát thủ đầu mưng mủ. (The title translates as something like “Killer with a head full of suppurating sores”.)

Jacket art of Nguyen Thanh Phong's Sat thu dau mung mu

Published through a joint venture between Nhã Nam company and the Fine Arts Publishing House (NXB Mỹ Thuật), this collection had an initial run of 5,000 copies (as well as a limited edition of 50 numbered copies on special paper, and an e-book for iPhone). It includes around 120 separate drawings, each accompanied by a short text drawn from common informal Vietnamese idioms and slang, including alternate versions of established sayings with one or more words altered. They are often expressed as short rhymes or doggerel and many of them are quite funny and catchy in Vietnamese language.

One series of drawings in the collection illustrates a set of humorous rhyming similes, drawing on contemporary teen-speak that compares different emotions to various animals. For example “chán như con gián” (“as bored as a cockroach”, which incidentally is also the name of a Vietnamese hip hop tune), “bực như con mực” (“as frustrated as a squid”), “ngốc như con ốc” (“as stupid as a snail”), and so on.

The title is taken from one of the works in the collection, and apparently references a familiar saying which refers to a smart and successful person that cannot be cheated by others. However, the saying has been tweaked, creating a funny sounding rhyme and radically altering the meaning.

There doesn’t really seem to be anything overtly political here, although certainly some frames speak to current preoccupations and social issues in Viet Nam. A couple of images poke fun at the common scene of mothers, grandmothers and helpers chasing spoilt young children around with a bowl of food while the children keep playing. One of the more heavy-handed illustrations shows a happy young Vietnamese person wearing the familiar Vietnam flag-themed red t-shirt emblazoned with a gold star, under the slogan “TOI YÊU VIỆT NAM … đồng”, tweaking the common patriotic “I love Viet Nam” slogan to “I love money”: the person has a gold chain and a handful of banknotes. And he does address topics that normally receive a more respectful treatment, such as the picture of two soldiers playing soccer with an (accidentally) armed hand-grenade. There are also visual and text references to gambling, domestic violence, homosexuality and masturbation. Some of the images are unabashedly gritty, and the cover includes a warning “not to read the book while eating or drinking”.

Ultimately, the rough style and content of Sát thủ đầu mưng mủ have proved to be too much for local sensibilities. Despite a lot of positive comments (and belly laughs) after its September 2011 release, concerns about its potentially negative influence on young people and its “abuse of slang” have led to an increasingly heated discussion and ultimately to distribution of the book being suspended in early November.

There does seem to be some talk of an international release, although the idiomatic nature of the book would pretty much seem to defy translation. Nguyễn Thành Phong’s blog does not yet say anything about the withdrawal of his collection. But the most recent entry does have a very sweet lament about people scanning and uploading the book without his permission, noting that he depends on his talent to survive. The quite charming accompanying illustration shows a young bookseller (looking suspiciously like the artist himself) selling his wares on the pavement, while a couple rave about a “hot” book he is selling and then walk off with it without paying.

Saigon Ink #3: typewriters and old vinyl

•September 25, 2011 • 9 Comments

The third and final post on Hanoi Ink’s recent trip south to Ho Chi Minh City for the September 2nd long weekend. Read the previous posts here and here.

No more bookshops or even books here, but a couple of literature-related finds that might fit better on the Hanoi Ink tumblr, if there was such a thing.

Hermes Baby typewriter

Hermes Baby portable typewriter from the early 1960s

First up is my new (old) typewriter that I acquired in a little shop in Phu Nhuan District: a beautiful pale mint green Hermes Baby. Hermes typewriters were made in Switzerland, and the successive version of the Baby from the 1930s onwards were their compact, ultra-light portable models popular with students and traveling writers. This model dates from the 1960s and has the French AZERTY keyboard layout. The ribbon was broken when I bought it but with an improvised repair I was soon pecking out words.

Logo on the Typewriter

It’s a Hermes Baby, baby!

It turns out that Lin Yutang, whose 1935 book on China I picked up on Trần Nhân Tôn street in District 5, was also the inventor of one of the first viable Chinese-character typewriters. No mean feat when you consider the number of characters in regular use in written Chinese.

The Mingkwai typewriter invented by Lin Yutang

Lin Yutang’s typewriter for Chinese characters

My second find was an LP with a 1969 recording of the musical theatre production Chuyện Tình Hàn Mạc Tử (Love Story of Han Mac Tu). I have written previously about Hàn Mạc Tử’s life and poetry—including a translation of his poem Mùa Xuân Chín—as well as his death from leprosy in Quy Nhon at the age of 28.

Han Mac Tu album cover

Album cover art for Love Story of Han Mac Tu

The composers of this musical are Viễn Châu and Thể Hà Vân. Viễn Châu from Trà Vinh is famous as the king of the cải lương (reformed) opera style that remains massively popular in southern Vietnam. The cast includes Út Hiền, Bạch Tuyết, Kim Ngọc, Bích Thủy, Trang Bích Liễu, Văn Chung, and Hùng Cường. Lê Văn Thiện’s band provides the music.

