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Writer Nguyen Ngoc Tien: “From childhood to adulthood, I have been permeated by Hanoian culture and lifestyle”
Jenna Duong 17:18, 2023/08/01
In the minds of famous writers and journalists specializing in Hanoi topics, Hanoi's elegance and honest lifestyle are a warm sea current flowing beneath this ice of time.

Writer and journalist Nguyen Ngoc Tien has a profound love for Hanoi. He recently spoke with the local press about his career and life as a Hanoi lover and writer. 

The portrait of Hanoian renowned writer Nguyen Ngoc Tien. Photo: Tuoi Tre Thu Do

As a young man, you wanted to study at the University of Civil Engineering - but instead, you studied at the Theory and Screenwriting Department of the Academy of Theatre and Cinema. How did that happen?

In my opinion, those who want to pursue a writing career need a gift or practice to become skilled. As for me, maybe it's partly due to talent, but this factor only helps you know how to write and use words and sentences that don't sound silly. But good work depends on talent. I lacked talent, but I was full of diligence.

Because I want the things I write to live longer, I've chosen a style of writing that is, as Confucius put it, "description without comment"; it's up to the reader to judge. However, the choice of what to say and what not to say is still a personal intention.

As a matter of fact, I passed the entrance examination of the University of Civil Engineering. But at that time, ethics was the second criterion after passing grades, and I hadn't yet been admitted to the Youth Union just because of my high school pranks.

It was only because of a poem by Ngo Quan Mien that I applied to the College of Civil Engineering:

“I go to build works

 Season by season, sleeping in thatched huts

When the red-brick walls are high

It's time to depart again with backpacks.”

Back in the days, I was quite romantic and idealistic!

When I was discharged from the army, life in the centrally planned economy was hard, so I temporarily put my studies on hold and worked at the Vietnam News Agency. But that year, the Hanoi Academy of Theater and Cinema recruited personnel for many disciplines. Thinking that  studying would suit me better, I took the exam and fortunately passed.

Is it true that the rookie of the 308th Division brought books to the battlefield on the Southwest border and to the hunt for Pol Pot's soldiers in Cambodia?

When I was transferred from the 308th Division to the 7th Military Region to fight on the southwest border in 1978, I carried many books in my backpack. They included English study books, 10th-grade literature books, and even novels such as "Crime and Punishment," "The River Don flows quietly," and "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame".

I wanted to study whenever I had free time so that when I was discharged from the army, I would have the knowledge to pass the university exams. Thanks to this, I didn't have to work too hard for the Academy of Theater and Cinema exams.

The second-in-command of my former company, Warrant Officer Bui Xuan Xung, was very surprised to see a soldier who could die in battle tomorrow but still had some books in his hands.

Nowadays, Xung lives in the South; sometimes on the phone, he reminds me of when I was reading books in some trenches.

Nguyen Ngoc Tien's book themed Hanoi by Youth Publishing House. Photo courtesy of the publishing house

You and your colleagues produced a number of investigative reports against corruption and in support of national renovation and Hanoi's development. Do you have any particular memories?

After decades in journalism, the most emotional time was when I worked as a reporter and editor for the Hanoimoi Sunday publication. I was able to do my job with self-respect, to write beyond constraints, and to fulfill the responsibility of a writer. I gave it my all delving into corruption cases; the printed articles made me both happy and sad: happy about me doing something useful for the community, but sad about the large number of corrupt officials.

There were times when we even disagreed with the editorial board. I still remember that my article "Vu Dai Village in Soc Son," which dealt with poverty in the mountainous suburb, was the subject of a complaint from Soc Son District to the municipal Party Committee.

While writing about the golf course in Dong Anh, we were even kidnapped by the project's opponents.

After all, we still pride ourselves on always maintaining fairness and candor in our writing. I'm proud to do my job with self-respect.

