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Turn Over a New Page in Hanoi's Hidden Libraries

I focused my attention on an amplifier lying on the shelf behind Hieu, the founder of Go West Library. He left his seat to retrieve a cable, and after returning he plugged his phone into the machine, which stood out from the rest of the room. A familiar tune blasted out, followed by Neil Tennant's high-pitched, yet delicate vocals — "Go West, where the skies are blue!" Hieu's striking answer to our inquiry about the library's name came in stark contrast to our earlier encounter with one of his staff, the librarian, who was startled by our visit because she doesn't usually expect readers to pop by in the morning.

"Go West, young man" is a quote commonly attributed to author Horace Greeley as an expression of the American concept of 'manifest destiny,' a doctrine claiming America's westward expansion and colonization of the wider region was inevitable. The song 'Go West,' on the other hand, is a complete betrayal of the term's original meaning. 

When American disco group the Village People first recorded the song in the 1970s, they reappropriated the meaning of "west," which came instead to refer to California's west coast, a common destination for many queer people due to the state's relatively relaxed laws on homosexuality at the time and the presence of gay politician Harvey Milk. The positive, radically utopian, cheery, futuristic intention of the song was dashed by an upsetting chapter in history: just before the song was released, Milk was assassinated. This bitter irony inspired a version by the Pet Shop Boys, which was now blasting out the window of the old communal building that Go West library calls home. 

Hieu showing off some of his favorite books.

"I really hope that, someday, the young people of Vietnam will go to the west," Hieu said as he explained why he named the library after the Pet Shop Boys song. Hieu, who works full-time as a lawyer and dabbles in painting and French lessons during weekends, added that, in his personal view, western political thought and philosophy can assist modern Vietnam, and he hopes his project will contribute to this purpose. As a result, one could compare his aspirations to those shared by advocates of the Đông Du movement (literal translation: eastward journey).

Whether one agrees with Hieu's opinions — many would argue the notion of east versus west itself is already rooted in Eurocentrism — the library extends beyond this emphasis. Besides Hieu's own collection, readers can donate books to the library, with the books on offer varying substantially. 

The space has three compartments, all of which are spacious, neat and covered by bookshelves containing mostly English, French and Vietnamese books. Hieu shares that he also has an old and rare collection of law books published before 1975. In many ways, Go West resembles an old-fashioned public library in Vietnam, but more compact.

Reading by window light in a corner of Go West.

One can easily tell that books in English are Go West's forte. The works kept here cover subjects ranging from philosophy and political science to history, self-help and mathematics. At the risk of sounding dualistic, one could potentially "go east" here, as Hieu stocks a decent collection of texts written by non-western thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama and Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Another detail of note is the library's section on the writings of Phan Khoi, Pham Quynh, Pham Cong Thien and Tran Duc Thao — interesting Vietnamese writers and philosophers whose work is not easy to come across in regular bookshops. One of my colleagues even spotted a modest Noam Chomsky collection. The song 'Go West,' after all, epitomizes paradoxical circumstances.

Visitors must pay VND10,000 per hour to read and use the library space. If a reader wants to bring some books home, the fee is VND50,000 per week. All proceeds from the library go to SympaMeals, a private charity started by two lawyers that provides food to people battling cancer. 

Cascading lianas and a bonsai tree.

While Go West is nestled within the French Quarter, another lesser-known spot is Hop Library, which hides in a labyrinth of ngõ and ngách to the east of Au Co Street. Hop's location cannot be pinned down by a simple search on online maps. Newcomers will need additional instructions on how to get there, which are available on its Facebook page. Nonetheless, if there were ever a space worth delving through long and winding alleys to reach, Hop would be it.

An abundance of lianas shelters the entrance to the library. The front yard leading to Hop is also laden with trees and vines that lead one's eyes upwards to a door located on an upper floor. As one moves higher, more trees can be seen, enough for a flora enthusiast to list everything one can observe. I saved this botanical exercise for my next visit and moved on to explore Hop's towering book sanctuary instead.

As its name suggests, Hop (box) carves a humble space out of the back of someone's house. The library also doubles as a bookstore, with one or two shelves containing books for sale, while the rest are for visiting readers. When we entered, the owner, Phi, was engulfed by two tall stacks of books. There are books in French, English, Vietnamese and German, including a variety of genres such as classic literature, philosophy and arts. Of these genres, Hop's collection of Vietnamese literature and texts translated into Vietnamese are the most impressive. 

A reading space inside Hop Library.

One of Hop's main seating spaces lies between the English and French sections of the library. My eyes linger on a copy of Andrew Lam's essay collection East Eats West and an illustrated no-fear guide to Karl Marx thoughts. In the middle of the wall is a big window left wide open, which lets in sunlight making its way through the lianas hanging from the roof. 

The room happens to be small enough so that one can neither stray too far from the window nor resist staring out at two large, eye-catching chuối rẻ quạt (traveler's palm) trees and the line of coconut trees behind them. Underneath, more banana trees and an old concrete platform on which more plant pots, some of them bonsai, rest.

A central element of living in the city involves adapting one's body to the capital's daily grinds and rhythm. Yet urban life is also characterized by acts of detaching oneself from these larger currents. Both Go West and Hop libraries provide spaces for temporary solitude from public life and let oneself be moved by a poet's eloquent turn of phrase, a well-crafted argument, or the timid beauty of nature. 

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