by S. K. Kelen
Over the road from the three star
Galaxy Hotel is our hotel,
the old park on Phan Dinh Phung Street,
home to many and work place for many more.
A place where anything can happen
and happily usually doesn’t.
People come and go as in an opera,
playing their respective roles
with their own music and destinies—
a Vietnamese opera where life is mostly
happy, not opulent for sure and it takes a war
or typhoon to introduce epic scale tragedy.
A lot of people stay all their lives.
Some are born here, some arrive.
There have been family lines, dynasties in this park
generation to generation doing what they do,
making the best of a hard life.
There’s survival, love and many arguments—
it’s no paradise living in a park.
You could call our struggles ‘day to day’.
Too real for opera. A better metaphor would be
the park as island in a sea of traffic,
trading and communicating with other islands
and some of us look pretty shipwrecked at times.
Better still: A vital node at street level in the new era
open-door state-sanctioned market economy.
How many ways is it possible to say the same thing?
It’s just the old park on Phan Dinh Phung Street.
Old Emperor what’s-his-name built it
to graze a flock of golden turtles and the Dragon King
rested here while hunting nine-tailed foxes.
Some days the clouds re-enact the old stories
Almost yesterday the sky lit with the dragon’s breath,
we fired at American phantoms and bombers.
We were always bamboo, now we are also steel.
By the time the shadow boxers, slow motion
sword fighters and tai chi exponents arrive
for their early morning workouts
we’re awake and busy, setting up for the day.
Crafts people and traders keep the ancestors’ way.
Blacksmith hammers out drive shafts
shoemaker mends Reeboks and plastic clogs
the shoeshine boys polish for a pittance,
the tinker adjusts tuners, videos, CD-players
and with a few twists of solder
the amplifiers piled on the pavement
will be seen to in no time flat.
The parasol and feather duster vendor
diversified into electric fans years ago
and is looking at new technologies
the man whose father fixed wagon wheels, his job
is to pump up flat bicycle and motor scooter tyres.
The traffic still flows like a flooding river
but its song has changed from bicycles and cyclos ringing
to blaring car horns, engines, the smell of sweat to choking fumes
that blot out so many of the night stars, a great sadness
when the stars are all you will ever own.
There’s a smiling idiot who talks all day into a mobile phone.
Progress! I read in a paper there’s one TV for every nine Vietnamese.
The Phung Street philosopher’s still here,
still like a statue, sitting straight-backed in a teak chair
pointing with a pencil to a page in his book
can answer any question of wisdom East or West,
parlays Français like a Frenchman
and though astrology’s passé, he’ll tell your future too
the children laugh when his thick glasses fog up in the Hanoi stew.
‘Enough things remain eternal.’
Hanoi-by-night — the park cloaks love’s ardour
even in moonlight long shadows wrap sheets of privacy
tucking in couples touching steamy nights.
During the hot season be careful where you step!
Daytime there’s no time for serious romance.
Everyone works in the park. The Park Committee
has ensured that no one need beg and beggars,
asked politely to move along, get slipped a few old notes.
As everywhere, we have our serious cadres,
with portable loudspeakers to amplify
their good intentions no one has time to listen to—
too busy, too busy. Marching music!
The children spend an hour or so selling postcards,
maps, pirated novels and phrase books then spread
their school on park benches, the tiny chairs and tables
brought out from under a canopy provided by the council.
I remember the magic of learning algebra — equations
put worlds in balance, physical and spiritual,
running writing made words run like rivers.
And doing schoolwork in the park made it more serious,
you had to get on if you wanted out.
Several of my classmates went on to better things.
Some stayed. Some moved to different parks.
All of us did our duty for our country.
These days electric fans keep serious young heads cool.
(How many parks can boast power points?)
Most of the children who leave the park
come back to visit ‘humble origins’.
Sometimes they’ll come to me, I’m Huan
decorated veteran, part-time cyclo driver
but my fame rests on being the park’s chief barber
and my young apprentices
cut hair better than anywhere in the city.
