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Hanoi, 2017

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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 Chích Khoái 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 café 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 café, we had goose noodles at some sidewalk stall, then moved to another café, for they’re everywhere in Vietnam.

Facing the street, a Vietnamese coffee house or restaurant displays its patrons to passersby while is itself a grandstand from which you can observe Vietnam’s frantic stream of humanity. Distressingly, some venues are installing plate-glass windows, thus segregating exhilarating, chaotic life from mere commerce.

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 café to find a peasant sip spilled coffee from his saucer. On the walls were photos of Catherine Deneuve.

Yesterday, I walked into a small, elegant bookstore at the end of a thin, short alley. To my astonishment, the owner immediately recognized my name. After we had chatted a bit, he stated with amusement that he had once been fined for selling my anthology of new Vietnamese fiction, Night, Again. Still grinning, he then asked if I had been dragged in to be questioned by the authorities. “Not yet,” I chuckled. When the Vietnamese-Australian writer, musician and literary webzine editor Hoàng Ngọc Tuấn returned to Vietnam several years ago, the cops interrogated him for hours. Back Down Under, Tuấn emailed me, “They mentioned your name.”

Writer Nguyễn Đình Chính 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 restaurants. 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, “ĐẢNG CỘNG SẢN VIỆT NAM QUANG VINH MUÔN 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.”

Always angry and humorless, totalitarianism doesn’t tolerate word plays or any sort of verbal ambiguities. Outlawing witticisms, it insists on righteous bombast. Since Vietnamese must constantly amuse each other with words, they chafed under such an inhuman regime. With Communism’s slackening, the Viet tongue is regaining its playfulness and vitality, and you can see this even on shop signs. There is a Bác Tôm [Uncle Shrimp] natural food store. It’s a play on the English “Uncle Tom,” of course, but a slippery, what-are-you-talking-about? dig at the country’s most famous uncle, for no Vietnamese is ever called Tôm [Shrimp].

In this very polluted city, there’s a guesthouse named Thở [Breathe].

At Club Civilize, there’s a weekly gay leather night dubbed Mensay, which is a two-language triple pun, for “men say” in Vietnamese is simply, “fermenting yeast.” In Vietnamese and English, it becomes “drunken men.” Drunk, fermenting men in leather are saying something. Come inside to find out, I suppose.

As with everywhere else, American culture permeates Vietnam. At Café Trí, there’s a large, static image of Taylor Swift on the television screen. It was almost a shrine. My waitress was a stout lesbian sporting a short haircut. On the next block, five framed photos of Obama graced Bún Chả Hương Liên.

At another hole-in-the-wall coffee house, the KPop group Super Junior were prancing on the television, singing, “Mamacita, nigga, ayayaya!” Sitting on a plastic stool, the young, pony-tailed waitress was mesmerized.

Still, Vietnam is a world away from the US, so almost no one here cares about Donald Trump, transsexual bathroom privilege, Star-Spangled Banner kneeling controversy or Black Lives Matter. Attending an expensive school, a privileged, bi-racial boy saw his American teacher sob at news of Trump victory. She cried alone.

Linh Dinh’s latest books are Postcards from the End of America (non-fiction) and A Mere Rica (poetry). He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Vietnam 
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  1. 5371 says:

    I much prefer pieces like this one to the “Travels with my Jonathan Revusky” genre.

    • Replies: @Sam Shama
    , @Eagle Eye
  2. observer4 says:

    Linh, I am really enjoying these travel pieces. Please share more of them, thank you. Can you find Bo Kho in Hanoi?

  3. gruff says:

    A two-language joke can be called a macaronic.

  4. At Club Civilize, there’s a weekly gay leather night dubbed Mensay

    Are these the same Vietnamese that defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu?

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  5. Anonymous [AKA "Awbergh"] says:

    As to the former German contract labour/waiter: he certainly could not afford a single of his three ambitious offsprings to study anywhere with tuition fees, lest he is dealing with narcotics (or lies). More probably he sent them to China, Russia or as refugees to the few western countries still with free higher education (in English). Like Sweden or Germany(?). Young people in these countries are so fucked up by junk culture so kids from more disciplined parts of the world have absolutely no competition.

    • Replies: @Anon
  6. Linh, I am really enjoying these travel pieces. Please share more of them, thank you. Can you find Bo Kho in Hanoi? — Jane

    Me too, Linh, except I have no idea what Bo Kho is.

    • Replies: @Linh Dinh
  7. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    The tuition for public universities in Vietnam is about $200-$500 per year. A working family of two, even one of them is a waiter, can certainly afford to send their three kids to college.

