HOI AN – TOWN OF MEMORIES

Talents and Romanticism

Vũ Ký

The writer Pham Van Hanh was quite a phenomenon in the quiet environment of Hoi An. A teaching colleague of mine at the Vien Minh school a long time ago, he was so timid person that I often wondered what his classes were really like. A charming, discreet character, he was known to be smitten in silence for some well-off girls in town, and was famous for taking strolls every Sunday around the area and out to the suburbs, a habit that was quite uncommon at the time. He and his companion, a younger man who was smartly dressed but less well educated, had been subjects of gossip for some time.

Another person who sticks in my memory was Ta Ky, a student of mine at Vien Minh, whom I regarded as my brother, and who would leave his rented rooms in town every Sunday to come and see me for our regular stroll around town.

The two main streets in Hoi An were named after old French culture: Japanese Pagoda Bridge Street (Rue du Pont Japonais) and Cantonese Street (Rue des Cantonnais), which ran parallel out towards the suburbs, where groups of low houses were built asymmetrically on both sides of the gravel-strewn streets. The Pagoda Bridge was dark and low, with a tiled roof, set astride a narrow river on wooden pillars that vibrated and groaned with the weight of passing vehicles. Beneath the bridge, water, invisible from above, babbled endlessly. A small pagoda – which I never entered – was built in the middle of the bridge, with queer-looking sides. At both ends of the bridge there were bright red wooden altars, where two sculpted monkeys sat with quaint red hats on their heads amid burning incense. The riverfront was lined with shops, and boats would come and go to buy and sell goods. Hoi An had once been a prosperous international river port, playing a key role in ancient Vietnamese culture and civilization. Vietnamese exiles still miss its unique odor: fish, shrimp, and fish sauce, blended with the cold stench the river gave off thanks to the local varieties of water plants.

My student and I would often stop at the pagoda to contemplate the monkey statues, or trail along the river like lonely, jobless sightseers. Every now and then we entered Mr. Canh’s restaurant to enjoy the fragrant steam of his boiling soup pot, which drifted out into the street, and his delicious local products. When the sun went down and the air was cooled by the breeze from Cua Dai, we would visit the ancient pagodas scattered here and there, such as Phuc Kien Pagoda, Trieu Chau Pagoda, Quang Trieu Pagoda, Hai Nam Pagoda… to gaze at the statues of deities, of Good and Evil, Quan Cong, especially that of the fearless Te Thien Dai Thanh surrounded by compassionate Buddhas. Each pagoda was a beautiful sight in its own right, but it was also a critical part of a comprehensive picture of Oriental culture, easily recognizable as belonging to ancient Vietnam, that loyal disciple of Chinese mastery. We would lose ourselves in thought for hours in front of those minutely carved, artful masterpieces, with their vermilion and gold, surrounded by the indescribable smells of incense, candles and stale air (the pagodas were often closed for long periods of time). Religious traditions seemed everlasting in Hoi An.

As a student, I had stopped by many places in Central Vietnam such as Thanh Hoa, Le Thuy, Ba Don in Quang Binh, Quang Ngai, Qui Nhon, Song Chu, and Nha Trang, mostly at district towns, but I’d never found anywhere to compare with Hoi An. Its scenery and particular features had an effect on everyone who visited: tourists, hosts and guests, and all the nations that have been associated with history of the country – the French, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Spanish – all have a unique respect for this part of Hoi An.

 In an article entitled The Old Faifo, an archaeologist called A. Sallet noted that Spaniards like the missionary Borri first came to Hoi An (known as Faifo in French) very early on, in 1618. Phu Bien Tap Luc, a history by Le Quy Don, mentions that 16 foreign ships entered the port of Hoi An in 1771. Dom Jao, a Spanish Viceroy in India, reported back to his country in 1617 that “Hoi An is a port in Cochinchina, and very convenient for us on account of the proximity to Manila and Macao, and the varieties of silk available there.” In 1919, L. Cadiere, a French missionary who knew a considerable amount about old Vietnam, wrote in a study entitled The Arenes’ quarter that “In 1666, Viceroy Jao and his wife arrived in Hai Pho (Hoi An) on a visit to Jesuit priests, and were received at the port in a solemn procession with trumpet and silk hammocks. Hai Pho became an important town politically, economically, and religiously.” Businesses prospered, as the Dutch and the Chinese pioneered trade in our country. Every smooth-paved rock, every brick and every weather-worn wall in the pagodas and shrines of Hoi An seems to lament in silence for the passing of the old Vietnam.

