Hanoi, Silences

Valentine Goby

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

1997. I haven't been back for a year. The first place to revisit is a woman: Chi Dung, her red plastic table surrounded by small stools near the ground, the earth strewn with squares of greasy paper, fine as skin. Chi Dung, her corner of the sidewalk at the lower end of Bach Khoa University, her black casserole steaming and redolent with the odor of soup, bones stewing, cilantro. She takes the boiling chicken out of the bouillon, its skin fatty and yellow. She separates the pieces with her fingers, sliding her index finger between the joints, she pulls and the limbs come without effort, she separates the flesh, lifts out the breasts, one by one, without damaging them, their surface smooth and glistening in the shape of bread rolls, she detaches the feet and head with slow, precise gestures, she smiles. With a knife she cuts thin strips of meat, throws them into big bowls over cold rice noodles, and pours over that a ladleful of hot soup, swimming with fatty bubbles. I know each of her movements by heart. For me Hanoi begins with them, immutable rituals of a year in which, every night, and almost without speaking, I sat there, opposite Chi Dung, and ate a bowl of pho for 3,000 dong.

At night, Hanoi is not a city. It may have changed in the last two years, but in 1995, the night was little floating lights reflected on the ground, which you felt under foot without really being able to distinguish them; no streetlights, or if so, rare and minimal. Faces gilded by the flames, hunched over something you couldn't see, at times gas lamps, the wick short, the oil low, a few neon lights too, the ice-cream store sign, a little terraced restaurant above Hoan Kiem Lake. Not a sound. Engines can be heard from really far away in such silence, and there aren't very many of them, motorbikes that slide through the darkness, the headlights sweeping the miniature tables of the sidewalk vendors who sell single cigarettes, soup, eggs, banana beignets, hawking their wares by weight in front of their scales, a whole invisible mob, whispering, with the very soft jingling of a ladle against the casseroles, the muffled sound of freewheeling bicycles, the xe oms, the motorbike taxis, too revved up in low gear, always about to stall.

Chi Dung's joy isn't any louder. We parked the motorbike, Pierre-Gaspard and I, against a tree climbed by cockroaches with wings as long as your palm, we sat down at her table, she raised her eyes, her face lit up immediately—joy is a smile with your teeth here—a discreet, ephemeral cry: "em Pierre, em Valentine!", a flurry of fingers. And that's it. After a year's absence. She didn't ask anything—she took out two bowls, remembering that for us it's a deluxe chicken pho, with an egg broken into the broth. She cuts a just-cooked chicken by hand, saving us the white back meat, the plumpest and tenderest.

I've definitely seen the boutique next door. A photographer has set himself up under a garish blue neon sign. For the moment, I don't ask any questions. Before, this was Chi Hang's spot. Here in the doorway there used to be a pair of tables, even smaller than Chi Dung's, and four stools. Chi Hang, her face round and white and smooth and luminous as the full moon, used to serve icy watermelon juice, a bit too sugary, and ca phe sua with condensed milk, ga to cua, sweet cakes in the shape of a crab, another name for a croissant even though they had neither the consistency nor the taste of one, and which we ate with a spoon from a sky-blue ceramic plate, chewing the sticky coconut filling. We inevitably ended up there every morning after our pho breakfast. We didn't say much to each other. I stayed for hours sitting on this doorstep looking at the street in the early days of my trip, and the days became weeks. For a long time I was incapable of pronouncing a word, six different possible accents for the same syllable, a maze of misinterpretations and slips of the ear, indecipherable language, I could neither get around by myself nor ask for directions, pronounce the name of a street or a neighborhood; nothing. And then the borders had only just opened, and no one spoke anything else but impossible-sounding Vietnamese. I'd sit there with my watermelon juice and my notebook, Chi Hang and I communicating in sign language, she would smile, this warmth rendering the silence tolerable, my forced silence.

I can see that Chi Hang is no longer here. I don't know the face of this photographer who has taken her place. I bite my tongue. Hanoi is cautious, well mannered. Every foreigner remains a foreigner, and we are no exception. I wait; asking Chi Dung the question right now would be too brusque. I wait for the right moment. Despite my now-fluent Vietnamese, I force myself into silence.

Still so many silences, in the maze of northern neighborhoods where I've just been walking, dead at night, streets with boutiques and craftspeople napping behind drawn curtains; the neighborhoods that stretch out along the river are full of moving shadows; they don't frighten anyone, sandals skim across the dry mud and disappear. Foreigners love Hanoi, the softness of the faces, the indistinct sounds. Here, joy keeps quiet, along with unhappiness. There are the smiles of men and women, wearing this mask for every minute of the day, every hour of their lives. The entire body is concentrated on the face's effort to smile, the whole city, so as not to cry out in sorrow. I try to recall, in one year, did I ever hear someone shout? There was that drunken man on the other side of the road, who asked me to join him. Those women, who threw stones at me. But the pebbles striking my helmet spoke of gestures held back, of bottled-up, painful anger. So many concealments in Hanoi. There are these hidden women that the dictatorship, out of shame, has erased from existence, these state-owned prostitutes you can take for the night behind closed doors or in clandestine places, liver saturated with alcohol, behind the bridge—keep it quiet. These boys, Lâm, Khanh, Thang, Hau, who whistle while shining shoes and don't seem like street kids, not yet—the word is forbidden. So many words are forbidden, the silence is profound; pages of newspapers indifferently censored, descriptions crossed out with a pencil stroke that you never hear about, they never existed, they're already dead, there's no drama, just little abortions of thought, Freud doesn't exist, nor do those millions of people who think with a pen, exiled to a foreign country, people with paintbrushes, zoom lenses and rolls of film, thought erases itself, sweet silent agony, or even circulates clandestinely on photocopied books from Ho Chi Minh City, hidden under coats, for which you risk jail time, keep it quiet. There's the ice-cold corpse of Ho Chi Minh himself, laid out under glass; his body is hard and silent and people pass by the cadaver in a long, hushed queue. Bodies lock up so much horror; silence, necessary moments of forgetfulness so as not to vomit up the pain, pain invisible to the naked eye, made of indelible images, skin burned by napalm, throats slit, dripping with blood, monstrous babies, there are these men without ears, hanging out on the sidewalk with their four-foot-long arms, there is everything that has been killed, the rapes, the children blown up by grenades, pregnant women with torn-up bellies, the survivors gone crazy or transformed into chasms of silence. Keep it to yourself.

Chi Dung says nothing. I'm afraid. She serves me another ladleful of bouillon, cracks an egg in it. I tell myself eat, fill your mouth, she doesn't want you to speak, so I pick up the boiled yellow globe with my chopsticks, I slide it between my lips, it bursts and spreads on my tongue; there's a taste of iron, of blood, that turns my stomach. Chi Dung, I say, where is Chi Hang? Chi Dung scrapes the chicken carcass that she's completely stripped bare, throws it in the boiling water. "She's dead." Dead? She places a chicken, throat already slit, on the table and slowly removes the feathers. Dead of what, Chi Dung? "I don't know." But when? "A month or two ago, I've forgotten." Chi Dung disappears into her little shack, holding the chicken by the neck. Her daughter comes out to replace her. Night truly falls on Hanoi. I know that I'll never live here again. I hate silence.

translated from the French by Christine Buckley

This translation of Valentine Goby's 'Hanoi, Silences,' an essay from Petit éloge des grandes villes (Gallimard, 2007), is published with the permission of the author and Gallimard.