Writing a novel is something I never thought I would do. Or, to be more specific, attempt to do. Then I moved to Hanoi and suddenly it was all I wanted to do. There was this urge to create a story, imagine my characters, and delve into research. I would be Hemingway a la Hanoi — only with marginally less alcohol.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing myself to Hemingway — he wrote some of the English language’s great literary pieces, whereas I’ll be thrilled with a VND40,000 paperback. But there is romanticism in being a writer, especially in a non-native situation, that I wanted to try out.
So, booting up my laptop, I became a regular at a small library and joined a writers’ club. During this process I found that I not only love writing, but I love writing in Hanoi. The city has a gritty charm that I find intriguing and inspiring. There are stories all around me and I love imagining the lives of people I see daily — the lady selling pho, the men playing checkers in the park. I integrate them into my novel and let the city lead my writing.
I was curious to see if my fellow writers felt the same. So I asked them, why write in Hanoi? Although each responded in his or her own voice, they all have in common a fascination with Hanoi’s charm. It’s been said a million times, but it doesn’t make it any less true — Hanoi is, as Alex writes below, “preposterously charming”. But charm does not make a writer. So below three expat writers tell us, in their own style, why it is they love writing in Hanoi.
The washing-up operation is in full swing. The woman in the navy-and-white striped shirt trots across the street to our café and rounds up empty noodle bowls.
Back at base, she sends the white bowls along a bucket assembly line. Slops into dark blue container, pre-wash in white bucket, soapy wash in silver galvanised bowl, and rinse in sky-blue bowl. Finally, clean stack in a pink meshed basket.
The woman in the striped shirt and her colleague are now carrying the clean bowls four doors up to the pho ga stall at the top of Ngu Xa. They return with the pink basket empty, while half-hidden in the back, two men sort herbs and bits of meat.
A triangular pattern continues all morning, as four businesses work in unison: ashing-up base to pho ga stall to café pho. Sometimes, customers order beef noodles instead, and then it’s washing-up base or pho bo stall to café pho.
In the café, a thirty-something couple and their two young boys have just ordered and the owner yells their order up the street. The family could sit on small plastic stools at the chicken noodle stall or relax here on comfortable chairs. We watch as steaming bowls of pho ga are brought across. The parents squeeze fresh lime, add dipping sauce and chilli sauce onto the noodles, and everyone tucks in.
It’s 9am, and the cafe is filling up. Two young guys are reading Bong Da sports newspaper and, less predictably, Phu Nu women’s newspaper, while others watch VTV3. A couple orders pho bo, and the beef noodles are quickly brought across from another stall.
The café owner has already brought my nau da, with a side of tra da. We smile the smile of many mornings, and I lean forward on my bamboo chair to stir the two-tone coffee. I dig down with the long-handled spoon, mixing the condensed milk into a semi-curdle that sometimes looks artistic and other times downright disgusting.
At the back of the café, the family shrine is graced with orange gladioli, three cans of Sprite, a blue tin of cookies, sticks of burned incense and other offerings. In the opposite corner, a Ho Phap guardian casts a benign eye over the customers. The cat is not in sight today.
On the other side of the street, phone cables are bundled haphazardly and hazardously above the stores, serving double duty as a clothes line for songbird cages. The little birds chirp away, a pleasant backdrop to the revving of motorbikes, the clang of cutlery and the smell of wet noodles.
I take a sip and the chocolatey taste of coffee spreads inside my mouth, and an involuntary smile outside. A sip of the cold green tea clears my palette and my mind.
When it becomes hotter, I may head for Joma and the allure of air-conditioning. And this evening, I’ll be teaching. But the morning is mine. I pull out Chapter 12 and start writing.
