Taken on my way to a goodbye dinner.
Taken on my way to a goodbye dinner.
For our purposes let’s steal a casual definition of dissociation from Wikipedia: “a mild detachment from immediate surroundings.”
The expat community in Hanoi is so large there is nothing I can confidently say about it, other than it is small. Meaning five thousand expats have only a few well-known places to congregate on Friday nights when the state curfew takes hold and the xe oms and cabbies belong to a different state, the one known as red-faced inebriation. It is no surprise, then, that in the confines of Hanoi proper, white people collide with each other on dance floors, in restroom lines, waiting for drinks at bars. Even on the road, I kid you not, I was once driving north on Au Co and an acquaintance caught up on his bike, gave me a nod, and zoomed off.
In the beginning they ask me about my marital status, and I ask about theirs. I am not trained to care about this, but I’ve found that it’s a fixture of many conversations between women here. Life before marriage is a build up to marriage. Life after marriage is family. Two friends in particular, both my age, inevitably gawked and giggled when I announced my singleness, which was preferable to the occasional looks of pity. They are sweet people, of course, but I desperately wish I could talk to them about what it means to be young and female in Vietnam, what they think of the government, how they perceive Americans. But usually my Vietnamese and their English isn’t strong enough for us to move past marriage.
For every connection made with an expat, forged by common language, spoken and cultural, and the shared outsiderdom that ignites most conversation, there is a connection lost with the people who make my street food, come by to collect utilities, sell me groceries, and reject me in a dispassionate way at the Office of Immigration. It means I have less time and energy for friendships with locals. It means I’m speaking English or Polish or Spanish or Russian, not Vietnamese, a language in which I can’t yet engage in comfortably. One more connection with an expat means one more step into a firm transparent expat bubble.
I’m not interested in how things can or should be, I’m just interested in how they are.
I’m a regular for many people here. I’m loyal to one pineapple vendor. A mother-daughter team sells me vegetables at a nice price. Twenty minutes away by bike on a charmless road named Pham Ngoc Thach, I pay frequent visits to a young woman who fries my rice noodles until they’re golden and a little burned. The pineapple lady sometimes gives me discounts if she needs to move her product. The vegetable duo let me hold their baby, a toddler who wears tutus. The noodle lady doesn’t give me any added perks, as there’s no reason she should, but I sit close to watch how she makes the food, and last night she moved a stack of plates so that I could see better.
My second day here, a French guy with blonde shaggy hair and a vacant gaze told me that he came to Hanoi intending to stay for five months. “But it sucks you in, you’ll see. All of this sucks you in.” It was creepy and cultish, like he knew a cryptic profundity that I didn’t, but now I understand and apply his words not to the merits of a singular shared Hanoi, but an alternate reality that can be infiltrated by foreigners and foreigners only. This is merely a chimera, though, as many expats never get to touch the Hanoi that is for Hanoians and understand it on any meaningful level. Seldom few will ever know what it’s really like, only how it is as they walk through this place with a buoyant padding of air around them, protecting them from sharp corners but withholding the grittiness that offers the most reward.
Expatdom is almost always synonymous with isolation. We are outsiders looking in, like a Dickensian scene of looking through a frosted window-pane at a lively indoor fire. The barriers of language, culture and pure logistics are often tough to transcend. And so I doubt that even the most empathetic and informed expat in Hanoi, and the one who makes utmost effort to breach barriers, will ever see this place through true Vietnamese eyes. I am not making claims of authenticity, that the Hanoi expats experience is fake, just inherent disparity.
Balance is everything.
The bubble. It is the slow process of becoming subsumed into a Hanoi that exists for 0.0008% of its denizens. This is expat Hanoi, and expat Hanoi can have a dark face. It’s a sexy mix of low cost living and living largely. Cheap drugs, booze, and hookers, even cheaper consequences. The way Hemingway wrote about his expat Jake Barnes, there was this palpable apathy in the air. I never felt this to be more true than now, like today is the only day that matters not because it’s the proper happy cliche, but because for many expats here, Hanoi is as good as it gets.
