Friday, 1 April 2016


In Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes a series of imaginary cities to the busy Emperor Kublai Khan. Yes, Kublai Khan was very busy indeed, ruling an empire that covered approximately 20% of the world's inhabited area. Yet his incursions into southeast Asia were largely unsuccessful. Three times his armies were sent to invade Vietnam, and three times they were repelled. During two of those campaigns Phạm Ngũ Lão, a military commander in the Trần dynasty Royal Guard, was instrumental in defending Đại Việt against the foreign aggressor.

Phạm Ngũ Lão caught mid-bow, presumably not in front of Kublai Khan
One interpretation of Invisible Cities is that each city Marco Polo describes is in fact Venice. This could be a nod to the revisionist interpretation of Polo not as great explorer but armchair fantasist, or it could be presenting the idea that in every city exists an infinite number of possible cities, and that these theoretical cities can exist in a multitude of different geographic locales simultaneously. These are intereting ideas to explore in Vietnam: as has been mentioned in a previous post, Vietnamese streets in nearly all her cities conform to a naming convention of national heroes. Perhaps it is possible to walk down Hùng Vương street in HCMC and Đà Nẵng simultaneously.

Marco Polo's family receiving a helping hand from Kublai Khan... or is it?
I have spent a great deal of time on two streets in Vietnam named for the hero Phạm Ngũ Lão: one in Saigon and one in my present home, Huế. The hypothesis that all cities are one of the same might be born out by the superficial resemblances between PNL Saigon and PNL Huế. Both are considered to be the centre of their city's backpacker/western district, though the former eclipses the latter in terms of size and scope for debauchery. It has been noted by many (including a blogger over at The Saigoneer) that it is ironic that a man renowned for repelling foreign invaders now gives his name to two streets full of...well, foreign invaders.

My occasional perambulations about the city of Huế rarely take me down the street of Phạm Ngũ Lão: it is a good place to get a western meal, a passable cocktail and a late(ish) drink on other occasions, though not somewhere one feels the soul of the city is on display. This casual disdain for the apparently inauthentic is, of course, delusory: whatever one's misgivings about neocolonialism, it is ignorant to reject the importance of this street to the tourist industry and consequently the whole of Huế. Nonetheless, on one early evening, when I was still accompanied on my walks by my (missing, presumed consumed) dog, Huệ, I did happen to wander down the street of the great Trần Dynasty general.

"Hello teacher! came a cry from the outside the restaurant opposite. The source of the exclamation was not, as might have been inferred, one of my students, but a member of the waiting staff. I crossed the street to say hello, recognising him as someone I had played football with once or twice, before the rainy season ended the soccer season.

"How are you? I was wondering if you could teach me something."

I asked him what he wanted to know. He was already smirking.

"How to get a girlfriend."

I was halfway through my protest that this was something with which I would be unable to help him when I realised he was, of course, being ironic. In Vietnam an umarried thirty-five-year old teacher is not someone one would ordinarily approach for relationship advice.

"I'm JOKING! I need help with my English. What does..."

Muscle memory kicked in and I adopted an expression of sincere concern, listening carefully and expecting to be asked a straightforward question about uncountable nouns, though I prayed that I would not be interrogated about a complex grammatical point. Again, however, he surprised me;

"...what does 'life is a tale, told by an idiot' mean?"

Now it was my turn to smirk. I'd never studied Macbeth at school, but was familiar enough with the full quote to respond:

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

...and I went on for a little bit, talking about absurdity outside the context of Macbeth itself, but to reassure him that I knew of the quote's provenance:

"...and of course, it's from..."

"Macbeth," he said, completing my sentence, "I know what it means too- I was testing you!"

He smiled and petted Huệ.

"You have passed the test! Well done!" 

Someone called him back to work, he said goodbye. 

