For Dutch poet Dick Gebuys, his first impression of Vietnam was that it was a small, brave Asian country involved in a war with the US, nothing more.
After more than 10 years visiting and working in Vietnam, his mind has changed dramatically.
Gebuys, who is also a historian and playwright, now considers Vietnam as his second home – a place where he fell in love with food, people and poetry.
Recently he translated Thi Thanh Ky (Chronicles of a City Dweller) by writer Di Li (Nguyen Dieu Linh) into Dutch. The book will be introduced and sold in the Netherlands in November.
Gebuys first heard about Vietnam at a camping site where he met a young man who said his name was Steve from New York. Steve had been to Vietnam as a soldier. Steve told him many personal stories about the war. It was the first time Gebuys heard about Vietnam beyond what he heard on television and newspapers.
Gebuys was young but he knew, one day, he would go to see the little brave country with his own eyes.
He finally went to HCM City in 2004.
“We were in a bus in crazy traffic, thousands of motorbikes, we also lost our way back to the hotel, that was terrible” said Gebuys.
“I was happy to leave the city after three days, but after more than a week touring through the country, I knew I would be back again. No matter HCM City or Ha Noi, it began feeling like home.”
Gebuys has now returned to Vietnam too many times to count and has made friends with people from all parts of society and all over the country.
As for work, Gebuys writes.
“I write poems about what I see, listen and notice.
“I am also working on a big book about Vietnam and another one about movie director Dang Nhat Minh,” he said.
By chance, while roaming a bookshop in Ha Noi, Gebuys stumbled upon and read The Black Diamond, an English version of Di Li’s book. He was impressed by how the stories highlight Vietnamese people’s characteristics and habits in modern life.
Gebuys said he loves Li’s writing style.
“She has a very nice way of writing about important issues in society,” he remarked, adding, “She writes with irony and humour, and with a great feeling for words.”
Feeling very vexed, Li responded saying that she didn’t want to meet a strange person that she knows nothing about.He tried to contact the female author and sent her an email with a few words: “Hello, my name’s Dick Gebuys. I have read your book and I want to meet you.”
Gebuys immediately wrote a long email to introduce himself. Finally, Li agreed to meet Gebuys and now has respect for the Dutch poet.
“He’s a perfect translator, frankly,” she said.
“The first time we met, he showed me the torn book, The Black Diamond. Each page was full with his notes and remarks,” said Li, “I was so moved that he seriously enjoyed the book.”
He released a poetry book about Vietnam, It Just Looks Like You Touch Things Now, including Red River and American War poems. Writer Di Li translated the book into Vietnamese and it will soon appear in bookshops.
Gebuys said the Red River in Hanoi is a source of inspiration and it made him feel at home because he was born in the harbour city of Rotterdam.
“My ultimate wish in this life is to live in a house on the waterside,” he said.
“Any time I pass by the Red River, I think back to the trip I often made with my parents and grandparents, crossing the Hollands Diep. The child I once was comes back to me.”
Another favourite place is Tao Dan Park in HCM City.
“This park emits a spirit of freedom, in every sense of this word,” he said, “It is great to walk there, either in the early morning or when the sun is setting to capture the lovely, fleeting twilight.”
For Gebuys, Vietnam is a country that inspires him in a multitude of ways. It is a place where he always has a reason to write.