I went downstairs to make tea one day. One of my housemates was sitting in the kitchen. I said hello to him and quickly prepared the tea as I was planning to head out. I somehow stayed in the kitchen with him for four hours that day, talking about the qualities of a good film, and neither of us knew where the time had gone.
Hanoi’s small roads aren’t lit, and these roads consume much of the city. We were on our way to see a Malian band play. I was following the group. It became more difficult to see as we delved deeper into the labyrinth. Bright street restaurants were fewer in number as we drove along a muddy path with deceptively deep potholes. We kept going until it was completely black and silent, surrounded by dumpsters and stone walls. I figured we had to be on the edge of town, near the banana fields.
Then a gate from nowhere opened, and the scene was flooded with light. We wheeled through and found ourselves in a beautiful outdoor restaurant with christmas lights hanging from copious trees and vines and furniture that was mismatched on purpose. Everyone besides the staff and band was French and white.
The band, Musbaba, started to play. Everyone got up to dance. And I didn’t know where I was for a long moment. I was in an enclosed garden where only French was spoken with a backdrop of earthy Malian music. There was mud and silence outside. Children sleeping nearby, their mothers either cleaning up or watching blazing TVs on the floor. Dumpsters and bananas, too. I knew it was Hanoi but it could’ve been Europe or West Africa or anywhere else. I felt ashamed for being so affected by something so intangible and tenuous, especially in a world of such fluid culture and movement.
And so dissociation is precisely the word I need to describe how one moment I’m walking through my neighborhood, hearing children screaming in delight as they run home from school, smelling salty acidic fumes curl down the alley as a woman brews purple fermented shrimp, and the very next moment I’m just another foreigner in a sea of them, listening to two white guys play covers of recent top 50 hits or a Malian band play for French people in a literal bubble. In the former I am alone but wholly satisfied with my state and place – I came here for Hanoi, after all – in the latter I have connections and fulfilling conversations that go beyond myself, that go beyond marriage, as the best ones always do, but I am dissociated from Hanoi completely. I forget where I am. As in those people, that bar, that music, that conversation could be anywhere else in the world, even my hometown, the one I left with desperation.
This is not the nature of all expatdom, but it certainly is for mine. I can’t have both Hanoi and meaningful connection with others. And I don’t like thinking about which I love more.*
It was a two day affair in the woods, right next to Ba Vi National Park. An open air music festival and art exhibition called Quest. There was: a well-stocked bar and okay food; neon cubes; psychedelic tents with swaying glass disco balls; amazing live music in between subpar beats; a brown lake in which to swim; volleyball, my favorite; swings in trees; statues of giant elk; workshops for belly dancing and yoga and more; fire dancers and the smell of something burning; there was sideways rain and sky shattering lightening; dancing to Ray Charles in said rain; there were good friends and picnics and new friends; there were drugged-up expats, swallowing white pills and inhaling something from white balloons, letting them fart up into the sky and then scatter all over; there were pirates and tigers and characters of all sorts; there were fire ants, too, I think.
Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters…
You try to capture your place in a neat little paragraph, one with compelling imagery – it’s a must! – of those shaded tree-lined boulevards, a serene ripe green in summer, prickly skeletons in winter. What’s in the air, as well? Parilla clouds in Montevideo. Dust and sand, intrusive, skin-stinging, is in Tripoli air I heard. Maybe love is in the air of Paris, Japanese tourists think, until they get there and see their dreams commit suicide by way of top of the Eiffel Tower.
In these descriptions you end up romanticizing your place in question beyond oblivion, to an extent that suffocates an unimaginably diverse entity and replaces it with the sometimes rosy, often simplistic concoction of your mind. Born from, what will forever be, a painfully limited experience. I know all this because I’m guilty of it too.