A tale told by an idiot. Maybe. The three act structure might not apply to anything offstage, and the narrative thread is want to meander, but where it leads us... wherever it leads us, humans will impose patterns and structure and character arcs. So it came to pass that my dog and I were spellbound for a moment or two, trying to tie the threads of Macbeth and Phạm Ngũ Lão together. Both men were famous generals who had successfully resisted conquering forces, both men were close to their king. Phạm Ngũ Lão was loyal, however, and his reward was a bride of noble status (well, the adopted daughter of Prince Trần Quốc Tuấn) and a lifetime of war ending in a peaceful death at the age of sixty six...

...and possibly thousands of streets across his homeland named in his honour.


This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerned with the origins of Vietnamese street names, and the myths and legends attached to them. You can find the story of how this project came to pass at Huế Street Names.

Alternatively, you can look up all articles labelled street names

Wednesday, 30 March 2016


If the streets of a city tell its stories, in Vietnam the name of those streets tell the tale of a nation. One side, of course- it's glorious triumphs and heroic failures- but each hero or heroine is connected, no matter how haphazardly their names have been superimposed upon the city plan.

Beneath is a 1968 American ordnance survey, made around the time of the Tet Offensive. I used it as a base for earlier explorations of Hue. I've recently been working on a stylised, monochrome map of the city and used this as a base, comparing this fifty-year-old map to the current map of the city available on google. Many of the streets have changed their name, in keeping with the change of regime. 

Below is an incomplete list of some of Huế's streets, alongside the name the same street has on the earlier, American military map when Huế was part of the former Republic of [South] Vietnam. The plan is to get an entry up for every street, which will attempt to reference the character/ geographic feature that gives the name to each street, and to use this post as a hub for those related posts. 

Ba Triệu
A female warrior in 3rd Century Vietnam who resisted the Chinese occupation. Said to be nine feet tall with 3 foot breasts.
Bến Nghé
(Phạm Hồng Thái)
A River that flows through HCMC.
Đong Đa
Đong Đa
Site of the battle between against Chinese occupation in 1788, one of Vietnam's greatest military victories
Hai Bà Trưng
(Trưng Trắc)
Sisters who resisted Emperor Wu and the Han Chinese around 40 AD.
Hàm Nghi
not visible
Emperor of Vietnam for one year, 1884-5, before being deposed by the French. Attempted to lead insurrection from Laos, betrayed and exiled to Algeria. There is a Hàm Nghi school but it is on TQT street.
Hùng Vương
(Duy Tân)
Title of the ancient kings who ruled Vietnam in antiquity (c.2-3000BC)
Lê Duấn
(Thịnh Minh Thế)
General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party and its first post reunification leader
Lê Lai
Lê Lai
One of Lê Lơi's generals
Lê Lợi
Lê Lợi
15th Century rebel against Chinese rule and founder of the Lê dynasty
Lê Quý Đôn
(Phan Thanh Giản)
18th Century savant and encyclopediast
Lý Thường Kiệt
Lý Thường Kiệt
General of the Lý dynasty during the 11th C. Penned Vietnams' first declaration of independence. There is a Lý Thường Kiệt school though not on this street, it is on Nguyễn Tri Phương, though there is also a campus on Bà Triêu.
Ngô Quyền
Ngô Quyền
10th Century Vietnamese general, decisively defeated Han dynasty and founded the Ngô dynasty
Nguyên Huệ
Nguyên Huệ
Leader of the Tây Sơn rebellion against Lê dynasty and Nguyễn lords
Nguyễn Sinh Cung
(just 551)
Birth name of Hồ Chí Minh, father of Communist Vietnam.
Nguyễn Thái Học
Nguyễn Thái Học
Vietnamese Nationalist executed by the French in 1930
Nguyễn Tri Phương
Nguyễn Tri Phương
19th Century Military commander who fought against the French.

