nguyen ha van

I spent most of my one full day in Hanoi with Van. My original plan was to look at some paintings, with the hope of finding something to bring home. That’s how Van and I spent the first part of our day, and I did completely fall in love with one painting by an artist named Nguyen Dinh Quang, but it was priced at $3,000 and too big for my home.

It was a very simple painting of a few pieces of fruit laid out on a big silver table. In the background was a chair beside a window. Outside the window was nothing but a silvery-white fog, painted to match the flat surface of the table. It was the only painting of his that I saw that was not dominated by red and gold, which seem to be the standard colours of Vietnamese laquer painting. (They are the national colours after all)

Much of what I saw in red and gold – by many artists – was beautiful to be sure, but in each gallery you see so much of these colours that it’s the other paintings – other colours – that tend to stand out. In the end, I bought a small still life by a different artist. I may regret not buying the Nguyen Dinh Quang painting, but maybe I’ll have another chance to see his work someday.

After our little gallery tour, Van brought me to a nice city park, where we strolled and sat for a couple of hours, watching boats move lazily on the small lake there. Van asked me if I would sing to her for some reason, which I only agreed to as payment for her excellent motorbike services.

It’s a truly beautiful thing to ride behind a pretty girl on two wheels, catching the gentle smell of her hair as she negotiates death-defying merges and fleeting gaps between buses and cars.

When I tried to think of things to sing to her, the only songs that came to mind were by the Drifters. The only sensible explanation for this is that I’ve heard their songs sung a capella before. I chose Stand By Me, Up On The Roof and Under The Boardwalk, stopping between bars to repeat and explain the lyrics.

From the park, we went to the home of Van’s “sister” (actually childhood friend) Nga, where we drank tea and had a strangely serious conversation. Nga greeted me with the question, “When I hear you are an American, do you know what I think of?”


“That period about 30 years ago. Do you know what I mean?”

“Of course. I also think about that quite a lot when I’m in Vietnam.”

She talked in a very obviously loving way about ‘Uncle Ho’ (Chi Minh). Her birthday is one day before his, and she grew up feeling like his grandchild. Her obvious love for him is shared by everyone here in a way that’s amazingly present and real. Tears well up in their eyes.

After tea at Nga’s house, Van and I went to the Highland Cafe, on the edge of West Lake – the biggest of the nine lakes in Hanoi – where we drank fruit juices and watched the sunset. Then it was back to the Old Quarter for beef pho and ice cream – ‘chip chocoloate’ for her, coconut for me.

Finally, we wandered back to the Internet cafe where she works and chatted for a while with her friend Nhung.

Van is a 23-year-old computer student who has never travelled on an airplane, never been outside her country or visited many places within it – not south to Saigon or Hoi An, Hue or Na Trang, nor north to Sapa and the mountains. Even in her own city, she has never eaten Thai, French, Chinese or Italian food, which are all found in abundance – only Vietnamese.

She’s a student of the Internet age, however, who will graduate this summer with a firm footing in Java, PERL, ASP and C# (looks like Vietnam is gearing up to be another source for the outsourcers). So her tech skills are way beyond my own, and when it comes to getting around the city of Hanoi, I could not have asked for a better teacher and tour guide.