Writer Son Nam, who passed away in 2008, embodies the essence of southern Viet Nam with his frank but poetic stories.
The number of foreign tourists visiting Viet Nam has decreased this year, according to the statistics of the Viet Nam Administration for Tourism. But foreigners seem to prefer visiting the Mekong Delta region – the business there has risen 33 per cent over last year.
The southern region’s beautiful landscapes and its history lure tourists. They come not just for sightseeing, but also to discover the local culture.
No one has a better handle on Mekong Delta cultures than writer Son Nam (1926-2008), according to French researcher Pascal Bourdeaux of the French Academy of the Far East (EFEO) in HCM City.
“The quintessence of the local culture is reflected in his pages,” Bourdeaux said. “Through the stories, he offers a path to discover the southern region.”
Nam’s brain was stocked with knowledge on the Mekong Delta. Readers call him “a living dictionary on the southern land.” And that abundant information flowed through him into 60 fiction and nonfiction books, and more than 400 short stories.
Nam once said that the history of the southern region is the history of the long-standing land reclamation process.
“As my grandfather and father spent their whole lives making a new place their home, an awareness about claiming new land is rooted in my soul,” he wrote in his memoirs.
“Naturally, my pages are written about this process. Writing about it is my strong suit. This is a subject southern people are interested in because their memories of the early days exploring new lands and conquering nature still remain.”
Nam told stories of how brave and fearless the southern people are when they try to catch giant crocodiles in U Minh Ha Forest, how romantic they are when they perform hat boi (classical theatre) on boats riding deeply in the forest, and how hard they struggle with nature during flood season.
He was born in the southern province of Kien Giang. He studied in Can Tho and took part in the resistance war against the French. After the Geneva Agreement in 1954, he moved to Sai Gon (now HCM City) to write books and articles for local newspapers.
“When I came to Sai Gon and lived in a low-roofed house in a small alley, how could I write about living a luxurious life?” he wrote. “That’s why I chose to pursue the subject of ‘orchard civilisation’ and ordinary southerners’ lives, which I know well.”
Nam explained that “orchard” indicated Mekong Delta provinces where they had many orchards, mangrove forests and zigzag canals. But why “civilisation?”
“In special geographic and historic circumstances, Vietnamese southerners made generous, courageous lives for themselves,” he wrote. “They created for themselves some unique habits, cultures and customs, which is why I called them a civilisation.”
Writer Pham Sy Sau, an editor from the Tre (Youth) Publishing House, said he considered Nam his father. He said Nam spent his whole life writing about his beloved land and people.
“I began reading his stories when I was in high school, but I didn’t meet him until I started working for the publishing house,” Sau said. “I served him as a friend, colleague and financial manager for 30 years. He always surprised me. I adored him.”
Nam lived in a small hired house for the 30 years he lived in Sai Gon. He didn’t own a house or a bike – he walked or took the bus. When Sau became vice chairman of HCM City’s Association of Writers, he tried to buy Nam a house from the state budget and individual writers’ contributions.
“Though all Nam’s books are displayed solemnly at bookshops, few people know that their author lived in poverty in his whole life,” Sau said.
Recently, the publishing house started presenting Nam’s books to schools in HCM City, aiming to help students understand their region and instill respect for the prominent writer’s legacy.
“When Nam was alive, he expressed his compassion and love for children,” Sau said. “Despite his poverty, he still spent money on books, clothes and gifts for poor students. He also used his prestige to ask principals to let them enroll.”
Once Sau accompanied Nam to a reception at a newspaper’s office, Sau said. After the party, Nam collected all the food left and brought it back for the poor, hungry children living near his house.
Poet Le Minh Quoc said when Nam became determined to write about his native place, he chose to return there.
“His stories are attractive with the context of the Mekong Delta,” said Quoc. “Both language and characters embrace the southern region’s identity. He didn’t just tell stories about the southern region. He also ‘translated’ dialects into the common language and made their works familiar to people.”
One among his stories, Mua Len Trau, was made into a film by director Nguyen Vo Nghiem Minh. The film Buffalo Boy was sent to international festivals and won some awards.
Set in the lowlands of the southern region, the story is a richly textured and stunningly visual reflection of the rhythms of daily life and culture determined by flooding water.
Through his books, Nam proved that the local people’s lifestyles and cultures formed an “orchard civilisation”. The concept has since become popular. It is considered an integral part of Vietnamese culture.
Aside from his life, the author also found inspiration in various written sources. Libraries were his favourite places. He was able to access some work by eminent scholars such as Vuong Hong Sen and Truong Vinh Ky. He also travelled across provinces to collect experiences.
Despite writing so many books, Nam rarely stored them or other stories he wrote at home. All of his creations were hand-written and typed, and then the only versions were sent to the publishing houses or newspapers.
He kept other authors’ books in a humble space in his house. He consulted them to enrich his own writing.
“Nam had a strange habit that he rarely offered his books to anyone, no matter how close they were with him,” Sau said. “He told me that if someone respected him and the time he spent writing his books, he or she would spend the money to buy them.”
The Tre Publishing House bought the rights to his creations, and aimed to collect all his works since Nam did not preserve them himself.
Sau took up the mantle. By poring over Nam’s memoirs and dialogues with other authors, he managed to collect stories scattered across publications.
Many of Nam’s stories are based in his philosophy about life. Another writer, Vo Dac Danh, said his favourite story of all time was written by Nam.
It’s about an old man who works as a barber on the sidewalk. When a policeman questions him about his family record book and identity card, he says he doesn’t have them.
“I’ve lived here most of my life, and I don’t have any identity card, just like a number of other people who live here,” the old barber told the policeman. “I’m just aware that I’m a citizen of Viet Nam, the motherland.”
The police asked him to define the motherland.
“For me, the motherland is a place where I can earn a living with honest work, and no one makes things too difficult and I have some good friends,” the barber answered.
Danh said the old barber’s aspirations represent the aspirations of millions of people in Viet Nam, even now.
“Nam is the poorest writer I’ve ever known,” Danh said. “Despite living in poverty, he still found joy in writing, readers’ responses and talking with friends.
“Like the barber in his story, I believe that when I live in a place and feel happy with my work and friends, it’s motherland, and I don’t need a paper to prove that. The more I read Nam’s books, the more I understand his ideas and learn lessons from them.”
Vietnamese readers aren’t the only ones who remember Nam. French researcher Bourdeaux said the renowned writer has led the journey toward understanding southern culture for foreigners, too.
“I had a chance to meet and talk with him many times at Go Vap District’s library where he came every day to work,” Bourdeaux said. “We talked in Vietnamese and French and through the conversations, I came to admire him as a learned person.”
The writer seemed to speak for all Mekong Delta residents, Bourdeaux continued. Thanks to him, more people came to understand how diverse the delta is, with different sub-regions, landscapes, cultures and dialects.
“Language expresses the culture of a region,” Bourdeaux said. “If we don’t write down it in literary works, it will be lost.”
Bourdeaux intended to ride a boat with Nam and a filmmaker through all the region’s canals and rivers to shoot a film about the writer and his career.
“He was going to tell stories about his life, explain his works and relate the process he used to turn his real-life experience into stories,” he said. “It would have been a good film, but it was never brought to fruition because he passed away.”
Bourdeaux and his colleagues are translating Nam’s books into French to introduce southern culture and the ‘orchard civilisation’ to foreign readers. Some short stories in his most famous book Huong Rung Ca Mau (Scent of Forest in Ca Mau) have been translated and taught at Paris University Diderot.