Speech at the 23rd International Poetry Festival of Medellin, Colombia
By Nguyen Phan Que Mai
On a foggy morning in February 2012, winter had droped a blanket of light rain and mist over a delegation of 80 international and over 100 local poets as we proceeded to Poem Mountain, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. The road was muddy and uneven, and the wind threatened to blow us sideways. As we hung on to each other’s arms for support, we could not resist casting quick glimpses out to the bay, where hundreds of small mountains sprung up from the crystal, blue water. We had arrived at the Bay of the Descending Dragons and a UNESCO World Heritage destination, and we were on our way to open the First Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival at the foot of Poem Mountain, a site that proves that poetry and myth co-exist, and are a part of the everyday landscape of Vietnam.
When I was a child and studied about Ha Long Bay from a broken desk in a small village more than 100 kilometers away, Poem Mountain seemed to be grand. Yet no majesty in my mind could be compared to the feelings that descended on me when I stood that day next to the 200-meter high limestone mountain, which rose out of the bay like a castle with three imposing towers. In 1468, the Vietnamese Emperor Le Thanh Tong had passed by Ha Long Bay during his inspection tour to the eastern region. Touched by the stunning beauty of Ha Long Bay, he composed a poem and had it carved into the southern side of the mountain. The fifty-six ancient Vietnamese words of this poem were written onto a flat rock, two and a half meters from the water in one continuous flow, without any separation into lines. Over the last five hundred and forty-five years, the poem’s twenty-one words have faded almost completely by the sun, rain, and storms, so those that remain are difficult to read. Yet Emperor Le Thanh Tong’s spirit and love for literature remain in the hearts and souls of many Vietnamese who believe that poetry is an intrinsic aspect of natural beauty, and therefore an important part of our lives.
Although the creation of Emperor Le Thanh Tong’s poem has almost become a legend unto itself, it intertwines with the myth of Ha Long Bay. According to legend, Vietnamese people are the children of dragons and the grandchildren of fairies. During our earliest times, our country was invaded by foreign armies; in response, Heaven decided to send Mother Dragon, together with her baby dragons, to come down to earth to help Vietnam. As the dragons were descending, invaders’ boats arrived in great numbers. The dragons gushed out jade and jewels to form a chain of rocky mountains which acted as defending walls. Invaders’ boats, while travelling in high speed, collided into these walls and shattered into pieces. The invasion was thwarted and Ha Long Bay scattered with unusual and beautiful rock formations. And Poem Mountain, where we stood that day, is one piece of jade from the mouth of a brave dragon.
Admiring Poem Mountain from up-close and from far away, we could see that the mountain seemed to shift its shape. Sometimes it appeared to be a tiger in waiting, or a tiger playing with its catch. Other times, it looks like a dragon about to take flight. If you are lucky enough to be able to climb of top of Poem Mountain, Emperor Le Thanh Tong’s poem will lift you up and bless you with the magnificent landscape of Halong Bay. You can go there right now in your imagination; close your eyes and open your mind to immense emerald waters, to rocks seeming to bob throughout the bay, to surrounding flowers and trees, to the hundreds of small mountains which rise majestically above the water, and then open your heart to Le Thanh Tong’s poem:
Hundreds of tidal currents rise into vast waves
Countless mountains blend their green into the blue sky
The sound of night-drums beat strong in my heart
Calling me to build our nation with toil and tenacity
The North protected by our mighty army
Signals warning about enemies are vanquished and quiet in the Eastern Sea
Through history Vietnamese rivers and mountains stand
With martial arts and letters, we lay the foundations of our land.*
It is astonishing that more than 500 years ago Emperor Le Thanh Tong considered literature to be a country’s foundation. He was known to be a man with great visions, and he is today one of the most admired and loved Vietnamese figures. During his reign, he reformed Vietnam’s military, administrative, economic, education and legal systems. He expanded our country and defeated foreign armies. He was a warrior but a peace-loving poet at heart.
Every year, tens of thousands of visitors come from all corners of the world to visit Ha Long Bay, many of them poets who cannot resist the urge to compose poems at the foot of Poem Mountain. As they stand there, they may not understand Le Thanh Tong’s poem, but they do understand -- like Le Thanh Tong did -- that the Vietnamese people prefer peace to war, and would rather compose poetry than fight bloody battles. Today in Vietnam, as in the time of Emperor Le Thanh Tong, poetry is very much alive. The National Poetry Day of Vietnam, which is celebrated throughout our country, is attended by tens of thousands of people young and old, year after year. People brave rain and storms to come and listen to poetry. Many people take a day off work and put aside their personal business to enjoy poetry. During poetry readings in Vietnam, I have witnessed the power of literature. I have seen veterans of the Vietnam War -- Vietnamese and Americans – who were former enemies, embrace each other and find consolation in each other’s words. I have witnessed poetry as a very real utopia that shows the way to reconciliation, unites the people, and brings light to all of our hearts.
As a poet, I am fortunate to carry the poetic traditions of Vietnam in my veins. Poetry helps me to speak with ancestors whom I never met. Poetry helps me to meet the children of my children’s children, whom I will not live long enough to see. Poetry opens my heart and mind into the rich world of Vietnamese myth and legend. I know that I have just scratched the surface of Vietnamese culture with my pen, and I know that I must dig much deeper to be able to find true voices of my ancestors.
I know too that I am not writing poetry in vain. In the current world of turbulent changes, it is literature that may keep us grounded as humans and keep our passions alive. In this turbulent world where wars and violence still destroy the souls of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, literature can be an ambassador for peace. Literary exchanges between nations are more important than ever in promoting friendship, mutual understanding, cooperation, and in stamping out war and violence. According to Emperor Le Thanh Tong’s poem, we can begin to strengthen the foundation of our world through literature.
I invite you to come to my country and visit our magical Poem Mountain. I believe that once in Vietnam, you will discover our deep love for peace and social justice. You will see how poetry still runs through our veins, how myths are entwined with our daily lives, and how, just like a utopian vision, all boundaries are blurred so that you and I are brothers and sisters, embraced by the magnificent power and beauty of this life.
* Le Thanh Tong's poem above was translated from the Vietnamese by Nguyen Phan Que Mai and David McKirdy