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The names behind the Hanoi streets: Xuan Dieu

Alleged by some to be a closet homosexual, Xuan Dieu is widely considered Vietnam’s greatest romantic poet

Grant J. Riley

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Xuan Dieu Love Poet

When Bono sang “Where the Streets Have No Name” he clearly was not talking about Hanoi. The streets here do have names and fascinating ones at that. But where do they come from? It so happens that the city’s wonderful sounding streets are often named after persons of considerable note, be it poets, singers, diplomats, generals, warlords or even goddesses.

Over the coming weeks Chào will be taking a dive into the ‘people behind the streets’ and what they did to make their mark in Vietnam, so you can know how and why the place that you walk along to get your regular fix of bia hoi, or whatever else for that matter, is in fact a place of great historical provenance.

We are going to start with the most foreign of districts that so many of our readers know so well, perhaps a little too well in fact: Tay Ho.

Tay Ho District has become synonymous with Westerners. This zone is named after the Vietnamese words for West Lake – Tay means West, but is also the word for Westerner (any foreigner in fact) and Ho means lake. And yes, we fully appreciate the irony that this area of Hanoi is the one most chock-full of foreign residents.

Many may scoot, cycle or walk up and down Tay Ho on a daily basis likely unaware of the significance of the local street names, but behind these titles are fantastical myths and legends and honoured Vietnamese writers, musicians and artists.

Xuan Dieu Map Hanoi
Xuan Dieu Street in Tay Ho District, Hanoi.

Xuan Dieu

To be a poet is to be lulled by the wind, to follow the moon in dreams, and drift with the clouds

Xuan Dieu Poet
Writers To Hoai and Xuan Dieu.

The next time you are riding down Xuan Dieu street and a taxi driver blares a horn right in your earhole or an SUV cuts you up – perhaps think of poetry. And in particular the love poems of the nation’s favourite romantic – Xuan Dieu. He certainly had a way with words:

At break of day I feel as if I’m clasping a bouquet of smiling flowers
But the wind of time does not cease blowing
And the hours wilt like falling petals

The legendary Xuan Dieu (1916-1985) is without doubt one of Vietnam’s most famous and adored poets, and his extensive body of work includes 450 poems (particularly love poems) several short stories, essays and various literary criticisms. In Vietnamese terms, he is basically a literay god.

In 1993 Vietnamese writer To Haoi wrote in his memoirs that Xuan Dieu had indeed been reprimanded whilst in the Viet Minh, for molesting other men in bed.

Dieu was one of the main pioneers of the 1930s ‘New Poetry movement’ where artistic styles transitioned from the former Chinese-influenced writing to more individualistic, emotional and lyrical expression that were often influenced by the Western literary styles of the day.

Xuan Dieu Hanoi
Poets Huy Can and Xuan Dieu were allegedly lovers.

In the 1940s he partook in the national independence coalition, formed by Ho Chi Minh and known as the Viet Minh. He became one of the leading poets of his generation, with prose and poetry that encouraged the resistance against the French colonizers.

Nonetheless, Xuan Dieu will always be fondly remembered for his love poems. Despite being a diehard romantic, he was only married for six months before he became divorced, allegedly never consummating the marriage and eventually going to his grave a bachelor.

There is substantial belief that Xuan Dieu was a homosexual, an alleged lover of Huy Can, a lifelong friend and fellow poet. Some of Can’s poems included titles such as: Tinh Trai (A man’s love – dedicated to the love affair of the male French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine), as well as many poems dedicated to love and apparently addressed to men. 

I want to haul wandering clouds and swerving wind, I want to indulge in the butterflies of love, I want to garner in an ample kiss…

XUan dieu poem: “HASTE”

In 1993 Vietnamese writer To Haoi wrote in his memoirs that Xuan Dieu had indeed been reprimanded whilst in the Viet Minh, for molesting other men in bed.

Nonetheless, Xuan Dieu has great poetry collections that are regarded as master pieces and still studied by Vietnamese school children to this day. These poems glorify love, life, happiness, as well as the love of life itself. Alongside these he also laments the passing of time, the precariousness of life and is said to have shown a desire towards immortality.

Xuan Dieu Vietnam Stamp
Vietnam’s first postal stamp issued on Valentine’s Day uses Xuan’s image.

Back in 2016, a ceremony was held to celebrate his 100th birthday, which was also marked by a recital of his most famous poem Voi Vang (Haste):

I want to haul wandering clouds and swerving wind, I want to indulge in the butterflies of love, I want to garner in an ample kiss…

Ten years earlier (1996) he was awarded the noblest of Vietnamese accolades – The Ho Chi Minh Prize for Arts and Literature.

So next time you take a stroll along bustling Xuan Dieu, with its French bistros, Argentine steakhouses and fancy apartment complexes, remember this is a street born of love, poetry, romance: a tribute to one of the Vietnam’s finest literary figures. Well, it is something to ponder while you slurp down your pho at least.

sONGS BASED ON xUAN’S POETRY.

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