French journalist Pierre Bigorgne’s Grand Reportage No 217, printed in Paris in February 2000, notes that Hoi An once successfully competed with much larger ports in Asia such as Macao. Nowadays, after so many upheavals, only lonely old houses remain beside the Thu Bon riverbank, which is nearly three kilometers from the sea due to silt and sand. As a river and commercial port at the center of Vietnam on major maritime routes since the 16th century, Hoi An was indeed an international port for sailing ships from around the world, and there were local branches of companies from China and Japan to India and the Netherlands. After 1636, when Japan began to isolate itself from the outside world, Japanese ships left Hoi An for good and were replaced by an increasing number of Chinese traders. One result of that was the Japanese Pagoda Bridge, followed by later Chinese-style pagodas and curbed roofed shrines. Large communities of Chinese nationals sprang up, their houses decorated with brightly-colored red and yellow dragons and phoenixes. About 50 of them still remain.

If Hoi An, with its bridges, pagodas, and Chinese-style houses felt like a small community of Chinese refugees from Kwangtung, Fukien, or Chungking in Central Vietnam, and eventually turned into something resembling a sad and withered royal concubine, then Cua Han (which the French called Tourane), a city some 30 kilometers away, was more like a young girl growing up pretty and strong, determined to conquer everyone in the neighborhood.

I remember reading, in my 5th grade, the following sentence about the rivalry between these two sister cities on the narrow strip of land that is Quang Nam, in a book called The Five Flowers by French colonialist writer Jean Marquet: ‘This city is slowly killing the other one.’ It was still true when I visited, and it has stood the test of time. Hoi An did have something of that withered concubine, but it was also an old-fashioned and inspirational mother to a generation of beautiful young women and charming girls with magnificent dreams, a generation who left their indelible mark on the minds of local young men, and students from out of town who had happened to pass by, and wound up wanting to stay.

A town filled with memories of happy love, Hoi An was a tremendous place to be young. It was home to numerous dainty girls, cute, sentimental, and romantic inside, but serious in appearance. Perhaps it’s still true, over a half a century later, and maybe the young ladies of Hoi An still inspire the hearts of young men from Quang Da.

Hoi An wasn’t large, but it was more important than any other town in Central Vietnam. It wasn’t even particularly beautiful, but its quiet charm and its compassionate, well-mannered beauties attracted artists and men of letters from miles around. Current and former students at Vien Minh, the local high school, and ex-students from Dong Khanh in the old capital of Hue or Jeanne d’Arc in Hanoi would return to spend the summer vacation with their girlfriends, often accompanied by loyal friends who tried to take advantage of the situation to further their acquaintance, to amuse themselves, or out of a genuine desire to stay.

Even now, I can still see so many of those beauties when I cast back my mind: Khanh V., Thuy V., (Nhi Kieu), Bich D., Tam Th., To Thi B.H., Ai T., L. Huong, Lieu D… the list could go on and on, each with her own personal charm and dreamy traits, melancholy or playfulness. I also remember a family party given for student teachers at the Minh Vien high school by a local notable, Senior Huong Ng., whose daughters L.D. and L.H. impressed us tremendously. I heard that one of the sisters passed away; the other, living in Saigon and so much older now, is still said to retain her charm. She was never my student, so no utopian love took root in me, like in an old novel by Nguyen Khac Man!

In addition to the daughters of local notables, there were other unforgettable beauties too – Sino-Vietnamese girls who blended in with the locals, creating a pretty garden of lively flowers for the town. One of those was Diep T.V., a cute student of the Chinese school Quang Trieu, who impressed us profoundly with her noble comradeship and her unforgettable revolutionary perception. The daughter of a respectable Chinese family who had made their home in Hoi An some time before, and had done very well in business, she was a sensitive literary woman and poet of growing talent. Her numerous admirers included Pham Van Hanh, who paid homage in silent admiration.

She was a true patriot, who made a great contribution to the initial phase of the ardent revolution in Quang Nam. She’s a grandmother now, and lives with her children and grandchildren in the San Francisco Bay area. I wonder if she ever stares out at the scenery around her new land, and recalls the happy and unhappy days she spent in that heroic town when she was a playful foreign student at Quang Trieu school. I’m an exile too, and I phoned her one day to asked her about her memories, only to hear her reply, “What’s the use of thinking about things so far distant in the past?” As a writer, I couldn’t agree. The more distant a memory, the closer it is to my heart, and the more likely it is to stay there forever. I’ll finish with a few anecdotes about her and her former friends, Tran Thi S. and Tong K., and another reminiscence about past revolutionary and political activities in Hoi An.

I have told so many stories about the place – my hometown – and about how attractive it is, that people even started to believe me. I made it sound superior to Sam Son and the Do Son beaches in the North, to the point that N.T.V., a friend of mine and a Law student in Hanoi, took me at my word and decided to spend two months there one summer. On the bus from Tourane to Vinh Dien, he was so captivated by the nice way of talking and rosy cheeks of a beautiful student living on Pagoda Bridge Street named To Thi B.H. that he instantly fell in love. Things got more serious when he invited her to visit Cua Dai beach and go sightsee at the picturesque Non Nuoc mount, and they began an exchange of love letters that lasted two years. The following summer, when he returned to propose to her, she apologetically turned him down, saying that she loved Hoi An so much she felt she could never leave. She fell seriously lovesick afterwards and died in 1947, causing him great pain and driving another admirer (N.T., a former student of mine who is now a learned man) to despair.

