Archive: Sleepless in Thăng Long


The ceiling fan churns heavy air.
I lie awake, on sweat-slicked sheets. 

Insects tangle above my head, 
jostling vampiric mopeds at rush hour,
rebounding single-mindedly off mosquito netting,
seeking shortcuts to my blood.

Legend has it
that three sweet, sweet bites
will restore them to their human form.

But when an enterprising bloodsucker
succeeds in breaching my mosquito defences,
he usually doesn’t stop at three.
There’s good bite in this bottom,
and too few other humans in this bed.
So I tend to doubt this tale.

Tomorrow it is Sunday,
so the man upstairs will be hammering tiles
into his floor, my ceiling.
Renovation, installation or fetish?
He starts with the roosters
and doesn’t stop until I am raggedly awake, 
crowing with weary resentment.

The sky tears
and clatters on tin sheet roofing.
The air cools
and, at last, I sleep, with the city coiled around me.
Somewhere, in my dreams,
I can feel it exhale.

Busy Hanoi Streets

The city that never lets you sleep (By Jrwooley6 – Flickr: The Busy Hanoi Streets)

From here on January 29th 2012.

Archive: Christmas on West Lake


It’s Christmas on West Lake, and Ha Noi is out to play.

Through flotillas of festive balloons,
the lone cyclist catches glimpses
of shadowy, elaborately coiffured
Duran Duran extras, cracking sunflower seeds
and scanning the crowd for pretty girls
to put on the backs of their motorbikes.

For this special day, the elderly have
abandoned crotch-thrusting
in favour of a stately waltz.
Beyond the grace and its audience,
a small boy in a Santa suit 
is pissing purposefully, joyously, against a tree.

Tran Quoc Pagoda, West Lake, Hanoi

West Lake, in more serene circumstances (by Greg Willis from Denver, CO, USA, via Wikimedia Commons)


From here on December 24th 2011.

Archive: Leaving Ha Noi


For Jacqui
In a season made for wandering,
colours and corners newly uncovered
are more alive for being found
on soon-departing feet.
Following tangled wires
down shuttered lanes,
grappling twisted weeds
to unearth secret mansions.
Farewell photos against fading numbers
of time-worn xe-ôm drivers.
No need of them,
feet press on.
A park, our very own lake,
coconuts and shuttlecocks and
Five in a row
with uncle Hồ,
Smile sweet but eyes afire
with time-honed killer boardgame instinct.
We lose, in game terms,
but our feet must move on.
There are ladies running rings around Lenin, backwards.
In Hà Nọi
some days
like Moses parting the mopeds
everything goes your way.


Thong Nhat Park, Hanoi

Benevolent Uncles Ton Duc Thang and Ho Chi Minh

From here on December 12th 2011.

Archive: The way home


This poem is inspired by the fact that, for the first month or so after moving to Hanoi, I was unable to locate my own house with any confidence.

First into the maelstrom,
the swirling tumult
of people going places
that are far more important
than anywhere you are.

Then suddenly into serenity:
knowing swans
bearing furtive lovers
across a neon-lit lake.

Down a tree-lined side street,
past unseen embassies
and gangly soldiers in guard posts
ringed with sunflower seed shells.

Out on to Dọi Cán,
past a shoeless Santa on a plastic stool
yelling at a man up a ladder
without ever losing grip on his dog-end.

Left at the pile of rubble
in the middle of a choked intersection,
scattering hooting Hondas
among the fruit and chickens.

Past the hospital
and the lady xe-om drivers
who pat their bike seats maternally
and cackle uproariously
when you say no.

Then the free-for-all at the gas stand,
and left-right-left down the winding street
that my landlord describes as “go straight”.

Through the narrow lane
that rings with the sound of construction
and shy hellos
from upper floors.

Follow the shrieks to the school and
under a spreading tree,
past eurodisco aerobics
and razor-sharp pyjama-clad badminton stand-offs.

Thread through the tea drinkers
outside the second staircase
of the faded ochre building
and then up.

Skirt the ping pong match
in the fourth floor corridor
and skip over the skeleton of a kumquat tree
to my front door.

Please take your shoes off
and don’t mind my geckos.

Hanoi home

The view from my balcony.

From here on October 6th 2011.

Archive: Enthusiasm makes my day

Student sleeping on desk

Teach. Inspire.

Asked to reflect on his school days, one student ushered in a new course together by writing “I wasn’t a good student in school because I am my personality are very lazy and I miss school for 6 months. I didn’t have any favourite subject because I didn’t like study and or also teacher because I don’t didn’t like school”.

Nice to feel needed, is it not?

From here on October 14th 2010.

Archive: Notes from the cliff face

Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, good at using the internet even before it was invented

Teacher: Does anyone know any older people who can use new technology?

Students (in unison): Alcohol!

Teacher: Alcohol?

Students: Yes, do you know alcohol? Alcohol is known in Vietnam, always use new technology! All Vietnam peoples are know him!

And then the penny dropped.

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Vietnamese students’ ability to turn any given conversation to Uncle Ho.

From here on October 5th 2010.

Archive: Xin chao Viet Nam

Busy Hanoi streets

Ha Noi’s 1000th anniversary – let’s all go for a drive at once!

It’s 8pm, and I am sitting on a wooden “sofa” marking 16 discursive essays on the benefits of online learning. On the fifth floor of an apartment block, on an unnamed lane at the end of a windy street left from the petrol station past the school and under the big tree, Hanoi, Vietnam. Someone downstairs is playing loud patriotic music, and across the dirty dribble that passes for a summertime river, it’s the festival of hitting bins. The local canine population is protesting vigorously. My ears, eyes and bottom are all protesting vigorously.

My living room is, comparatively speaking, an oasis of calm. Outside there’s the aerobics in the park, and beyond that and the maze of winding streets there’s the non-stop onrush of mopeds, motorbikes, and – new since I was last here – cars. Beyond that, somewhere, the city is flocking to yet another 1000th birthday Hanoi celebration, merrily blocking streets until the small hours. 

I think now I understand why I failed to write anything meaningful during my first months in Japan. I’ve long kicked myself for letting such an opportunity pass me by, but perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’d forgotten how draining it is when nothing is for certain, when every conversation is an elaborate mime, when you’re not certain to be able to find your own house again without tying a piece of string to your wrist. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting – but one hell of a buzz nonetheless. And I sure would never have had a gecko if I’d stayed at home.

From here on October 5th 2010.