Revolutionary and member of the Indochinese Communist Party. Executed by French in 1941.
Military commander during the second and third  Mongol invasions, 1279 and 1287. Married the adoptive daughter of Trần Quốc Toản.
Phạm Văn Đồng
One of Uncle Ho's closest lieutenants, Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1955 and, following reunification, the whole of Vietnam until 1987. Died 2000.
Tố Hữu
(no street)
Revolutionary poet and Politburo member, died 2002.
Trân Cao Vân
Trân Cao Vân
19th Century Mandarin who attempted to orchestrate resistance against colonial rule by France. Executed.
Trần Quang Khai
(Trần Văn Nhung)
Third son of the first Trần emperor, military leader during Mongol invasion during 13th Century and inventor of the Dance of Flowers
Trần Quốc Toản
not visible
A noble lord and member of the Trần dynasty, assembled an army at the age of 16 to fight the second Mongol invasion. There is a school named after him, though it is on Đinh Tiên Hoàng Street.
Tuy Lý Vương
No street
19TH Century poet
Võ Thị Sáu
Schoolgirl guerilla and nationalist martyr executed by the French at the age of 19.

There's also the possibility of the narratives attached to each character connecting to one another, just as the streets are linked. For example, one can follow the street named after Vietnam's first kings and find oneself upon the street of the 19th Century Imperial general who fought the French ... before eventually meeting a school girl guerilla, by way of a river that flows far away in the south.

It also serves as a possible table of correspondences to randomly generate the addresses required for a graphic score for Huế.

Monday, 28 March 2016


There must be something magical about the number forty nine. Barely with the digital ink dry on the previous post- Dérive 49 - when this beautiful image appeared on one of the feeds to which I subscribe. The original impression of this image, pinned from, was a little small, but was annotated with this explanation:

John Cage's Graphic Score The innovative and influential American composer John Cage created a graphic score called “49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs” as a tribute to the ever- changing city of New York. He superimposed 49 triangles on a map of New York City, using chance means to determine the locations of each angle. The listener or recorder was invited go to the apex of each angle and listen to or record the sounds of the city in that place. *Rolling Stone Magazine, 1977.

There have been many iterations and interpretations of this score since its inception in the 1970s, and it presents an inspiring approach to urban exploration as both a productive and receptive exercise. The website features an archive of geo-referenced waltzes as uploaded audio/video footage.

Presumably, the use of triangles corresponds to the time signature of the waltz, 3/4. It's strange though, that the pieces are not combined, that they can only be listened to sequentially. Surely the pieces should bounce around one another, perhaps an excerpt from each on every beat?

I was also remound (I know, I know, reminded, but this is a pet grammar project of a former mentor, Madamoiselle X) of the wonderful Vi Hart who has produced (amongst other things) a fantastic video about twelve tone composition. I've provided a link to the video which begins at the most relevant point, though if you have time I recommend enjoying the full thirty minutes

Apparently Cage's vision was of other performers, listeners or or record makers to make transcriptions for other cities, simply by as"assembling through chance operations a list of 147 addresses and then, also through chance arranging these in 49 groups of three". It seems auspicious that this piece came to my attention as I begn to explore Huế's forty-ninth borough.

Some final words:

"Wherever we are,

what we hear is

mostly noise.
When we ignore it,
it disturbs us.
When we listen to it,
we find it fascinating."
-John Cage, The Future Of Music: Credo (1937)

Sunday, 27 March 2016


The lessons progress. Whilst slowly I learn history and folklore, superstition and language, my explorations need to continue using what I do know, to analyse what I think I can see... and these explorations need to be mapped.

Where am I?

I live on the fringes of Huế, Vietnam's former capital. As the rest of the country expands and develops, Huế's outer boundaries encroach on the outlying settlements but gently, in keeping with the unhurried pace that pervades the ancient city. Where its northeastern edge rubs up against the southwestern outskirts of Phú Vang district is Vỹ Dạ, the ward within which I am housed, otherwise known as  Bốn Chín.

Bốn Chín is Vietnamese for 49, referring not to an arbitrary numbering system for the ward, but rather detournement by the locals of the previous (arbitrary) name of the ward's main street. A pity that it was not Boulevard 41, since bốn một would make me smile.

The narrow street widens abruptly, after the lights. Big buildings- flophouse hotels and builders yards, in the main- set back from the road by ten metres or more. There's not a lot of soul, the people are detached from the promenade, the eyes of the empty international clinic stare impassively at passing backpackers on motorbikes.

