When Madonna sang La Isla Bonita — meaning ‘the beautiful island’ in Spanish — she sang of a place of her dreams, a place where she longed to be. San Pedro isn’t a real island, but it didn’t matter, the yearning was there.
Hanoi is relentless with its artists. Without them knowing or wishing it, the city burrows under their skin and reveals itself in a variety of ways, in a variety of mediums. Artists can claim that Hanoi isn’t any different from anywhere else but their work says otherwise. These artists have a loving but complicated relationship with their hometown and their art is dramatic evidence of it.
If you haven’t heard of it then you’re either new to Hanoi or living the life of a hermit. Now in its seventh year, from a mere handful of runners in its salad days, the Song Hong Half Marathon has transformed itself into the biggest annual running event in the capital.
In the late 1960s a young Harvard graduate made a startling discovery.
William Haseltine had a colleague with access to a secret paper that showed that Agent Orange had the ability to create birth defects in animals. At this time the US were spraying massive amounts of the dioxin across Vietnam.
“What are you doing?” asked elder sister.
“I’m looking for hell,” answered Be Chinh, the little girl digging up earth with a knife. In My Tho, her hometown in the Mekong Delta, her family called the youngest sibling ‘Baby Nine’. Hoang — the name she was born with, and would later go by in Saigon — found hell much later, but she is climbing out of it admirably well.
Often living on the edge of society, the montagnards — or mountain dwellers — are little understood. When they do come to the attention of the masses, it’s usually from the perspective of tourism. In Sapa, the various Hmong tribes emerge from their mountain dwellings to haggle and jibe, often speaking English or even French better than Vietnamese.
The first time I met Luong Van Mao, we were outside his bar on Ta Hien. Until then, I’d believed that Mao’s Red Lounge was named after the historical figure. But this man in angular glasses and a beret, shaking my hand with a wide smile, had little in common with the other Mao.