Paris, my two worlds
  • | | December 21, 2009 04:00 PM

Laura Lam tells the story of her tracing the footsteps of Nguyen Ai Quoc, more commonly known as Ho Chi Minh.

During my first trip to Paris in the 80’s, the street markets reminded me so much of Sai Gon. That would be natural, given the French legacy in Viet Nam. I had been living in Hong Kong, and France became my new home following the reunification of Hong Kong and China in 1997. A few years later, I found myself tracing the footsteps of a young revolutionary during his years in Paris. He would become the leader of the most powerful independence movement of the twentieth century.

Photo of Laura in front of #6 Villa des Gobelins, where Phan Chu Trinh and Nguyen Ai Quoc had lived.

My first world of Paris is the Latin Quarter, especially the 5th district. Typical of Paris, it contains lively sidewalk cafes, popular restaurants, bakery shops that fill the air with delicious aromas, and exotic boutiques. The 5th also houses many of France’s universities and one of the world’s highest concentrations of bookshops. It has always been known as the intellectual hub of Paris, and in fact of Europe. This area is where I often spend time with Western expatriates and visitors.

My second world of Paris is next door to the Latin Quarter. Up the long sloping avenues going south-east is the 13th district, earlier called Chinatown. In recent years it has been taken over by the Vietnamese. Being part of an Asian women group, we meet once a month for lunch and to share our life experiences. The 13th is where I buy Oriental groceries, and sometimes books in Vietnamese language. Given the vast variety of produce imported from Asia, food shopping here is a thrill to me. I am very fond of cooking and entertaining guests at my country house, on the bank of the Seine, south of Paris.

My private world has always been a combination of two contrasting cultures. The 13th district is a small substitute for what’s missing, when Viet Nam is a long distance away. The life of an Oriental expatriate in a Western city often comes with much sacrifice. It’s a big challenge for many Vietnamese. While doing the research for my memoir some years ago, I accidentally learned that the young Nguyen Ai Quoc was closely connected to the 5th and the 13th. He came to France in 1917 and stayed until 1923.

I decided to follow his footsteps by visiting places he had lived. A small place on Stockholm street in the 8th district was Quoc’s first home in France. I went by his second place, on a street called Monsieur Le Prince in the 6th district. When Quoc met up with Phan Chu Trinh and Phan van Truong, they shared a place at Villa des Gobelins in the 13th. Despite being pursued by the French secret police for his political activities, he still accomplished a great deal and was constantly learning. He was able to master the French language in a short period of time.

Sainte Genevieve Library, where Nguyen Ai Quoc had membership and spent a lot of his time reading.

A man of many cultures, Quoc was fascinated by the history and the beauty of old Paris. Each afternoon he would take a walk from his home near the Gobelins to Rue Monge leading to the Latin Quarter. He would enjoy a coffee at one of the sidewalk cafés. There, he would meet many Vietnamese university students, who were either on scholarships or from wealthy and prominent families back home. He hoped to stir up their emotions and inspire their patriotic feelings.

Every day Quoc visited newspaper stands along Boulevard St Michel. Any newspaper arriving from Indochina would be of particular interest to him. The two left-wing journals of Paris, L’Humanite and Le Populaire, were his main choices. Paris is full of libraries and Quoc’s favorite was the Sainte Genevieve near the Pantheon. He spent a good portion of his time there reading the works of prominent writers of the period.

Sometimes Quoc met French sailors returning home from Indochina. He wanted to find out their recent experience and impressions of the Colony. Quiet, dignified, and scholarly, he became highly popular among the Vietnamese community, and soon formed the Association of An Nam’s Patriots. On Sundays he would go to the Cochin hospital to visit his Vietnamese friends.

I must have felt some subtle bond – a mixture of admiration and sentiment - towards a unique leader who had liberated Viet Nam after a century of domination, as I ended up buying an apartment near the Pantheon. It’s located in a charming street with several sidewalk cafes. I like to think that they include some of Quoc’s favorites, as it leads to the library. Since medieval times, this particular street is one of the few that has changed very little.