Today was so windy the smog practically rolled south of Hoan Kiem lake; it was the clearest view I’ve had of the tiny gray pagoda in the center. Walking along the water’s edge, on my way to the post office, it was the first time I felt that I belonged here; not to say I have the sturdy belonging of a local born and bred, obviously, but something much more than the fleeting existence of a tourist. In other words, an expat.
The question I am most confronted with these days is, “Why Hanoi?” It’s a natural question, one that follows the dictums of polite conversation with strangers, but I still hesitate despite the frequent opportunities to get it right.
The short, manufactured answer is that it’s a cheap, beautiful, interesting place with food I could eat forever. In this most practical sense, the question quickly becomes, “Why not Hanoi?”
I’m saving the longer answer for a warm night with lots of beer and good people. The longer answer is just as simple, though. I crave the unknown. I want to live somewhere where my life could suddenly be bombarded and electrified with new stimuli, new people, new lessons to be learned. Sitting in a sleepy commuter town in the greater New York area, I feared growing complacent. From there my body, my sense of wonder would atrophy: my growth would plateau, my vision would dull, I would never be someone who could spin gold from nothing. In this sense, Hanoi was a blind choice, a random pick out of thousands of potential places. But it fulfilled my one requirement: to be completely, mind-bogglingly foreign to me.
I have this happy anxiety about me nowadays. I’m researching and planning my photo projects, I’m hunting for a job, a motorbike, and Vietnamese courses. These endeavors are so foreign I can’t help but be afraid and anxious. But this is exactly what I wanted. It’s the difference of being pushed out into the world and retreating into a cave. There can be no plateau here, and the colors are the brightest I’ve ever seen.∗