These days I mostly check the barber stools
are lined up straight, the mirrors hang
neatly from the wrought iron fence.
A manager! But I’m there when a young genius
gets his clippers jammed in a poor customer’s ear,
I unclip, sweet talk and finish the haircut.
I’ll take the pay when that happens.
The youngster can keep the tip
unless the tip is bigger than the fee
say when it’s a businessman
or tourist letting their head go for a ride
on the wild side—then I keep the tip.
Today one park prodigy, the articulate and beautiful
news reader from VTV-3 my second daughter,
Thuy, has come home to see me.
Don’t ask me where the park’s food comes from;
except in hard times the stalls near the old stone walls
overflow with the finest and we swap our change
for a good hot meal. As well as rice noodles and eels
there’s beer, ice-cream and coca-cola, fruit from all over Vietnam
and for the past week, apples and pears from New Zealand.
Must be the government doing something right
or someone high up who came from the park, whatever,
the dragon king has never forgotten us.
I’m not crazy, I go inside when a bad storm is on the cards
and every day wash myself and clothes in a hole in the wall
with a tap and a door, called ‘public baths’, four blocks away.
I really never could abide to be inside too long.
Three months working in a munitions factory
was enough — I volunteered my way out and the action
I saw at the front was outdoors all right, down south
fighting invaders, fighting cousins,
where a ghoul let out of a bottle feasted on blood
where our battalion, well — and my wife back in Hanoi
worked on an anti-aircraft gun —
excuse my mentioning the war in this city of love.
Indoor people might wonder what kind of trick
can make the park people smile so much
— your looks of fascinated guilt are touching —
we’re the first to see a rainbow and the stars come out
feel the breeze on a dead hot night it’s true,
and it’s the best rent in town.
A few years ago I was given a job
as hairdresser-in-chief over at the Galaxy.
The clippers were electric, there were oils and shampoo,
tonics and concoctions from New York and Paris,
crisply cleaned towels; not a speck
of rust, not even dust marred the slick scissors—
hell they gave me a terrible jacket and a room
to sleep, but the air conditioning and pastel walls
made me feel I was trapped in a dragon’s tomb.
I quit with a bottle of whisky and went back
to my residence in the thousand star hotel.
‘When real luck calls you must answer,’ the park
philosopher quoted some ancient wisdom.
I always thought my next address
would be a marble-roofed room in the middle of a rice field.
But the next chapter of my story reads like the denouement
of a Charles Dickens novel the state encouraged us to read,
the part when the well-heeled come to take
the wayward waif home as one of their own.
Hence my daughter’s assignment. I must have mentioned
she was brilliant at school and university, married well
but she made her life in TV — I still find television foolish,
people taking the parts better played by puppets
interrupted by advertisements for things no one can afford
but that’s where the brave and brilliant go these days.
Anyway, Thuy hit the jackpot: two boys in a row
— hai con trai ! hai con trai !
The whole park shook my hand for a week
when news of the second boy got around
toasted good fortune with beer and snake wine
burned incense and phoney money
like it was going out of style
and New Year had arrived six months early.
Two babies now — Thuy’s executive husband
and his family are too busy modernising
the country to mind children and
manage a knick-knack shop in the street.
Her mother, bless her, can’t be there to help out.
My little girl’s taking me home to a life
with a comfortable bed, shiny bathroom, two scooters,
refrigerator, a car — the life they advertise —
to take care of my beautiful grandchildren
for whose love I will gladly endure a happy ending.
The neighbours wave and I wave goodbye.
My kit and I fit fine on the back of Thuy’s scooter.
When we arrive she becomes serious and says
‘I forgot to tell you, as well as minding the children
and the shop, you’re expected to tend the ancestors’ shrine
on the roof, and...’ and I’ll take the kids for a morning walk
round the park, afternoons a cyclo ride and ice creams.
Tonight I string my hammock on the roof — the penthouse suite
of the thousand star hotel, a step or two closer to heaven.
Last updated July 20, 2011