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?∗