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.*