Towards the bridge, another bottleneck. The wide street narrows as it approaches câu Vỹ Dạ, crossing this little tributary of the Perfume River. Across the bridge, the city's western district, but to the right, steps invite a brief dérive, a step out of time. Another narrow lane, low buildings serve as cafés, an old woman selling sand and cement. before again collapsing to show an expanse of sky, and the causeway separating the other side of Vỹ Dạ from the "western" district.

Atop the water, aquatic "ferns", perfect for hogfeed, imprison a vessel intended for the next world, a ghost boat for an ancestor to sail the rivers of hell.

This white man walking gets a lot of attention, principally from xe om motorcycle taxi drivers. It's a novel experience, after so many months of being another road user, not sticking out like a sore thumb. I only cross via the causeway at night, when the unilluminated left side affords a glimpse of oblivion, distant flickering neon of the far north bank suggesting something beyond.  

Drinking coffee with condensed milk, thinking about where this leads. I didn't even know the name of this corner of the city, the corner in which I live, until a casual conversation about the whereabouts of Côn Hen (Mussell Island) revealed that I'd been sitting in Vỹ Dạ for the past four months. But this gave me an idea. I have to approach the psychogeographical analysis of this city from as a curator-cartographer: I will make maps from the testimony of its residents.

Wandering back across the causeway, the theatre of water puppetry still looked grim, in spite of the intense noon sun. Looking at the above photograph now, the theatre would not look out of place amongst the ruins of Hô Thủy Thiên, yet it is apparently open. I did catch a performance of this baffling though highly entertaining traditional art form in Saigon, and endeavour to visit this place soon.

Across the causeway and onto Nguyễn Sinh Cung made for a far more interesting stroll than the walk along PVD. Running parallel to Phạm Văn Đòng, NSC is narrower, and with greater levels of human traffic. Like the best (and worst) of Huế's streets, the shopfronts spill onto the pavement, an there is a great conflation of public and private space, guarded over by ancient treees, many of which house ad hoc roadside shrines. There's also an attractive, colourful pagoda (pictured) and a pretty decent market, as well as the best fried rice in the city. I made a note of the turning to the bridge to Côn Hen, with a view to later mapping my route.

After the market I hung a left onto  Tùng Thiện Vương and followed a very narrow concrete lane lined with small coffee shops, barbers and bakeries before turning once more, this time towards the canal. A small lane led alongside it, bereft of businesses, and some construction work was in progress to reinforce the concrete embankment. No-one stopped to offer me a lift, or indeed paid me any attention. Eventually arriving home, I began to make a map with a red biro.

Note I have named the area between PVD, NSC and the two tributaries of the Perfume River The Estates of the Minor Plutocrats. This is based upon my own previous reconaissance and some anecdotal evidence provided by local friends. The area is comprised of wide, quiet streets flanked by large, detached and recently built residences, clearly of considerable worth. Additionally, there are a few schools (including the respected Phạm Văn Đòng secondary school), a local tax office and several sports fields. Though I imagined the residents to be amongst Huế's elite, I have been informed that the real movers and shakers occupy estates on higher ground, beyond the reach of the river's rising waters. Hence, the plutocrats I designate to the minor category, pending further investigation.    

Scracthing away on the brown paper of my notebook with a dry biro required some exceptionally heavy-handed penmanship, even by my own Lenny-esque standards, and I was pleased enough with the resultant image on the obverse to photograph and flip it. Admittedly, rubbing the image with wax crayon did not have quite as dramatic an effect as was hoped, though it's not entirely shit.

The map does not accomplish much, and is not pleasing to look at, but it was a tentative step in the right direction. The city holds many mysteries, and its surface has barely been scratched: and scratching is what I must do. Any city with history is a palimpsest, and the layers  must be teased away. All that scratching does, of course, create further images on the flipside, adding as it subtracts, building as it deconstructs. The work continues.


This is connected to an ongoing series of articles concerned with the origins of Vietnamese street names, and the myths and legends attached to them. You can find the story of how this project came to pass at Huế Street Names.