The short summaries of Lonely Planet and other travel guides and literature attempt to characterize places in this way. For legitimate purposes, no doubt. Tell readers and travelers how this place is, tell them what they must know and what to expect. They will thank you for it; their trips will be smoother, easier. They can make the most out of their two free weeks a year.
But it invites the danger of generalizing to the point of blandness, offering dubious literary certainties with no follow-up. It talks about a place in the context of a handful of eyes and opinions, in ways that are too confident. How, in truth, to describe my place, Hanoi, that captures its whole? Yes, the Old Quarter is a sight, stitched together by crumbling buildings that are alive, but Hanoi is more than the Old Quarter. How do I mention the city’s labyrinth of alleys, a system as expansive as nerves and synapses, that hide from the sun? How do I talk about the dizzying effect of the carbon monoxide I breathe in, sitting in rush-hour traffic? Or the incredible amount of animal abuse that goes on? Or how in some areas, the wires create a thick net that could catch a falling object and sometimes support the weight of even the fattest of roosters? Or the oppressive regime, both creators of laws and enforcers of them? Or the semi-abandoned amusement park at the top of West Lake that plays its music and turns its ferris wheel for no one?
But what I find most offensive about these neat summaries is that they rob me of the grand surprise: that beautiful, indescribable feeling of being thrown into a place and going through it on your own terms.
Instead, I should talk about how the longer I am in Hanoi, the less I understand it. How one of the most nausea-inducing statements is anything resembling: “The [insert group here] are a proud people.” How I’d be a terrible travel-guide writer because for every place I’d write: “Just fuckin’ go and see for yourself.” How anyone who asserts absolute truths shouldn’t be regarded seriously. How answers are only good insofar that their questions are worth asking.
Instead, I should say that my truths are not yours, and my truths extend no further than my hazy line of vision and feeble reach of my arm: I’m people-watching from this cafe balcony. It’s a breezy cloudy day on the lake with good visibility. Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters. A spider has been pulling a thread from a nearby hanging leaf to my head, and it’s dangled here in front of my face longer than it should. Everything is interesting, and everything only happens once.∗
After a full week (or was it longer?) of eating out, I yesterday felt compelled to go grocery shopping. Normally I’d take my bike, but I’d been driving everywhere recently. It felt right to go by foot, headphones in, daydreaming on shuffle, going a pace all my own. It is in these moments that I feel most this city is my new home; moments of serenity and clarity in a life and setting that breed chaos. (Though on some days I wake up dazed, astounded by the fact that I live in Asia, and I am so shocked and humbled by this that I sometimes forget to put shoes on before going outside.)
Walking around Hanoi is special, anyway, because you have to adopt the alertness of a chipmunk protecting its keep, only here this means dodging old women as they heave buckets of dirty water into the street, navigating the labyrinth of narrow alleys – cities in themselves – with expert reflex because some bikes don’t honk when they’re turning a corner, popping from midair.
I locked my gate and set off. The streets calmed down a bit because it was after lunch-time, and locals use this time to sleep. Maybe curled on floor mats or propped up by bags of rice against a wall with straw pyramid hats swallowing their faces, it makes for a city on pause. In normally dark alleys, so cramped there is no room for the sun, there were rays of light pulsing down from a shale March sky.
I passed many shops, some dead, some alive. Each selling something different, each with a unique layout. But in each shop, there was a clock on the back wall. And the hands on each clock were spinning furiously like pinwheels in a storm, round and round, their screws shaking violently like they wanted to be relieved of their constant burden. It went on like this as I moved through the small streets; the shops continued down a long line and every single one housed a rabid clock. No one else paid notice; they were either sleeping, speed-walking while balancing vegetables and fruit on their shoulders, or lethargically tending their store while watching Korean soaps.
The market I always shop at is part outside, part inside. It’s one of those huge airy industrial buildings with grids of vendors, enormous plastic skylights, mysterious liquids perpetually on the floor, abated only by sprinkles of sawdust. Lurking in the air is always a dampness of fresh meat. There is a clock on the front facade, above the entrance doors, but it was frozen when I saw it last.
