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American Poet Helps Save Ancient Vietnamese Script 

Modern Vietnamese writing, developed by French colonists, looks much like English or French. But for centuries, Vietnamese was written in a different script, based on Chinese-style characters. Now, only a few score of people in the world can read that language fluently. The Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation is trying to keep this heritage from being forgotten.

At a café and cultural center in Hanoi, several dozen Vietnamese and foreigners are celebrating a decade of trying to save Vietnam's Nom script.

John Balaban is an American poet who first came to Vietnam as a humanitarian volunteer during the war four decades ago. He got interested in Nom while translating the work of Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong. He founded the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation.

"Ho Xuan Huong was a vo le, or a second wife, who lived around 1800. And she was, as one critic described her, the brilliant bad girl of the 18th-19th century. Sometimes entire poems would be reverse-meaning poems, with sex as the underlying topic," said Balaban.

Huong's poems are shockingly feminist.

One deals with the once common Vietnamese custom of polygamy, which relegated women like Huong to being "second wives" of powerful men.

"Once or twice a month, oh, it's like nothing.
You try to stick to it like a fly on rice, but the rice is rotten.
You slave like the maid, but without pay.
If I had known how it would go, I think I would have lived alone."

Huong's poetry reads like it was written yesterday.

But most Vietnamese can not read it the way she wrote it, in Nom.

Only a tiny handful of Vietnamese can read any Nom characters. They are mostly Buddhist monks, old people, or hobbyists.

And as for people who are truly literate in Nom? The foundation thinks there are about 30 of them in the world.

At Vietnam's National Library, a small staff funded by the foundation is busy with a huge task: digitizing the most valuable 4,400 Nom manuscripts in Vietnam's National Archives.

To Trong Duc heads the preservation project at the library.

The staff take high-resolution photos of each volume and enter data about how it was printed and collected. Then they retype the entire volume by hand, since there is no character recognition software for Nom letters.

Duc says the staff find new Nom characters in every book they scan. The unfamiliar characters must be given Unicode encodings before software can be written to recognize them. Duc says even Chinese people cannot understand Nom script.

A few years ago, the foundation sent representatives to an international meeting of the board that regulates how characters are encoded on the Internet.

At first, Chinese representatives opposed a separate coding system for Nom characters, saying they were just a variety of Chinese.

A Vietnamese expert showed the Chinese an inscription in Nom. The Chinese could not read it, and Nom now has its own official encoding system on the Internet.

It is a modern development for a script in which nothing important has been written in 75 years.

Vietnamese today read classic literature like Ho Xuan Huong's poems in the modern alphabet, which French colonists adapted starting in the 19th century.

Singer Le Pham Le, who performs Ho Xuan Huong's poems, says it is not quite the same.

"In a way it's more powerful for me, to read Ho Xuan Huong under Nom language, Nom script. Because of that kind of connection with the ancient heritage. So that's the purpose, that's the effort that the Nom Foundation has done," said Le Pham Le.

With luck and effort by the foundation, a young generation of Vietnamese may be able to read Ho Xuan Huong's poems as she wrote them when she put brush to paper in Hanoi 200 years ago.