    • Replies: @Wally
  8. Linh Dinh says: • Website
    @Grandpa Charlie

    Hi Jane and Grandpa Charlie,

    Bò kho [beef stew] is a Southern dish, so not widely available in Hanoi. I’m in Saigon now. Just got in yesterday. The food here is just so much better, and there are many interesting new dishes I’ve never encountered.

    Hanging out with a few friends, including my old buddy, Nguyen Quoc Chanh, I had some wonderful clams, mussels, dried squids and chicken innards. The last time I saw Chanh was ten years ago in Berlin. A wonderful poet, he’s the star of my anthology of new Viet poetry, The Deluge.


    • Replies: @Dwight
  9. Dan Hayes says:


    I’ve just realized that your latest travelogues are just reporting on your gastronomical adventures (and sometimes misadventures).

    Keep up the good work and Bon Appetit.

  10. Linh, you probably already have a shedule planned out.

    But a very large portion of this website’s readers are very much interested in the subjects:

    – family planning program in developing countries
    – (illegal) migration (into wealthy countries), especially migration from SSA to Europe
    – poverty reduction program / industrialization / education of developing countries

    So it would be nice if you could grab your camera and drive out to one of Northern/Central Vietnam’s flyover provinces and showcase readers Vietnam’s true success.

    Viet Tri-Phu To, Bac Giang, Nhge An, Thanh Hoa all have made tremendous changes over the last 10 years.

    You could also showcase the readers one of the flyover provinces of the Mekong Delta.

    A Vietnamese friend of mine insist that Vietnam’s true success is to be found outside the major cities, the touristy provinces and the [insert multi-national-company]-dominated provinces like Bac Ninh.

    Greetings from Germany

  11. Canasia. What a crazy place.

    • Replies: @Art
  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:
    @Jonathan Revusky

    These are the same Vietnamese that got gay with the French long before “the orgy” at Dien Bien Phu. There’s nothing more gay or French than a steaming bowl of pho, assless chaps optional.

  13. unit472 says:

    Very interesting. I am somewhat surprised that Linh Dinh has an audience for his poetry in Vietnam. Maybe he is quite famous there or is simply a big fish in a small pond. I say that not in any depracating sort of way but simply note that a contemporary poet in the English language would not be known, much less read, by anyone he/she would encounter on the street.

    I was pleased to see that a pre war colonial building still exists in Hanoi. So much for’ the bombing them back to the stone age’ threats our generals uttered during the not so recent hostilities. Either the B-52 pilots were incompetent or some effort was made to avoid ‘collateral damage’!

    • Replies: @jilles dykstra
  14. Frankie P says:

    Linh Dinh,

    Are the Communist Party honchos wealthier than the Taiwanese taipans investing the big money in the industrial zones? I imagine that they are silent partners. Does Vietnam export as many young women to become wives to China as it does to Taiwan? I’m sincerely curious, here in Kaohsiung.

    Frankie P

  15. Reading the article what springs to my mind is how Vietnam resembles South American countries.
    When these countries rid themselves, more or less, from the colonisers, not much changed, local groups took over the role of the colonisers.

    • Replies: @jacques sheete
    , @Biff
  16. Dingo jay says: • Website

    North vietnam is still a repressive communist regime.the party is in complete control.

    • Replies: @republic
  17. Linh Dinh,

    Your articles from Vietnam crackle with a lot more life than any of your other travel columns. It’s obvious what an envigorating trip this has been for you.

    Fascinating to learn that you also write in Vietnamese. Anyway, just wanted to thanks for the happiness reading your last two articles has brought me.

  18. Xerxes says:


    Easy to understand why your family left. Difficult indeed to see why you have not returned. And, if you can get me residency, I’ll buy the tickets.

  19. Joe Hide says:

    This word creation of yours is mind bogglingly enjoyable! Keep it up.

  20. republic says:
    @Dingo jay

    from Linh’s piece of January 2017

    Vietnam is still very much a totalitarian state, however, for many people, priests, monks, journalists and bloggers, etc., are still imprisoned for thought crimes. Influential blogger Điếu Cày, for example, was locked up for 6 ½ years on trumped-up charge of tax evasion. He was kept in filthy, dark, solitary cells and beaten up. In 2003, Phạm Hồng Sơn was slapped with a 13-year-sentence for translating and disseminating “What is Democracy?” an article he found online. Sơn ended up serving 4 ½ years. Last May, dissident Father Nguyễn Văn Lý was finally released after eight years in prison.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  21. Kingfelix says:

    Astonishingly dull. Please edit next contribution to less than length of master’s thesis.

  22. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Totalitarian for sure, but just another mob like the one we endure, navigate inconveniences from or worse. We read hacks everyday who warn our “Democracy” is under siege. We do our duty to defend the oligarchs. The Vietnamese read or ignore similar comedy about their set up.

