Read Your Way Through Hà Nội

Hà Nội, long a city of storytellers, has been devastated and reborn time and time again. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai guides readers through the literature that has played a part in that renewal.

By Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Aug. 2, 2023

Raphaelle Macaron

Disclaimer: This sample is based on an essay published in the New York Times. Whereas the source removed diacritical marks, this sample brought them back for English and Vietnamese readers.

Hà Nội has always been a city of tales and legends. Its ancient name, Thăng Long, which means “the Rising Dragon,” comes from a tale about Emperor Lý Thái Tổ witnessing a golden dragon ascending when he moved the capital here in 1010. The city is now the heartland of Vietnamese literature — home to many of our finest writers, literary festivals and book fairs.

Cradled by the silky Red River, Hà Nội is also a city of loss and survival: It was destroyed time and time again during the French Indochina War, then the Việt Nam War, when thousands of tons of bombs were dropped onto the city. But once in Hà Nội, you will feel the energy of a city that constantly renews itself.

What should I read before I pack my bags?

Việt Nam is too often seen through the prism of war, but it is a place with more than 4,000 years of history and culture. A fun book to dive into is “The Food of Việt Nam,” by Luke Nguyễn. The chapter about Hà Nội serves you delicious introductions to the city’s most treasured dishes, such as chả cá (traditional fish cakes), bún chả (noodles with grilled meat and fried spring rolls), bánh cuốn (steamed rice crepes) and phở (Vietnamese noodle soup).

Hà Nội is a city of poets, and one of my favorites is Hồ Xuân Hương, whose daring and thought-provoking poems have been translated and published in “Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương.” For a contemporary poetry collection, check out “The Women Carry River Water,” by Nguyễn Quang Thiệu. If you prefer to get to know Hà Nội via fiction, “Dumb Luck,” by Vũ Trọng Phụng — a sarcastic novel set in Hà Nội during the colonial period — is considered a classic of Vietnamese literature.

“Understanding Việt Nam,” by Neil L. Jamieson, offers a deep examination of our country through poetry and fiction. “Hà Nội: Biography of a City,” by William Stewart Logan, and “Hà Nội of a Thousand Years,” by Carol Howland, both explore the life and history of this ancient city.

What books can show me other facets of the city?

The people of Hà Nội have experienced countless wars, political turmoil and daily challenges to survival. Vietnamese writers, in documenting these experiences, have had to overcome a strong culture of censorship, practiced not just by the government but also by publishers and editors who need to protect themselves from harm by censoring not only whole books but paragraphs, sentences, words.

Most books about Hà Nội haven’t been translated. Among the few that have, I highly recommend “The Sorrow of War,” by Bảo Ninh, which tells the story of Kiên, a Hà Nội boy who went to war and returned a traumatized man. First published in 1991, the novel was banned in Việt Nam until 2005 because it contradicted the official viewpoint that, since North Việt Nam had won the war, there should be glory, not sorrow.

For the book to be published again in Việt Nam, the author had to change the Vietnamese title from “The Sorrow of War” to “The Fate of Love.” Now the original name of the novel has been reinstated, and Bảo Ninh is being hailed as one of the greatest Vietnamese writers. His most recent short story collection, “Hà Nội at Midnight,” documents the complex lives of the people here.

I highly recommend “Last Night I Dreamed of Peace,” the diary of Đặng Thùy Trâm, who was killed on the battlefield at the age of 27 while working as a doctor during the Việt Nam War. Her diary was brought back to the United States by an American military intelligence officer, Frederic Whitehurst. Thirty-five years later, in 2005, the diary was returned to her family in Hà Nội, then published to international acclaim.

Another female writer whose work I admire is Lê Minh Khuê, whose short story collection “The Stars, The Earth, The River” is mainly set in Hà Nội’s working-class neighborhoods and depicts a grittier city.

What audiobook would make for good company while I walk around?

The Vietnamese poet Phùng Quán once wrote, “During the moments of difficulties, I hold on to the verse of poetry and pull myself up.” Poetry is a pillar of Vietnamese life and, as you walk around Hà Nội, you can listen to “Lanterns Hanging on the Wind,” a two-part, bilingual radio program celebrating Vietnamese poetry. The Vietnamese versions of the poems are read by the authors, and the English translations are read by Jennifer Fossenbell, an American poet.

While spending time Hà Nội, you may find yourself on Hai Bà Trưng Street, named after two warrior sisters who, according to legend, rode on the backs of elephants, leading an army of mostly women to defeat the Chinese colonizers around A.D. 40. The audiobook of Phong Nguyễn’s “Bronze Drum,” narrated beautifully by Quyên Ngô, will transport you into the lives of the Trưng sisters.

What literary landmarks and bookshops should I visit?

Hà Nội’s 19/12 Street, dedicated to books and booksellers, is right next to the historic Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the “Hà Nội Hilton” by U.S. prisoners of war. Local book companies and publishers have stores along the thoroughfare, displaying and selling their titles. As you walk under the green canopies of ancient trees, reflect on this fact: This street used to be a busy market — the Underworld Market — named for the mass graves of victims killed during the Anti-French Resistance War.

The Temple of Literature, where the annual Vietnamese Poetry Day celebration is held two weeks after the first day of the Vietnamese New Year, is a must-visit site. While you are there, stand in one of the ancient courtyards, close your eyes and imagine listening to Vietnamese poets reading to thousands of Hanoians who consider Poetry Day a highlight of their new year.

To the west of the city, the Việt Nam Museum of Literature will enable you to get to know many of our foremost writers and poets. A book cafe has just been added to the building and is a good place to relax.

Tràng Tiền Bookstore and Thăng Long Bookstore on Tràng Tiền Street, near the Lake of the Restored Sword, will give you a glimpse into books being published locally.

Nearby is Đinh Lễ Street, lined with indie bookstores, each with a small range of English books. Around the corner, on Nguyễn Xí Street, many secondhand books are sold. On this street, you can also find banned books, which include those written by Hà Nội writers who have had to publish their work overseas, only to see copies of those books smuggled back into Việt Nam and sold here. A few years ago, I came to a bookshop here asking for the novels of Dương Thu Hương and was told by the seller that he didn’t carry them. But later, when I was paying, he asked in a whisper if I really wanted to buy the titles I had mentioned. I nodded and he took me up several flights of stairs, to the top floor, into a dimly lit back room where he handed me the books.

For a fun time, hop on the back of a motorbike taxi and let the driver take you to West Lake and Trấn Quốc Pagoda. On the way, ask the driver to stop by Bookworm Hà Nội — one of the largest foreign-language bookstores in the country — which has a good collection of well-preserved vintage books on Việt Nam.

If I have no time for day trips, what books could take me farther afield instead?

“Beneath Saigon’s Chò Nâu,” by Paul Christiansen, is an excellent essay collection that takes you to southern Việt Nam and highlights many aspects of our culture and lifestyle, including rice wine making and whale worshiping. “The Defiant Muse: Vietnamese Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present” will transport you to many regions of Việt Nam, as well as into the hearts and minds of our people, using the rich Vietnamese poetic traditions.

Note: The Vietnamese words in the original version of this essay used diacritical marks. To comply with New York Times style, the marks were removed before publication.

Unfortunately, this practice alters the meaning of the words. In the case of Hỏa Lò Prison, for example, “hỏa” means “fire,” and “lò” means “furnace”: the Burning Furnace Prison. Without the marks, “hoa” means “flowers,” and “lo” means “worry,” rendering the term “Hoa Lo” meaningless. I look forward to the day when The Times and other Western publications celebrate the richness and complexity of Vietnamese, and of all other languages, by showcasing them in their original formats.