Tran V.S. of Le Thuy district in the province of Quang Binh was, senior student at the School of Forestry in Hanoi, was another who I convinced to come. After five days he became the tutor of X.T., the daughter of a lady on Phuc Kien Street. He fell deeply in love with her irresistible eyes, and vowed to wed her the following summer with full traditional rites. Having accidentally been the first witness to their love, and assuming the role of their honorary intermediary, it was to my great happiness that they settled in his homeland North of Central Vietnam. Hoi An’s talent for romance once again.

When writing of this brief yet beautiful period of my lost youth, I can’t pass over Phuong Ha, a sensitive and sentimental friend, poet, and original resident of Hoi An. Like me, he was forever singing its praises. We were close friends, unfortunately separated by events over half a century that left me with an unappeasable sorrow. I miss him still!

Together with those playful and merry girls, Hoi An was dominated by a generation of middle-aged women, talented and righteous, who formed an independent group in the town. One of its members was Mrs. Tong K., the principal of a girls’ high school who, together with her sympathetic and intellectual husband, gave an intimate party for me after I was released from a Viet Minh prison in 1954. Other members of the group included the late Ms. Tran Thi S., a teacher, intellectual, and local revolutionary pioneer of the province; Mrs. Ho Q., a principal’s wife, literary amateur, and subtle satirist who often recited Chinese poems with other poets; Mrs. Phi Y and her husband, rich, generous business people; and Mrs. Huynh Tan, who had once been a beauty queen, and was then principal of the Jeanne d’Arc girl’s high school in Hanoi.

Some of the young men were equally notable, such as Le Anh, the winner of the “most beautiful photo” award, and owner of a photo shop in Central Vietnam famous for its superior artful pieces; and La Hoi, a romantic composer I often met in Le Anh’s photo shop, the author of “Spring and Youth,” an extremely popular song at the time, and a man whom music masters regarded as unique, joyful and optimistic, and who brightened the Vietnamese contemporary music scene. Unfortunately, his talents were smothered by political events when he was still far too young. Vu Han, a poet, was a man we saw less often, probably on account of his inferiority complex, but he kept in touch through anecdotes, mostly told to Pham Van Hanh.

Our tearoom, for youths from Hanoi who had been pushed away by the war, was located in a pharmacy, owned by our close friend Huynh Quang Dai, a graduate from the School of Pharmacy in Hanoi, who had just opened it on Cantonese Street. He made a point of perfuming the place with Eau de Cologne. The single so-called private ‘media agency’ in the town, Truong Xuan, was actually a modest magazine store beside the market on the riverbank, where a middle-aged man sold magazines published in Hanoi like Phong Hoa (Cultural Customs), Ngay Nay (Today), Loa Hanoi Bao (Hanoi Loudspeaker), Dan Ba (Women), and Tieu Thuyet Thu Nam (Thursday Novels). It also was the place where literature lovers gathered to discuss literary subjects and news from around the country, mostly from Hanoi and Hue. Compared to the population of Quang Nam and other provinces, Hoi An had a higher ratio of poets and amateur writers, and a higher consumption of literature and art products, so that it was well known as a center for literature and the arts. It was a worthy inheritor of its forebears, who were often mentioned with pride and respect in the internationally circulated Quang Da Special Issues.

Hoi An was also a favored spot for actors and actresses from famous opera troupes from resplendent Hanoi, including the Anh Vu, and especially the The Lu’s, who had performed everywhere from Hoi An to Tourane (or Da Nang) and Bao An, Vinh Dien… Renowned literary personalities such as Nguyen Tuan, Doan Phu Tu, Vi Huyen Dac, Pham Van Hanh… had come there to rest, and had been filled with praise for the hospitality of the people of Quang Nam and their numerous beautiful girls and handsome boys. Artists always promised to return before reluctantly leaving Hoi An for their home in the North, although many never did, probably for reasons beyond their control.

Old Hoi An, though small, had both ancient history and modern beauty, and was respectable yet romantic, with its well-mannered and lovely girl students alongside its sentimental and high-minded boys. My writer’s memory, which has inevitably been affected by time, might be unfaithful in its recounting of facts; but I beg the indulgence of my readers if I have brought any unintentional dissatisfaction, and offer my thanks.

A few years back, Bui Giang, a talented poet who has since passed away sent me the following melancholic poem he had dashed off in dedication to his homeland. The English is only an approximation:

Hoi An                       

My desolate old town, I’m dreaming of you,

Of the sails on your misty river

Of your waves

And the happy years of my youth I spent with you.

From far away I still miss you dearly

I miss my youthful past

And I miss you daily

And under the moon, I’m thinking of you, lonely.

(B.G.)

Vu Ky (Brussels 99)