My vegetable lady waved to me from afar. I turned the corner and there she was, sixty meters away, smiling and motioning me to go to her. I proceeded slowly, casually grazing the different products to be bought. Women sat on the curb with shallow wide baskets of chilies, garlic, lime, lemongrass, ginger. My five cooking essentials. Some had bowls of snails for sale, others half-dead fish and unidentified brains the size of softballs. One woman a little farther away was hard at work plucking chickens and preparing their feet.
I approached my regular stand and the woman pulled me over to show me a new batch of fresh cucumbers. I told her in shit Vietnamese, I don’t like cucumbers. She placed three cucumbers in a bag and weighed them. I then pointed out all the stuff I needed: onions, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, bright green herbs that smelled sweet like a dream, and potent red chilies – tiny but capable of setting instant fire to a whole pot of soup. She proposed I buy other vegetables, suggesting beets and parsnips and such, but I declined because I thought I was in Southeast Asia, not Belarus.
At that point, I started to feel a ticklish breeze around my ankles. It grew stronger into a fixed circular motion, and it seemed that a tornado had erupted in the center of the street, dancing, wobbling, but stable. It soon became semi-opaque, light gray with brown spots, with all the chicken feathers it sucked up, pulling a ribbon of rice from nearby buckets, scattering debris all around in beautiful graceful unrelenting circles, through the air and on the ground. People on their motorbikes nonchalantly maneuvered around it and vendors continued their gossip; I then asked how was it possible she had run out of carrots? Strange.
I paid and bid her adieu, till next time, maybe two days or three or six weeks from then, for I couldn’t count and all the clocks were broken.∗
Nights in Hanoi aren’t for the sparkling clubber or clean-cut man in business-casual; they should be in Saigon. There is no vanity to Hanoi, and so this city without a mirror lets you into its Vietnamese soul.
Nights out begin at a harshly-lit street restaurant with moldy plastic stools that buckle and food like stir-fried noodles doused in hot sauce and an entire tree branch of limes. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Beer must be bought next door, seventy-five cents.
Afterwards you’ll find yourself in some sort of dark space with dim bulbs that emanate a pointless light – perhaps live music is playing, maybe radio jazz, or just the quiet whispers of people getting to know each other. No matter the venue, though, the tables are small and unbalanced, and you hear the switch and hiss of a beloved lighter being put to use. Dingy couches invite you to sit, the small stage pulls you in to sing like you’ve never sung before. There is an unassuming air here, a strict come-one-come-all policy, a gift without the wrapping paper. A gin & tonic in a plastic cup is still a gin & tonic.
Before midnight, restaurant staff hides the motorbikes, moving them from the sidewalk to some enclosed space – a nearby garage or entrance hallway or even the bar in question so that people can mingle and drink among their transport. The state curfew forbids anyone being out after midnight, so hiding the bikes and locking the doors and closing the shutters is a way to doop the cops. The cops aren’t dooped, though, just well paid, just puppets of the mafia. We go through this dance anyway, the one of cutting the music, putting out what remains of the lights, and being very quiet for a few minutes as we look toward the windows and a pair of high beam rays grazes the bar like a protruding scanner.
No, Hanoi isn’t for the sparkling clubber with heels that loudly click. Hanoi is for fugitives, ready to run.∗
It was the shock of waking up one day and realizing I had to fill the next fifteen hours with something of substance.
To fill my fifteen hours, I would go places and watch Hanoi in action. Stepping outside meant to step into a sparkling cloud of warm mist. There was seldom a sun. Just mist and smog and drags of smoke from people lighting fires in the streets as a slew of motorbikes sailed by, jerking smoke around like silk laundry in wind. Maybe for warmth or to dry socks, I figured. No, just to watch papers burn.
To fill my fifteen hours, I signed on for kickboxing. My performance in the first class was pitiful, like a T-Rex trying to punch a floor pillow. But then my brain said, Aha! Your greatest asset has always been that you’re a quick learner. And by now, dear reader, I could probably knock you out.