Here is a rough recording taken from the LP:

Sample of Hàn Mạc Tử: the Musical

Han Mac Tu LP

And as a final postscript, my translation of Mùa Xuân Chín (Ripe Spring) by Hàn Mạc Tử, typed on my Hermes Baby:

Ripe Spring (Mùa xuân chín) by Hàn Mặc Tử

Saigon Ink #2: the bookshop at 738 Cach mang thang 8 street

•September 23, 2011 • 1 Comment

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.

The three books from South Vietnam: Liberation (Giai Phong) Publishers

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).

Various editions of Vietnamese Studies from 1965 through 2005

Various editions of Vietnamese Studies from 1965 through 2005

Saigon Ink #1: Tran Nhan Ton book street

•September 21, 2011 • 5 Comments

Hanoi Ink spent a few days in HCM City over the 2nd September long weekend. This is the first of three posts on the trip, starting with a visit to Trần Nhân Tôn book street.

Trần Nhân Tôn street in District 5 is not too far from the centre of Saigon and is known as one of the main second-hand book streets of the city. I was staying fairly close by and headed over on Saturday morning for a look.

It was honestly a bit overwhelming at first: I made a lap of the street and counted around 15-20 different bookshops. I only had an hour or so free, which really was not enough to fully absorb even one shop. In the end, I chose a likely looking starting point and dived in.

Looking down Trần Nhân Tôn street

Looking down Trần Nhân Tôn street 

Tín Nghĩa Bookshop at 57-59 Trần Nhân Tôn has several tables out front on the sidewalk with magazines and periodicals as well as some Vietnamese novels and short story collections arranged in piles requiring a kind of complicated excavation to see what is available. Stacking up books precariously, I looked through around ten of the more promising stacks. I found a few interesting works here, including the collected works of 1930s wunderkind Vũ Trọng Phụng, published in the early Renovation (Đổi Mới) period which would have been the first time his writing was able to be printed in the northern half of the country at least for the first time since the 1950s. I already have that set, so in the end I just picked up a copy of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s famous short story collection, Tướng về hưu (The General Retires).

Tín Nghĩa Bookshop

Tín Nghĩa Bookshop at 57-59 Trần Nhân Tôn street, D.5, HCM City

The interior of the shop turned out to be bigger than I first realized. It is lined with bookshelves down each side including a couple of locked cabinets up high displaying rare works. The middle part of the room contains further large islands of books stacked up in piles; books are fairly well organized into sections, but it was nearly impossible to know what might be found within each deep stack.

Towards the rear of the store I found a large number of English-language books, many dating from the 1950s through the 1970s. Barely scratching the surface, I ended up taking three volumes back to Hanoi with me.

My Country and My People by Lin Yutang—Chinese writer, translator, inventor and Nobel-prize nominee—was written at the suggestion of Pearl S. Buck, who also provided the introduction. Published in 1935, the book self-consciously aimed to be an informative, even-handed and appreciative explanation of China to an English-speaking audience, written by someone who had obviously spent a great deal of time pondering both China and the West. The book has a very wide breadth, moving from “the Chinese character”, “the Chinese mind” and “the ideals of life” through gender relations, social and political life, literature and the arts. The literature section addresses history and the important place of literature and particularly poetry in Chinese life, but also the relationship between literature and politics, modernization and the influence of Western literature.

My Country and My People, by Lin Yutang

My Country and My People, by Lin Yutang

One of his explicit concerns was the degree to which Western views of China were formed based on the accounts of so-called “Old China Hands”, despite their inability to speak Chinese, to read Chinese newspapers, or even to move far outside of the expatriate bubble within the various concessions and international settlements. His familiarity with the West made for some pointed comparisons, such as this comment on “Chinese courtesy” and queuing behaviour: “The Chinese have just as much good manners toward people outside their families and friends as the Englishmen in the colonies have toward people outside their race.”

The second book, Sarkhan, is a fictional novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, who are best known for their earlier collaboration, The Ugly American, which was published in 1958. The Ugly American was set in a fictional country in South-East Asia; the setting is a composite of several countries in the region (the subsequent film was shot in Thailand) but with a story based mainly on contemporary events in Vietnam. Published in 1965, Sarkhan takes a similar approach, relating the story of the manipulation of events in the fictitious country Sarkhan by an underground communist cell seeking to establish and control an anti-American nationalist movement in the country.

The book is forcefully written and provides an interesting example of propaganda by individuals rather than a state-sponsored initiative or an organized political or religious movement. The authors’ explicit purpose is to influence American policy away from an over-reliance on military might and intelligence service intrigue in Asia and toward the adoption of a ‘hearts and minds’ approach, spearheaded by idealistic young Americans who would immerse themselves in local cultures and languages to carry out humanitarian development activities throughout the region.