Alternatively, you can look up all articles labelled street names

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

HAI VAN PASS [Đèo Hải Vân]

THE LUNAR NEW YEAR brought with it a fresh opportunity to venture beyond the confines of the Imperial City, and through a combination of increased leisure time and over-stretched public transport, it seemed sensible to facilitate that journey by motorcycle. With one of the world's most renowned mountainous coastal highways being but a short distance to the south, it was time to quickly copy down a google map into the notebook.

The Hai Van Pass is situated on a spur of the Trường Sơn mountain range, connecting Thừa Thiên-Huế province to Đà Nẵng. The mountain pass was once infamous for the high number of accidents that occurred along its serpentine, 21 km length. Since the opening of South East Asia's longest tunnel (the inappropriately named Hải Vân tunnel- inappropriate because Hai Van means ocean cloud), fewer heavy goods vehicles and cars take the high road, leaving it a much safer place for tourists and travellers, local and foreign, to hurtle along at semi-sensible speeds.

Now connecting two provinces, this narrow strip of coastal road was once all that divided two great, historic Southeast Asian kingdoms: Đại Việt and Champa. And what a formidable barrier it would have been. Even travelling by motorcycle on a well-maintained stretch of tarmac was gruelling: it is difficult to imagine marching a medieval army along a treacherous mountain trail, many centuries ago.

Vietnam's history is tied inexorably to its geography. The lowlands are rich, fertile, and ripe for rice cultivation, but they are divided from one another by numerous mountain ranges. that jut right out into the East Sea. The mountains of Trường Sơn protected the Champa from their Vietnamese for a long time, but ultimately they succumbed to the might of the Lý dynasty sometime around AD 1000 and their capital, Indrapura (not far from modern Danang) was sacked. Hanoi's ascending dragon went on to annex the kingdoms of the Champa polity, with the last one falling some two hundred years ago.

It's not really a dérive, following a designated path at high speed, with the aid of a vehicle. Highways are not the places to conduct psychogeographical surveys, unless one is travelling by foot. Nonetheless, my mind did occasionally drift to thoughts of that ancient Cham culture. This land was once theirs, and yet few traces of their culture remain. Despite their grand history, they feature only vaguely in the accepted historical narrative of the nation.

Map from Cham museum in Hoi An.
The dialogue concerning Vietnamese cultural identity is still framed within the dialectic of north-south, forty years since the reunification of the country. As the crow flies, Huế is slightly closer to Hanoi than Saigon (537 km compared to 640 km), although the distance from the former southern capital is exaggerated by the serpentine route followed by the southbound highway. However, throughout the duration of the war Huế was very much a city of the south, with the 17th Parallel that divided the nation sitting more than 100 km north of the city. So far I am yet to meet a single Huế citizen who has self-identified as either northern or southern, with most distinguishing themselves as part of a distinct, central Vietnamese culture. Of course, this  being Vietnam (with 54 distinct ethno-linguistic groups living amongst a Kinh majority already divided into innumerable unique regio-dialecto- distinctions), most of my friends describe themselves as being from Huế, first and foremost.

Panorama of Hai Van. Click for a larger image
So far, so what? The journey from Huế to Đà Nẵng (and back again) served as yet another reminder of my own ignorance. There are simply too many unknowns to even begin dissecting the urban fabric of Vietnam's cities from a purely historical perspective. Coupled with this, my woeful progress with the Vietnamese language means I do not completely understand the local story. For example, whilst there is a recognised central Vietnamese dialect, there are strong variations in both pronunciation and lexis between Huế and Đà Nẵng. Clearly, Hải Vân is an isogloss, but my untrained ears cannot pick out what this very visible line divides, linguistically speaking at least.

The lessons continue. Whilst slowly I learn history and folklore, superstition and language, my explorations need to continue using what I do know, to analyse what I think I can see... and these explorations need to be mapped.

Sunday, 13 March 2016


Because the abandoned waterpark is so cryptic, backpackers pass directions around on scrunched-up napkins, drop pins on Google Maps and show each other photos to get to the right place. 

