BAO NINH SETTLED INTO his chair and ordered for tea. He put a pack of Camel cigarettes on the table and looked out of the window. “It’s not a good time to come to Hanoi,” he said.
May in the city is hot and stifling, and marks the beginning of a sweltering summer. As the temperatures soar, the crowds fizzle out. Later, the monsoon rains wash the city, igniting the “spirit of Hanoi,” which, according to Kien—the protagonist of The Sorrow of War, Ninh’s daring and wildly popular 1990 novel based on his experiences in the Vietnam war—is “strongest by night, even stronger in the rain. Like now, when the whole town seems deserted, wet, lonely, cold, and deeply sad.”
We met at a cafe in downtown Hanoi, favoured by journalists, artists and middle-ranking officials of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which has ruled the country since the end of the war in 1975. Ninh rarely engages with the press or gives interviews, preferring a quiet and simple life in Hanoi, which he seldom leaves. Outside, on the street, a light wind blew and the sun shone on the window pane, occasionally capturing Ninh’s attention. He lit a cigarette. “I appreciate your efforts and your interest in me, but there is not much to say,” he said to me through his interpreter Nguyen Phoung Loan. “I’m a writer. I can write but I’m not very good at talking about myself.”