I arrived into Ho Chi Minh City at twilight on a weekday evening, late November 1999, the dying days of the last millennium. I’d never been to Vietnam before. I’d been sent there to look at some grassroots community-based projects funded by my NGO.
My Vietnamese counterparts picked me up from the airport, and as they drove me into town we started chatting. I explained how I wanted to learn more about the local language and culture, to help me understand the background to the projects.
I asked about Vietnamese literature, and one of them mentioned a book that was about to make a dramatic impact on my life. At that time it was just a name: Truyen Kieu, the tale of Kieu. Written by the diplomat-poet Nguyen Du, it was first published in 1820. I’d never heard of it.
We dropped my bags at my lodgings and then headed to a restaurant in downtown Saigon. I was immediately struck by the sense of solidarity, community and family that pervades all Vietnamese life and interactions. You get a feel for it even just crossing the street. Broad avenues host an incessant flow of bicycles, motorbikes, cars, taxis – if you waited for a European-style break-in-the-traffic you’d be standing there all night.
What you have to do is simply pitch yourself into the current, trusting that the riders and drivers will avoid you, and sure enough, the waters part, as if you are Moses crossing the Red Sea. The system depends entirely on trust: avoid whomever is in front of you, and trust those behind and around you to do the same for you. It creates a scary kind of magic, as I mentioned to one of my new colleagues. “Foreigners always notice that,” she said. “But what happens in your own country when someone steps out into the road? Do you just knock them over?”
This commonality is rooted also in the language itself. In Vietnamese, personal pronouns are replaced with family relationship markers – that’s why the Vietnamese tend to ask a stranger’s age as soon as they meet you. They’re deciding what to call you. Most of the people I met called me “older brother” or “younger brother” when they spoke in Vietnamese.
This family feeling is strengthened at mealtime, with plates arranged in the centre of a round table for everyone to share. At the restaurant that first evening, one of my new colleagues reached across, picked up a tasty morsel with her chopsticks, and dropped it into my bowl of rice, rather than her own. I was slightly miffed; it felt like a mother cutting up the rashers for her children at home. But then I realised that I was interpreting it all wrong: for the Vietnamese, this is a mark of respect and friendliness. On finding a bite that looks especially delicious, you give it to an honoured guest, rather than eat it yourself. How pleasant it was to reciprocate. How welcoming and intimate it made that first meal.
“So tell me about this famous book,” I said. “Truyen Kieu. What’s it all about?”
It’s the story of a girl, they said. A Chinese girl, it’s set in China. She meets a boy and they fall in love, but the boy is called away on family business and the girl gets tricked into working in a brothel. She escapes, she has a series of adventures, she never forgets her first love. It’s a love story, it’s an adventure story. It’s full of beautiful poetry. All Vietnamese people are familiar with it. Some people even use it to foretell the future – open it at random and put your finger on a verse: that’s what life has in store for you.
It sounded fascinating. I was ashamed of my own ignorance in never having come across it before.
Over the next few weeks, as I travelled the length and breadth of the country, wherever I went I found locals who knew the poem well and were happy to educate me about its significance: the peasant women with their income-generation project out in the jungle, the rice farmer in his paddy field, the government officials up in Hanoi. And there in Hanoi I picked up a bilingual copy of Kieu for myself, and began to decipher it, line by line. I was delighted with the text’s freshness and its modernity, with how its sense of fun leavened the telling of its tragedy. And it struck me that foreign powers might have thought twice before invading a country whose population is fortified by this story, whose message is that you must keep going, no matter what life throws at you. Stay true to yourself and you will come through the worst torments. And those cruel ones who consider themselves powerful will wither and fade, like the best and the rest of us.
When my field trip was over, I brought Kieu home with me, along with a dictionary and the prison diaries of Ho Chi Minh. I wasn’t planning anything so grand as a translation; I was simply trying to keep my rudimentary knowledge of the language up to speed.
In some ways, my reworking of The Song of Kieu into English has resulted from this imperfect attempt to improve my Vietnamese. Nevertheless I got a good book out of it. What I have tried to capture is the flow of the story, the vividness of the characters, the sparkle and wit of its lyricism. I wanted also to create something that Nguyen Du had achieved so brilliantly in his original: a book that you can pick up at random and wherever it falls open it will captivate you, luring you into Kieu's life, the challenges she faces, her ingenuity in overcoming them. It is a great shame that Vietnam's national epic has for too long been neglected outside of its home country (apart from among the Vietnamese diaspora). I hope however that my little translation will go some way towards redressing that omission, and that English-speaking readers may be enriched and rewarded as they discover the enduring power of the fabulous world of Kieu.
The Song of Kieu: A New Lament by Nguyen Du, translated by Timothy Allen, is published by Penghuin Classics, at £8.99