Like Lao, I couldn’t get a reply from any libraries in Vietnam despite repeated attempts via translated email. Just in case, I contacted the US Embassy. Though the American Center in Ho Chi Minh City was closed for renovations during our stay the smaller one in Hanoi was open.
But I really wanted to visit a Vietnamese public establishment so we headed to the far end of Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, an attractive park by the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater (a unique treat as we discovered later that day), then a couple of blocks down to Thư viện Hà Nội or Hanoi Library (HL).
In the cafe at the bottom of the building, a waiter confirmed HL’s presence and pointed to a short flight of stairs by the cash register that led to its lobby and an alcove where cards are issued. After ascending to the main sections, I was delighted to find a few English speakers (any mistakes are due to my misinterpretations) and get permission to take photographs.
The Children’s Area has long tables and multihued furniture fashioned in various geometric shapes that let youngsters spread out to do school work or read quietly. Kids’ paintings and dangling mobiles add color to the white walls and pristine tile floors.
Pale pink curtains soften the streams of bright sunlight shining on the Dragon Ball Z series and other manga near a glassed in storage space. Next to a rack of face out comics, a banner offers a quote from Günter Grass.
Out in the hallway, I notice a stunning antique card catalog and by a potted plant, a large white cupboard features recommendations. Floor to ceiling windows afford great views of the wide tree lined avenues common in this neighborhood. These pleasant foyers occur on each level and have plenty of seating. The breezy openings supplement the air conditioning and fans found in some of the rooms.
Stacks of teacups await audiences in a performance venue outfitted in the latest audio visual equipment. The red velvet backdrop and chairs are appropriate – a hammer and sickle adorns the left side of the stage above a bust of “Uncle Ho” on a pedestal.
The library started as the People’s Reading Room in 1956 and moved here in 1959. The current nine story location opened in August 2008 and is 6178 square meters (66,500 square feet). One area has foreign languages and another is for visually challenged customers and there’s even a studio that produce volumes for the blind.
HL puts on exhibitions, seminars and book talks. On the web site you’ll see news of holiday celebrations, seminars, workshops and conferences they’ve hosted. Other programs bring in musicians to teach students, or coordinate for joint sessions with poetry clubs. User studies and lists of recent acquisitions are available too.
Homey touches are everywhere. New titles are displayed on a pretty cloth covered surface and a bunch of flowers in a little wicker basket sits atop bundles of paper beneath framed calligraphy prints.
While browsing I realize they don’t use the same Dewey classification as us as travel materials are in the 300’s.
The citizens of this country are incredibly polite and sincere and truly seem interested in communicating and sharing experiences with tourists. The HL personnel I spoke to were no exception and we chatted about my blog and what membership entailed.
Vân had excellent English skills and was very helpful. She told me adults paid 42,000 dong for reading privileges and if you want to take items home it’s 142,000 dong (around six dollars) for the first year and 42,000 in subsequent years. If you decide to give up your card (heaven forbid) and have a good record, you’ll be refunded 100,000 dong. For under 18’s, it’s just 72,000 initially. Thủy (her name means water) manages Floor Three (borrowing), Four (reading), and Five, which houses a huge collection of magazines and newspapers on towering shelves.
Unfortunately, our chat was cut short as most of the library closes for lunch at 11:45am so I missed the media room containing historical movies on Hanoi (their only DVDs). I thought they said it reopens at 1:30 but perhaps I misunderstood as that’s a very generous break! However, meals are a social occasion here – the sidewalks are often impassable due to groups of diners perched on tiny plastic stools enjoying the food and the company of friends and coworkers and HL has a big space set aside for eating.
The facility has wifi and ninety three workstations with software and internet and I managed to squeeze in a quick picture of the computer zone before I had to leave.
HL aims to create a “life-long learning society” and in aid of that goal, networks through the colorfully named Red River Delta Library Association with 29 district and 107 commune-level organizations as well as 1,138 “libraries” (some are simply bookcases) in residential clusters and villages. Hanoi Library has won a place in the hearts of the population and been awarded numerous medals recognizing its worth, culturally, politically and economically. Besides advising the People’s Committee and the Department of Culture and Sports of Hanoi, their umbrella agency, responsibilities include stepping up electronic access, digitization, assisting in the effort to improve services regionally and nationally, and professional development at HL and for employees at all Vietnamese institutions. Quite an important challenge but I’m sure they will meet it with alacrity.