Authors' note from "Sarkhan"

Author’s note from the novel Sarkhan

Some aspects bear comparison with the works of the Ayn Rand-influenced James Clavell. The heroes of the story include two Americans–one a former navy officer turned businessman, the other an expert on Sarkhanese culture–as well as the brave, studious and religious prince who favours a neutral policy and is about to be crowned king. The American characters are pretty unrealistic in terms of their ability to combine a linguist’s facility in multiple Asian languages (and even the nuances of various dialects of these languages) with profound cultural understanding, effective business activities and a capacity for decisive armed action when required. I have not found any indication that either of the authors had serious Asian-language fluency themselves.

The third English-language book, Kids and Cubs by Olga Perovskaya, is another addition to my growing collection (see here and here) of English-language children’s books from the former Soviet Union from Progress Publishers in Moscow. This one is a collection of stories from the author’s idyllic and humorous childhood in Alma Alta, Kazakhstan. Each chapter focuses on different baby animal species brought back from the forest by their father from his hunting expeditions to be raised as a pet by Olga and her three sisters Sonia, Yulia and Natasha. The array of animals includes wolf cubs Dianka and Tomchik, Mishka the maral (Siberian stag), Frantik the fox, and Vaska the tiger. Ishka the donkey, Milka the chicken and Chubary the horse round out the menagerie. Inevitably, the wilder species are not so suited to domesticated life, and there are some challenging moments for the author and the animals as they grow up.

My copy of Kids and Cubs as I found it, alongside the missing jacket and a jacket from a later edition

My copy of Kids and Cubs alongside the missing jacket and a jacket from a later edition

Kids and Cubs was first published in 1925, and is the author’s most famous work. She spent much of the 1940s and 1950s in labour camps and then in exile; this English edition came after her political rehabilitation in the late 1950s.

Like the book Cardboard Clock Square that I came across a few months back in Can Tho, this book was also translated from Russian by Fainna Glagoleva. V. Vatagin and I. Godin provided the small number of illustrations. It was first published in English in 1966 and has been reprinted several times; this edition is from 1981.

Vaska the tiger

Vaska the tiger

Leaving Tín Nghĩa Bookshop, I briefly visited a few other shops on the street. Contrary to initial appearances, quite a few of the shops only or mainly stock new books; others are small, with a more specialized or limited range.

I spent a fair bit of time in one shop with quite a range of old magazines and periodicals dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. I was quite surprised by the number of pre-1975 popular magazines in Saigon that used Western rather than Vietnamese models on their covers. Unlike the set of Saigon weekly Huyền Bí (The Occult) magazines from the early 1970s that I came across in Nha Trang, with popular Vietnamese singers such as Khanh Ly on their covers, most editions of weekly magazines like Tiền Phong (Pioneer) from the same period that I found here had Western cover models, although inside the content and pictures mainly had a local focus.

French magazine Informations & Documents, and Saigon magazine Tiền Phong

French magazine from 1968, and Saigon magazine Tiền Phong from around 1973

I also came across several editions of the very smart-looking French journal informations & documents, a monthly review produced by the centre culturel américain in Paris from the mid-1950s onwards. I was seduced by the Issue No. 230, published in August 1966, which was a special issue focused on the contemporary jazz scene in North America, including a great series of black and white photos of jazz players. There was also another 1960s edition of this journal looking at perceptions of Vietnam from the media of neighbouring Asian countries.

Finally, I found a November 1988 edition of the slim Vietnam Courier newsletter, which was then a monthly publication in English, French and Russian languages from Xunhasaba Publishing House in Hanoi. I suppose this was a forerunner of the English-language Vietnam News (launched in 1991) as well as the Vietnam Investment Review, Vietnam Economic Times and various other publications like The Word and Time Out that are familiar to English-speaking expatriates and émigrés in Hanoi.

Vietnam Courier monthly news review from November 1988

Vietnam Courier monthly news review from November 1988

The quality of the English is good, though with the occasional off-beat usage (e.g. people “toiling and moiling” in the countryside). Unsurprisingly, the Renovation policy provides the backdrop to several articles, including lots of references to the “non-state production sectors”, an interview with the director of the first officially sanctioned private enterprise in Hanoi that had opened for business earlier that year, and an article on piloting the selection of the head of a colliery by both moral and professional qualifications rather than through a political appointment. There is praise for the DPRK, and condemnation of the execution of African patriots by the South African apartheid administration. The cover picture features two pantomime actors from the Youth Theatre in Hanoi.

A few more shots from Trần Nhân Tôn street…

Trần Nhân Tôn street bookshops

Bookshops on Trần Nhân Tôn street

On Trần Nhân Tôn street