David Payne is obviously someone who wears many hats: development expert with the United Nations in Hanoi, writer, translator, musician, book collector.
One of the things he likes about living in Hanoi is the chance to combine many elements in his life: books, music, literature, and even work. Describing himself as a generalist not a specific expert in one field, in the last month or so he has been in Quang Tri, Laos, and Cambodia evaluating a program on landmine clearance. That was followed by facilitating a discussion on how to reduce corruption in transnational organised crime, then a meeting on improving the health and safety of livestock production. In between work commitments he is a keen bass player with the Ngu Cung rock band. His itchy feet also often wander around obscure streets in Hanoi looking for old books or some chance discovery.
‘I don’t know what the real me is yet, maybe all of them together,’ he said. Above all, David is probably happiest to describe himself as a Hanoian.
Coming to Vietnam the first time to work for an Australian NGO back in 2000, without any significant plan to stay long term, he found Hanoi an interesting place and he loved it. The city has of course developed a lot during those years. It has doubled in size; the whole area of My Dinh was rice fields when he first arrived, now it is an incredible mini-city.
Being a nostalgic person by nature, it is interesting for David to witness the immense changes happening here. Sometimes he misses what he considers the old Hanoi b ut he thinks cities are always changing anyway. Looking from a different, even clichéd, angle, in some ways parts of Hanoi are, he considers, still the same. ‘When you see old photos of Hanoi 50 years or even 100 years ago, some things are still recognisable,’ he siad. ‘People’s clothing might have changed, plastic stools are now used for street food instead of wooden stools, but some of the buildings remain and a lot of people still feel very strongly about Hanoi. They are passionate about preserving their city, as one could see in the case of the “Saving the Trees” campaign.’
So ‘How much has Hanoi changed or how much have people changed?’ is always a subjective question. ‘Has Hanoi become more difficult than 20 years ago? Maybe not,’ he muses. When you hear people talk about the 80s in Hanoi sometimes they paint a quite bleak picture. There was a lot of poverty, there were certain levels of conflict in society as people were under great pressure, feeling cut off from the world. It is not that life has reached a tipping point in Hanoi, David argues, but that people themselves have changed and they have different expectations for their life. Though he found it sad that he sometimes met local people who said they still loved Hanoi in their heart but found it difficult to live there. It does worry him that the best and brightest people are leaving instead of staying and trying to contribute to make something different. But, he acknowledges, he has been living outside of his own country for the last decade so he can’t be too critical of someone else leaving the city.
Fifteen years have already passed, with many of his expat and Vietnamese friends moving either to Hoi An, HCMC, or other parts of the world. But here he remains, enjoying the many quiet and busy corners of Hanoi, going to Tadioto or Manzi for an evening out, or to Hanoi Rock City for some good music.
Besides books, music, some old furniture, surfing, and his son, Vietnamese literature is one of many David’s passions.
After ten years in Hanoi his blog, ‘Hanoi Ink’, was born, where he throws himself as deeply as he can into the possibilities of the old book shops of Hanoi, with Vietnamese literature in all its forms, poetry by Han Mac Tu and Nguyen Nhuoc Phap, and sometimes a well-loved guitar or a new (old) typewriter. He got to know Hanoi a lot better, made new friends along the way, and accumulated a house full of music and books.
Asked which author he is currently reading, he mentioned ‘Buc xuc khong lam ta vo can’, a collection of social essays by Vietnamese author Giang Dang. David quoted his favourite line - ‘Roi tat ca se tro thanh Do Son’ (All that would turn to Do Son); a simple yet compelling sentence that captures a lot of changes happening in contemporary Vietnam.
Normally he would focus more on the old stuff partly because he is always interested in history and partly as it is always easy to see good things from the past rather than the present, as they have been tested by time. He is still reading Tran Dan and Bui Giang, interesting poetic figures who are just being re-discovered after so many years.
As a literary enthusiast, one of the most common questions David fields is: ‘What is the one book I should read to gain an introduction to Vietnam?’, to which he has no simple answer. If one is interested in the Vietnam War, Bao Ninh’s ‘The Sorrow of War’ is very moving, but he chooses ‘Dumb Luck’ by Vu Trong Phung as a book to help you understand the contradictions in modern Vietnamese society. As it was written in a context when people are wondering how to engage with this new world of Europeanisation - what new things should be taken from outside, what should be preserved of Vietnamese values and culture - he believes in some ways people are coming back to those questions. Like many others, he is still yearning to see some new emerging writers capture and communicate about Vietnam in its profound real life, where people are grappling with questions of identity, family, culture, value, and where and how to live in this society.
Only time will tell!