Taking no prisoners. Including herself.

Hello, Hanoi
(Part 6 of Many)

Still remembering my first days here…

*     *     *

The rest of my day was full of pot holes and mud. Everything I wrote smelled like eggs, and I got lost 7 times over.  When I got back home to Bắc’s place, I swore I was buying my plane ticket home.

But the next day I woke up rejuvenated, happy to be un-sick and rested — it’s amazing the difference a night’s sleep makes. I even had clean underwear, and Bắc had made some omelet for breakfast. It was going to be a beautiful day.

Feeling alive and full of optimism, I finished with my morning routine by 8:00am — no interruption. My friend Jenny texted me: Pilates at 10:30? I wrote back: Deal. I finished washing the dishes, mopping the floor, and cleaning up the remains of the cockroach Bắc had accidentally squished with her motorbike on the way out, then rode my bike to the Tay Ho district.

*     *     *

The juxtaposition of luxury and basic living is what makes being here so interesting: every day, every action, every moment is full with dynamic energy, a constant motion that is either nauseating or liberating. In this dynamism, I do not exist. There is no time. I feel like a ghost among people, gliding in and out of other’s lives, living only to write about what glimmers around me.

This is what I love about Vietnam, and what fuels my writing: I am cleaning up dead cockroaches, now I am doing “hundreds” in a small yoga studio, now I am laughing with expats eating spinach soup inside on a chilly day, now that comfort melts like a dream –

and I am wandering under loose electrical wires hanging down from precariously wrapped telephone lines, mediating the small space between exhaust fumes and traffic, between muddy puddles on a non-existent sidewalk; trying to find a familiar road, hungry and starved for anything other than white noodles, my stomach still suspicious of the smells that surround me. It is 90 degrees out. I am lost and alone–

Then suddenly I am sitting, lounging, luxuriating on a striped crimson love seat, surrounded by electronic beats, and sipping from an ice cold tonic, it’s glassy reflection casting shadows of cool over my notebook–

And now I am motorbiking through open-air meat markets, chickens’ heads are being snapped, fish are flopping in small tanks–

And now, after another 30 minute bike ride through clouds of diesel, humidity and my own frustration, I am sitting in a French chocolateria, unsuccessfully having a conversation with the waitstaff.

I ask them if they eat the cookies they make? They think I want to take my cookies to go. I say No, no, I am still eating my cookies, but was just curious if you like cookies. The man behind with counter, with the best English, says the cookies are better in a bag. Hunh? We smile at each other knowing we have no idea what the other is saying,  and drop the conversation all together. Small talk doesn’t seem to be an option. I go back to my writing. They go back to their standing.

*     *     *

I am smaller than this whole long country. It swallows and engulfs me, I cannot ever hope to swim beyond it’s pull. From poverty to opulence I go swinging, and there is a sweet humility in this uncontrollable ebb and flow. Nothing to do but let it move me like a wash, until I am cast upon some other remote shore at the whim of the world’s tide. Not knowing where I will end up, these few short weeks are teaching me to be content with less, and indifferent to more.

I have considered getting my own apartment, to live closer to the center of town, hang out with the ex-pat community, eat western food, find a familiar center. On my American dollar, I could afford a two story house, a maid and a cook for myself alone, but this to me smacks of a perverse kind of comfort, and precisely the kind of thing I should avoid. I have not travelled across this big deep world to live a life of forgetful ease.

I look up again from my writing. I am the only customer. The floors are spotless. Three employees, all crisp and groomed — the men in ties and slacks, the woman in some kind of french apron — are standing around, ready to serve. I am consuming a lot of sugar and caffeine these days, but I tell myself anything for my writing. “Yes, darling, whatever you want, darling. Where would you like to write, darling? What would inspire you, darling?” and so on, as a teacher once suggested. I think that 3 cookies (1 chocolate chip, 1 pepper espresso, 1 chocolate cherry) and an iced mint creme espresso with sugar syrup and milk is hardly an indulgence if it gets me pumping out the good word.

Sinatra is playing in the background.

The cafe manager hops over when I look up. I ask for another coffee. “I need more caffeine to keep up my energy for writing!” I smile to him. “Oh, yes,” he says, “I think you battery can charge here, if you like.” He points to the outlet. Miscommunication again. I smile and take the opportunity to plug in my laptop. “Ok! Thank you very much!” I say, and he plugs in my charger for me. Go with the flow.

*     *     *

When I have the courage to open to Vietnam’s entire spectrum, I become a mirror. I am washed clean of any identity, left empty and nameless. Every day is new, I have no roots, and any notions of “my life” and “my self” in these daily rivers, are gone.

Why am I here?  It feels like love. But it is not Vietnam alone that lifts me; it is just that Vietnam allows me to reflect my own simple truth– that I am actually nothing more than nothing in all the world’s spaces.


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