As the author of hundreds of articles, studies and novels about the capital, you are always remembered as a writer imbued with the soul, dignity and daily life of Hanoi. How do you feel about this?

I was born and grew up in Hanoi. From childhood to adulthood, I was permeated by Hanoi’s culture and lifestyle, so I just write like that. No flattery. No blandishments.

However, there are many opinions that the people of the capital are condescending. I don’t argue, just pointing to the comment of King Tu Duc in Dai Nam Thuc Luc (Chronicle of Greater Vietnam): “Hanoians are arrogant, lavish and libertine (fond of freedom).”

Although it is now more or less degraded, the honest lifestyle of the people of Hanoi is still like a warm sea current flowing under the ice of the time.

Your perspective on Hanoi seems multi-dimensional, covering history, geography and culture. But above all, it is the emotional dimension that prevails, with vividly described characters, such as the female worker who looked after the rooftop clock of the Hanoi Post Office for decades, an old man singing Xam (blind busker’s singing) or a woman street vendor. Why did you adopt this perspective?

I favor the topic of ordinary city dwellers because they lead the most arduous lives of all social classes, and they’re the soul of a city.

When I participated in the award of “Bui Xuan Phai- For the Love of Hanoi”, the judges commented: “‘Walking Across Hanoi’ and ‘Walking Along Hanoi’ by Nguyen Ngoc Tien has opened up a unique way of recording and exploring the daily life of Hanoians”. I think I’m on the right track.

 The cover of the book titled Me Tu Hong or Madame Tu Hong by Nguyen Ngoc Tien: Photo: Youth Publishing House 

The land and people in your works have depicted Hanoi in transition from a medieval to a modern city, with almost contrasting colors. Do you plan to write about the outskirts of Hanoi?

I was born in a suburban village. The suburban people have the rusticity of the countryside, but as they go to the city every day for work and business, they also absorb the elegance of the city. Forgotten specialties such as Chem pork bologna, Ve fermented pork rolls, Van Dien pork bologna, steamed rice cakes sprinkled with oil, as well as some of today’s popular dishes such as cold snail vermicelli, snail vermicelli soup, Thanh Tri steamed rice pancake or Mo tofu all originated in the suburbs.

But one day, the suburb becomes an urban area. Gardens disappear, houses sprung up, village roads turn into streets. No sidewalks and few trees. The village festivals aren't lost, but they're no longer joyful.

I’ve written many articles about the suburb of my time, which was peaceful and filled with kindness. I’m also gathering materials to write a book called ‘Missing the Suburb’, hopefully to be released soon.

Walking around Hanoi with your emotion-filled heart while listening to the breath of the time, you always choose your own path with exciting discoveries. Can you tell us something about your companions?

Between the 17th century and the first half of the 20th century, Westerners wrote several hundred books about Thang Long - Hanoi. As for the feudal Confucians, their best books are also about Thang Long.

Nowadays, there are still numerous writers writing about Hanoi, with various genres and perspectives. Some authors with many publications are Nguyen Viet Ha, Nguyen Truong Quy and Do Phan - who’s also a painter.

They are my friends. I believe that in the future, more young writers will continue to explore new and fascinating themes related to Hanoi.

 A corner of Hanoi in the artwork of Hanoian artist Pham Binh Chuong. "A Cold Rainy Day"/ Oil on canvas, 2021

Nguyen Ngoc Tien was born in Vong Village, Phuong Liet Ward of Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi 1958. He is the author of various best-seller books themed Hanoi like “5678 Steps Around Sword Lake”, “Traveling Along Hanoi”, “Traveling Across Hanoi”, “Traveling Through Hanoi”, as well as novels like “Hanoian Soldiers”, “Fragile”, “Madame Tu Hong”, ”, among others

“Traveling Along Hanoi” and “Traveling Across Hanoi” won the 2012 ‘Bui Xuan Phai - For the Love of Hanoi’ Awards and the 2012 Hanoi Art and Literature Award.

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