With only a week and a half in Hanoi, I've been out and about almost nonstop. This article, then, is being jotted down at 5:11AM, as I'm lying in bed on my stomach at the Letters Home guesthouse. Stuck in a grim alley in an unfashionable neighborhood, it's not exactly popular, so about the only noises I've heard in Letters Home came from my air conditioner or fan. Only rarely does a motorbike beeping, car honking or dog barking reach me.
Generally speaking, overseas Vietnamese are not allowed to publish in Vietnam. About ten years ago, however, an underground publisher, Giấy Vụn [Scrap Paper], did release a collection of my Vietnamese poems. Since only one critic, Inrasara, had dared to discuss it, I simply assumed my book had been flushed down the memory hole, but since arriving in Hanoi, I've been told by several young poets that they value my Lĩnh Linh Chch Khoa'i very highly. Of course, this gladdens me.
Three days ago, I ran into the young critic, translator and professor Trần Ngọc Hiếu, as he sat at a cafe' near the Lake of the Returned Sword. (Its long-suffering giant turtle has finally died, by the way. He lived alone for decades.) It was clear that Hiếu knew my Viet poems quite well. Though it was our first meeting, we chattered like old friends. Leaving the cafe', we had goose noodles at some sidewalk stall, then moved to another cafe', for they're everywhere in Vietnam.
Poet Bỉm owns a coffee house, Reng Reng. At his suggestion, I showed up one morning to read a short set of my Viet poems, two of which I've written since arriving here. "I will chase away your customers," I said to Bỉm before beginning. "We're very lucky to have the poet Đinh Linh here," he announced to his clientele, all of whom were young, with most fashionably dressed. Two, though, were in factory uniforms. "Thank you, uncle," a woman said to me afterwards. Shaking my hand, a man said the same.
Bỉm took me to an intimate brew pub, Beer Temple, where we had an excellent house-made stout, then a Dutch beer. We snacked on some excellent ham, served with dill pickles, honey and a mournful, defiant mustard. I've walked past Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, German, Russian and Czech restaurants. Doner Kebab stands are all over. In 1995, one could hardly find cheese in Hanoi, and I remember wandering into its most sophisticated cafe' to find a peasant sip spilled coffee from his saucer. On the walls were photos of Catherine Deneuve.
Writer Nguy...n Đình Chnh joined the North Vietnamese Army at age 18, fought in the war. He tracked me down to give me a book of his. I'm supposed to come to his house later. It's nothing for a Vietnamese to welcome you into his home.
As in the US, I'm most interested in how ordinary people are getting by. Yesterday, I talked to a waiter who had spent 13 years altogether in Germany, first as a contract laborer. Sent back to Vietnam after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he sneaked back into Germany several years later and found work in Vietnamese restaurant. Caught in a raid, the man was deported, so Europe was like a sweat-drenched dream. He won't likely see it again.
Though not making very much in Hanoi, he has managed to send three kids to college, with two aspiring to become doctors, and the third, a computer programmer. "Germany is closer to Socialism because the rich are willing to share some of their wealth with the poor. Here, the rich just grab and grab. They suck the blood of the poor." The richest Vietnamese are the top members of the Communist Party, of course.
On a grand, Colonial-era building, there are signs for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, Dunkin' Donuts, Burger King, Thai Village, Coffee Club, HSBC Bank and, incomprehensible to the foreign tourists, "Đ NG CỘNG S N VIỆT NAM QUANG VINH MU"N NĂM" ["GLORIES TO THE VIETNAMESE COMMUNIST PARTY FOR TEN THOUSAND YEARS"] They come to dine lavishly in hermetically sealed restaurants. Some buy a Ho Chi Minh photograph, woodblock print or even oil painting. I know a strident, self-proclaimed Communist who flew here to sample opium and a few whores.
Outside the North Korean embassy, there's a wall-mounted glass case featuring three photos of "Comrade Kim Jong Un, beloved Supreme Leader." Below him are images of missiles being launched with much white smoke and/or fearful red flame. Watch out, Juneau and perhaps even my Philadelphia hovel! No one but me paid the least attention to this display.
About the only sign of war in central Hanoi is a large hole on the massive North Gate, built in 1805. It was caused by a canon ball fired in 1882 from either the Surprise or Fanfare, two French ships.
Much of Hanoi Hilton has been knocked down to make room for a real, high class hotel, the Somerset Grand. I received an email from Dominic DiTullio, the owner of the Friendly Lounge, my local dive in Philly, "Hello Linh, Hope all is well. I know you are enjoying your trip. As long as the authorities are letting you keep your fingernails. Looking forward to see you again. With stories and pictures. Stay well Dom."
I replied, "Yo Dom, I'm in the John McCain suite at the Hanoi Hilton. It's very sparsely furbished, with just a plastic bucket in a corner, and the food is a bit plain. When I begged for a glass of beer, the warden said I was welcome to drink my own piss."