I sing to myself while driving my bike. No one can hear me in the wind and the rumbling purr of my 1982 Honda Cub, lime-green if you want to know. But on my way to meet with a new student, the purr became a thunderous rattle, and I couldn’t hear my own voice anymore.
After the short meeting, the Cub was completely shot. The kickstarter shook loose, the brake pedal was jiggling but somehow also stuck. With every attempt at the gas the rattle grew louder, opaque exhaust spewed into the air. The quiet black alleys of West Lake reached new heights of emptiness as I solemnly rolled the machine forward.
What could I do? Mechanics were all closed at this hour. I had the equivalent of fifty cents in my wallet. I had my debit card, it was true, but I was unsure how perilously close the balance was to red and I wanted to avoid ATMs if possible.
An old British man stopped me along the way, asking me if I needed some gas. A group of Vietnamese were drinking beer across the road, watching our exchange with mild interest. Crickets were singing in the swaying trees. No, I said, My exhaust pipe is completely detached from the engine. Thanks though.
I’m not a person to overreact. Many of the inconveniences we meet in life I don’t care about. And I didn’t really care then. It would be fixed eventually – the worst case scenario, rolling my bike a long way home at night, was at most a neutral event. It would just be something to happen. I was just thankful to have my headphones with me.
But then my bleak prospects disappeared. I realized I had many friends in the area, and at least one of them had to be up. My new plan was to leave the bike at their place and deal with it tomorrow.
I took a right off the main road and wheeled to their house with renewed vigor. They were startled by my unexpected presence, then invited me inside.
I was starving. I fixed myself fried eggs and tomatoes. I had Vang Da Lat, cheap red wine that tastes like rice vinegar.
The crickets continued their songs outside. The street lights flickered black. We talked about school shootings in America, and how they heard my friend was shot in the leg in one of them. We talked about the cute Italian guy who works at the gelato place, about future plans and travel.
The happiness of that moment was acute. How comfortable I felt with these people I didn’t know two months ago, how I was so thoroughly welcome, no questions asked. How I could casually cook myself their food in their kitchen, then casually clean up afterwards. Belonging is neither something I’m used to nor something I consciously seek. But there I had it right in front of me. I almost missed the moment thinking about how happy I was to have the moment.
I was sent away into that same dark night on a bike that wasn’t my own. One friend lent me her orange ride, another trusty Cub, so that I could get home. I zoomed away smiling and singing.
The friends I’ve met in Hanoi, I want to hug them and tell them how I much I appreciate them, how it’s been a pleasure and privilege, how my life is infinitely better with them in it, if only for a moment. How I miss them even though they’re here now – expats always leave. It sounds like I’m leaving. I’m not. But you never know.∗