To fill my fifteen hours, I began meeting my friend Phuong to work. We were translating a long script for the Tuong Theatre. It was hour after hour of sitting, talking, negotiating, sometimes fighting a tug-o-war of words, each of us defending our linguistic prowess. Translating first from old-timey Vietnamese, then the more modern stuff. Phuong would explain the idea, what’s important in this sentence? In this stanza? I need more context! I’d then make it into something, powder to pills, and clean it up, tie it up into crisp clean copy.
To fill my fifteen hours, I was hired by the same theatre as somewhat of a publicist. Tuong shows are about Vietnamese folklore, history, culture, stories passed down by old men with long gray beards to those with eager young ears while incense burns nearby. The costumes of the actors are embellished to a degree that can’t be communicated here; the paint on their faces is rich and thick, so opaque with confident demarcations of the blackest of blacks, and same for reds and blues and whites, you’d think it were a wooden mask waiting to dry. As far as the Western world is concerned, the one that travels to Vietnam and Hanoi for vacation, Tuong Theatre doesn’t exist. This is where me and my fifteen hours come in.
And so something of substance fell from a hazy sunless sky, as it often does.∗
I was invited to attend a celebration of Vietnamese history and culture. I was pulled into the section where the actors wait to make their entrance, and it gave a perspective that perhaps most audience members never experience. The costumes shimmered in the floodlights as the dancers depicted the rebellion of Vietnam against China, led by the Trung sisters, the country’s first female king and general. But all I could think about was, what are these actors thinking about? Grocery lists? Squabbles with loved ones? How they could use a cigarette right about now? Were they just enjoying the show and the movements they rehearsed a million times over? Or why is this white girl in their way?∗
I took my bike out late at night to get more practice while the roads were clearer. It was a warm night, the city blanketed with slick pavement that made that sticky noise of rubber and rain, a Hanoi drowning in purple and red buzzing lights – hotels, eateries, flower shops, anything. The road, like a midnight river, reflected the flashing fluorescence. Rainbow Road.
I zoomed past Ho Chi Minh’s red-lit tomb, my quiet illustrious neighbor, and around Ba Dinh, making sure to go on new streets, uncovering places I’d never been. I circumvented West Lake, smiling at the realization that I needed no map, I needed no help. There was no one else there at the top of the lake, the green-gray water now an impenetrable black like sloshing oil, as I sat on my bike and watched this chaotic place dim its lights under the pink urban sky.
These midnight rides to nowhere have a practical purpose – to teach myself how to properly control a 125cc Honda Wave Alpha – but I also use them to deflate. Something had been off in the past week. And when something feels even slightly misplaced, misdiagnosed, misinterpreted, I need to know what it is. Nothing good comes of the alternative, which is to recoil into one’s shell and quietly suffer.
I know I feel happy here, that moving here was a thoroughly good decision, but there is a discomfort about it, too. Now I realize my love for Hanoi quickly changed from that honeymoon love, that blinding impossible love of traditional travel, to the love where you just lie awake at night and think: Shit. I’m committed to this place. My toothbrush has a permanent spot here. It is sobering in a worrisome way, in a way I haven’t been old enough to experience until now. I have never regarded any commitment as too serious or too important to break. I believe in choices and corresponding consequences. I am unattached. I am a person who looks at national divorce rates and says, “Oh! Look how many people are leaving unhappy marriages!” I am a person who likes to know where the exits are located.
I have never moved to a foreign country with no contacts, no immediate job prospects, and no definitive goals. I am accustomed to travels that are swift and fleeting – here today, so let’s enjoy this, I will be gone tomorrow. But I’ve chosen to chain myself to Hanoi, for now at least. My shock isn’t cultural, it is the shock of waking up one day and realizing I need to fill the next fifteen hours with something of substance.
Indeed, I have decisions to make. But let us start at the beginning: should I be in third or fourth gear?∗