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
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