    They won’t lock up the “blood suckers” as the featured employee here complains – which sounds familiar. Maybe if the disgruntled soul puts down the axe and smiles he’ll be able to romp around Hanoi in a new imported Tesla X like the movers n’ shakers and vampires. Fairy tales and other things.

  23. @unit472

    From seventeen kilometres altitude, some thirteen miles, bombs hit haphazardly.

    • Replies: @unit472
  24. mp says:

    So I’m in the aisle of an Asian supermarket, and see a few boxes of some Vietnamese instant coffee. On the box is an important looking white guy followed by an attractive Vietnamese lady in a business suit, both getting out of a helicopter. The implication is rich. I say to myself, “How long will this last before they change the photo?” Sure enough, a few months later, I’m in the same store and the same coffee now features a similar girl in a business suite, but the guy with her, getting out of the helicopter, is Vietnamese.

    Product art is an ad for the product, but in many respects it’s also a sociological statement. As Marshall McLuhan wrote: Far more thought and care go into the composition of any prominent [newspaper] ad…than go into the writing of their features and editorials. Any ad is as carefully built on the tested foundations of public stereotypes or ‘sets’ of established attitudes, as any skyscraper is built on bedrock.

  25. Sam Shama says:

    I second the sentiment and wonder if you meant to place the word ‘my’ where you did, instead of at the beginning; both possibly valid and entirely a matter of perspective.

    • Replies: @5371
    , @ChuckOrloski
  26. Wally says:

    The tuition for public universities in Vietnam is about $200-$500 per year. A working family of two, even one of them is a waiter, can certainly afford to send their three kids to college.

    Seriously? “public universities in Vietnam”?

    What’s that?

    • Replies: @Another German Reader
  27. unit472 says:
    @jilles dykstra

    “From seventeen kilometres altitude, some thirteen miles, bombs hit haphazardly.”

    U-2s were bombing Hanoi? I can assure you a B-52 could not operate at those altitudes. While they did drop ‘dumb’ bombs they were a lot more aerodynamic than the typical WW2 era bombs that could drift a few miles from the aiming point if strong winds were encountered during the fall.

    Now the B-36 could operate at 50,000 feet but they had been retired by the time of the Vietnam war.

  28. Biff says:

    Still, Vietnam is a world away from the US, so almost no one here cares about Donald Trump, transsexual bathroom privilege, Star-Spangled Banner kneeling controversy or Black Lives Matter. Attending an expensive school, a privileged, bi-racial boy saw his American teacher sob at news of Trump victory. She cried alone.

    This is why I love the place.
    When all that shit goes away transcendental peace of mind replaces it.

  29. @jilles dykstra

    When these countries rid themselves, more or less, from the colonisers, not much changed, local groups took over the role of the colonisers.

    Despite the rhetoric, that’s a fair description of what happened in America as well. As a result ot the rev of 1776, we merely exchanged one yoke for another. It was hung on our necks in 1788.

  30. Biff says:
    @jilles dykstra

    Reading the article what springs to my mind is how Vietnam resembles South American countries.

    Been to both places, and they are a world apart, and if I could give you South America I would – the crime rate alone puts me off.

  31. Eagle Eye says:

    I much prefer pieces like this one

    Yep. Much better than all those Israel-is-evil pieces Dinh writes for al-Jazeera.

  32. “Thank you uncle” is a reminder that not so long ago it was common in at least some Anglophone societies for children to call close adult friends of their parents, typically similar in age, Uncle X [given name or nickname] or Aunt Y. My impression is that the custom largely died out with the rise of the use of first names by children when addressing family friends and indeed actual aunts and uncles. I would be interested to know more than my impressions from round the world.

  33. Art says:
    @Priss Factor

    Well worth the view.

    It asks the question “can the countries of the West remain the Western without their Christian heritage?

    Of course the answer is NO!

    Think Peace — Art

  34. @Wizard of Oz

    I am from the US and never knew that people called strangers Auntie or Uncle until I watched an Indian cooking show on YouTube called Manjula’s Kitchen, several people in the comment section were calling her Auntie. At first I actually thought they were her nieces and nephews! LOL. Auntie and Uncle are still used in Singapore.

    This girl from Guyana, where the terms are still used, called a woman in the US Auntie.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  35. @Wally

    There are 3 types of universities/colleges in Vietnam:

    – national university (funded largely by the central-government + foreign governments) -> moderate tution-fee (200- 500$)

    The most prestigious degree you can have besides a degree from an industrial country’s colleges. You have to beat hundred-thousands of applicants in the very demanding entrance-test. Excellent employment-prospect with the gov/international org/institutions/Big Biz/MNCs.