Ali has lived in Hanoi for two years. Formerly a journalist in England and Canada, she is currently working on her first novel, which follows the lives of three women living in Khartoum, Sudan
The Muse of Veiled Recognition
About 15 years ago, I had a dream that reignited my interest in Vietnamese culture. I was lost in Chicago (a nightmare for a Milwaukeean like myself) and I found myself in front of a restaurant. A woman was standing there wearing a black ao dai. I knew I was home, that this woman was a beautiful part of me waiting to emerge.
Year of the Woman
It seemed as if she was wearing the sky
underneath black sleeves a hidden power
enough to carry the child
and the world
yet capable of touching
a far away star
feet anchored to earth
voice singing light
It took a while to find my way to Hanoi, but eventually I did, and I’ve been here for seven-and-a-half years. I took what was a metaphorical experience in a dream and tried it out literally. It has been a tumultuous journey but has boosted my creativity. As I adapt to life I adapt my writing. My poetry is often grounded in everyday scenes that I experience.
Love Letter to Hanoi
I don’t care how much you frustrate me
assault my ears with wild beeping
and shouts from peddlers
the blaring of news I don’t understand
at six o’clock in the morning
why is it whenever
I leave I get this sad feeling?
I don’t care how much trouble
you give me
just walking down the street
sandwiched between puttering bikes
and shiny new SUVs
and the puzzled looks you give me
whenever I utter a word
why is it my heart sings
every time I return?
I see those two old sisters
called Tam Dao
then I know I’m home
Then there are other times that I’m here that my poetry takes a more whimsical path. The process of living in Hanoi has only increased the contrasts between groundedness on one hand and the need to soar. One day I was sitting in Oriberry just looking out over Tay Ho:
Courtship of Wind and Trees
Water, wind and light crowd together
for an admirable adventure
when wind returns
they manage to strike up
Where did you go? the trees whisper
many places wind responds
the surface of the sun
a secret home for great fish
then we became a comet trail for birds
and looked down at eggshell earth
but then I returned
longing for the music
of your hair
I find poetry the best way to communicate the experiences I’ve had here in Vietnam. Sharing poems with friends back in Wisconsin, they have come to better understand my frustrations and joys of living here. For friends in Vietnam, I hope to unveil a new way of looking at the city and its emotional landscapes.
Mary is a longtime poet who has been living in Hanoi for over seven years. As well as writing poetry on a regular basis she is working on a preteen novel set in her hometown of Milwaukee
The New Observer
I’ve lived in Hanoi for four months, and have in that time found it to be an outstanding place to get writing done. Much of this is due to the city itself — Hanoi is so preposterously charming that sometimes I want to give it a stern talking-to and say: “Okay, enough is enough. Stop it, now. Stop.” But if I’m being perfectly honest, I think that more of it is simply due to the fact that, for me, Hanoi is unfamiliar.
At this point in my career I’ve been a full-time writer for about eight years. I wrote my first novel, which was set in the Philippines, while living in upstate New York. The town I lived in was famous for getting the most snowfall of any city in the United States, and the local news would gleefully announce that it had been “a whole 21 days since we’ve seen any direct sun!” I was writing about Manila, in a place that could not have been any more different than Manila.
It was the same for my second book. I set it in Finland, in a town that was just a few miles below the Arctic Circle. But I wrote it in Rwanda, where people would put on gloves when the temperature dropped below 20 degrees. So it feels only fitting now that I’m writing a book set in New England, while living in Hanoi.
For me, Hanoi is the perfect place to write precisely because it is so new. There’s no better way to clean out the cobwebs of your own stale thoughts than to be totally immersed in a place that you are unfamiliar with. Because that new setting reawakens your senses, and you start actually noticing things again. You become a better, less lazy observer of the world. And perhaps most importantly, coming to a new place — even one as welcoming as Hanoi — takes you out of your comfort zone. This is where good writing happens, when you leave your comfort zone, and look beyond your own habits of thought and life. When we write we imagine what it would be like to have a different life. When we travel to a new place, we do very much the same thing.
Alex is a full time novelist. He adores Hanoi and has no plans to leave anytime soon.