Hanoi is without question, for me, the crazed, dirty, artsy, gutsy, eccentric capital and lifeblood of Southeast Asia. Take Paris. Grime down the buildings and filth the gutters; change all the signboards into Vietnamese; add a million streetside phở vendors, a million ardent touts, merchants and basket carriers, citywide communist broadcasts twice a day and three million motorbikes; remove all the traffic rules; and top the whole thing off with the best damned coffee in the world, on every street corner. Then you have Hanoi: labyrinthine, lawless, insane, and utterly glorious.
This bookstore was literally around the corner from where I stayed: Ethnic Travel, Insight Into Vietnam, it’s called, and somehow rises quite appropriately to its rather belaboured title:
It is a floor-to-ceiling wall of books, shuddering like jelly on the flimsiest and most skeletal bookshelf they could get away with. It might have been made of bamboo, and possibly toothpicks. The bookshop was being minded by a tiny, wide-eyed Vietnamese girl who spoke not a jot of English apart from “You buy now?” Tiny as she was, she trundled the precarious mobile front of the bookshelf back and forth across the room for us, picking up the books which, dislodged by the jerky motion of the shelf, tumbled out along the way, and stuffing them back into their places with total aplomb.
The bookstore sells and buys used books, specializes in travel guides, and is clearly aimed at the bewildered non-Vietnamese-speaking clutches of people who wander the streets of Hanoi, their alienness betrayed each time they flinch at the deranged traffic as they cross the road (locals navigate the sea of madness without so much as a flicker of the eyelid). Once inside, though, you could be in any used bookstore in the world, and only two things indicate you might in fact be Asia: the Buddhist altar discreetly commanding the only empty square of display space in the top corner of the room, and the presence of books like these slotted among the normal offerings:
A peek inside the book will reveal an extremely suspect, grainy, photocopied quality to the pages — not that you need anymore than ‘Slaugkternouse-Five’ on the spine to tell you that this book has not seen the inside of a kosher printing press in its entire lifetime. Piracy is alive and kicking, even if it no longer involves eyepatches and peglegs. Welcome to Southeast Asia.