    If you are veteran’s child or come from very improverished family, then the tution-fee will be very low.

    – public college + university (specialized like the Transport&Logistics College in Hanoi OR provincial university; shared funding by central & provincial government) -> moderate tution-fee (200 – 500$)

    Entry-test can be quite demanding, but choosing less prestigiuos ones raise chance of getting in. Good employment-prospect if you’re flexible. Good prospects with Vietnamese companies and lower public institutions and smaller foreign investors.

    If you are veteran’s child or come from very improverished family, then the tution will be very low.

    – “Trung Cap” college (partially funded by tution-fees and provinical governments) – moderate to high tution-fee (200 – 1500$)

    Some “Trung Cap” colleges do have a good name and their graduates have good chances, but many are just rubbish. The graduates from those colleges make up the majority of the 17% unemployed “academics” aka Western college-educated Starbucks-employee.

    – foreign-owned university (e.g. Royal Melbourne Insitute of Technology) -> tution-fee nearly as high as in Western countries.

    Mostly Pay-To-Win students from expat-families and VN’s upper-crust with a sprinkle of talented-but-poor students

    – corporate colleges (Petro College of PetroVietnam or FPT University of FPT Corp; foreign and domestic) – moderate to high tution-fees (500 – 2000$)

    Most students are future employees. Tough competition

    Vietnam’s middle-class (household-income: 750$ per month) is the fastest-growing in the world. Currently around 25 million people – out of 95 million.

    Even many working-class families can afford to send their children to college. The problem is getting-into the prestigious ones and avoiding corrupt professors/teachers.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  36. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:
    @Another German Reader

    20k or more come to the US to attend college. My guess is that this is about affordability or access via relatives or other means. Generally, Vietnamese are still coming into the US in relative droves maybe in expectation of more socialism and the opportunities that it paradoxically allows.

  37. @Triumph104

    I don’t think the core Anglosphere custom extended to calling strangers (i.e. not family friends) Aunty or Uncle. Different from what you report and Linh Dinh’s Hanoi experience. Am I wrong???

    • Replies: @Anon
  38. Dwight says: • Website
    @Linh Dinh

    Linh, when you say food in Saigon is better, do you mean better than in Hanoi, or better than it used to be in Saigon? Better than at that diner on South Broad in Philly where we had lunch last year? No doubt about that!

  39. @Wizard of Oz

    Correct. My “Uncle Tommy” was my dad’s lifelong best pal, he gave me my first watch and always made me laugh. He was my favourite even over my real uncles. Somebody once described him as a “tight old Jew”, my dad replied that Tom was a very good negotiator and that he always honoured his word.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  40. 5371 says:
    @Sam Shama

    It was a literary allusion.

  41. Linh,

    Terrific article!

    A favor though?

    As Scranton School District nears $46 million in debt…. please let me know if Hanoi School District needs a battle tested (Class B CDL) school bus driver?

    Drug free, I am “willing to relocate.”


  42. Anon • Disclaimer says:
    @Wizard of Oz

    Guyana is at least semi-Indosphere, maybe that explains it. Did Aussie children ever use “Mister” as a term for strange adults?

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  43. @Anon

    I have a vague recollection that it was sometimes used ny working class kids but maybe that comes from old films or comic strips.

  44. @NoseytheDuke

    And when did you take to calling such an uncle or just adults of your parents’ generation by their first names?

    I recall noticing that it wasn’t much use waiting for them to tell you to as was the traditionally proper way. That was partly because I knew a very large extended family where the 45 plus members were already called by their first names by so many 11 to 22 year olds that it wasn’t likely to occur to them – especially as I most likely had not called them anything! Then I started calling adults younger than my parents by their first names when I was about 20. But these are all rough approximate memories.

  45. Jon Orton says:
    @Wizard of Oz

    It was certainly true of South African society up until the late 70’s. Addressing parent’s friends as ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie’ wasn’t confined to the Anglosphere either as Afrikaans children also used the honorific ‘Oom’ and ‘Tannie’, even with strangers who were a generation older.

    In fact Afrikaans children, who are often more conservatively brought up than English speaking children, still quite regularly use the expression.

    In Fiji, Indian boys invariably call older men (strangers or familial) ‘Uncle’, whereas Fijian boys tend to use ‘Sir’ when addressing strangers.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  46. @Jon Orton

    Interesting. One could gather up all these examples and surely some graduate student in sociology could at least turn a good Just So story into a higher degree. And it might be worth at least a worthy IgNobel 🙂

  47. @Sam Shama

    Hey Maven Sham,

    Linh Dinh does not have the stomach to do so, but it would be educational for me were he to hold his nose, spend a day with you, reflect, and compose, “My desultory adventures with uptown Sam Shama.”

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