When looking for an abandoned water park, I can tell you those dropped pins are really fucking useful. For example, you can type Hồ Thuỷ Tiên Abandoned Waterpark, and by some weird alchemical process something like this will appear on the screen of your smarthphone:

It's no great mystery to find: it's popular with local people as well as tourists, and there's even an attendant at the gate who'll request a nominal entry-fee, although not everyone bothers tipping him. The crocodiles have been removed from the aquarium, and once a month a new travel blog will pop-up, featuring the inane musings of a self-styled "traveller" (you are a TOURIST on HOLIDAY), usually accompanied by photographs very similar to the ones included here.

To lesser or greater degrees, strangers in strange lands are seekers of novelty. It is unsurprising that Hồ Thuỷ Tiên has attracted so much western attention: the accessibility and scale of this site is unparallelled in Europe or the the US. In both hemispheres, opportunities to explore the rotting interior of a dragon-shaped aquarium are rare, and should be taken. 

Aside from the self-appointed guard at the gate, access across the site is unrestricted. Visitors peek at the ruined aquarium within the belly of the aforementioned dragon's belly. They clamber the spiral staircase to take in the view from his mouth. They enjoy a walk around the vast, constructed lake. In short, it's hard to discern any notable difference in behaviour between these visitors and the ones occupying the parallel world where Hồ Thuỷ Tiên enjoyed a full complement of staff and a well-stocked aquarium.

Admittedly, the demographic is probably much narrower than the original investors envisaged, and the number of visitors may be lower than they hoped, but there's no absolute index of success. The site is a tourist attraction with incredibly low overheads. I spent ten minutes looking at empty fish tanks, with no sense of irony.

A great deal has been written about the triumph of nature over artifice at this site, yet it is curious how it has managed to maintain a landscaped appearance after nearly twelve years of neglect. Perhaps it is the regularity with which visitors continue to visit the site that has kept the undergrowth in check. Maybe local cattle herders have been grazing their livestock here (a possibility, given that the adjoining land is a nature reserve and thus prohibited), keeping the vegetation at a manageable level. Whatever the reason, the negotiation of Hồ Thuỷ Tiên presents no challenges to an able-bodied individual.

Exploring the site engendered a curious sense of regret. There was no real reason for this to fail: most local people state that the park was never given a chance to succeed, that it never actually opened. This in contrast to what has been stated on every other blog concerning Hồ Thuỷ Tiên, but holds some water (pun intended): the site's construction is incomplete. Had it been completed, had it opened, I know of many local people who would have visited. Perhaps western bloggers, travelling through Southeast Asia for three months of spiritual discovery/ cheap alcohol, would not have visited had it been a fully functioning park. Perhaps they were not the park's target demographic. Conjecture aside, it can be stated that the park- well designed and laid out- had the potential to provide jobs for local people.

Weird to get sentimental, sat in a theme park in Vietnam. I'd always looked upon these follies of the post industrial age through the same picturesque prism as the 18th Century landscape gardener, naively romantic, revelling in the decadence. Canvey's occidental jetty, the abandoned works at Greenhithe, innumerable sites in the Lea Valley, prior to the Olympic Project: all of my previous expeditions were to sites of far greater economic tragedy.

Perhaps it was the fact that here was something that was designed, in the first place, to be magical. It was intended as an escape. Though that target demographic was most likely wide, the people it really wanted to impress were children. Of course, the intention was still to part people from their money, and even if they had not been as corrupt as some people have claimed, the original investors were out to turn a profit above all else. Yet listening to the wistful reflections of my local friends, as they recount the anticipation they had felt as a child, waiting for the water park to open...

If I were a resident of that parallel world where the water park was opened, I would probably have put off visiting for as long as possible. I would have gone eventually, though, and I would have complained about the queues, and the welfare of the aquarium's specimens. Not a word would have been written here, on the Huffington Post, or on any of those insightful travel blogs to which I've made vague references. So, although the water park of this reality is much more to my tastes, I can't help but feel this world would be a tiny bit better if Hồ Thuỷ Tiên had been completed.

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