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.∗