Taking no prisoners. Including herself.

Hello, Hanoi
(Part 2 of Many)

If you think that traveling halfway across the world to live in a busy Asian city where you don’t speak the language, don’t know your way around, and have a very thin grasp on where you’ll find your next meal will make it easier for yourself to write that elusive novel you’ve been dreaming about– I have some advice: it won’t.

Honestly, between you and I, I don’t know why I do these things — decide to leave my cozy nest in Northern California with deluxe accommodations, plentiful organic food, supportive friends and family, all in a luxuriously peaceful setting, and heave myself into a daily life that is slightly uncomfortable and significantly overwhelming.

I am on day 15 of my journey, where I have returned to Vietnam for the 3rd time, a place that must hold something special for me because I keep, almost beyond my will, returning. This time I am staying for 3 months with my good Vietnamese friend Bắc, her two sisters, three nieces, and nephew. Her simple house is about 30 minutes outside of downtown Hanoi, which affords me many challenging obstacles, adventures, and learning opportunities. For the past 15 days, nothing has been easy, automatic, or taken for granted.

In every act I feel self-conscious, always stopping to look around to copy how others are doing it; or, I flail around by myself, second-guessing every impulse, feeling like a monkey banging on the monolith with a stick –

“Is this how you de-shell a mung bean?”

This is the prevailing feeling these days — everything just a little bit more difficult, unsure. Buying food, taking a shower, going for a walk, even going to the bathroom has a little added challenge. I tell Bắc all the time: “I am a child here. Assume I know nothing.”

She thinks it’s funny that I don’t know how to eat a star fruit, and scolded me because I poured out the water we used to boil the mustard greens (“Shanni, ôi! No! We drink that!”)

Nothing can be taken for granted… When I run out of clean socks, I hand wash, and hope for a sunny day. If I wake up and there is something other than white rice for breakfast, I am ecstatic.

Take, for example, the simple act of finding a cafe:

I wanted to find a regular spot to work at every morning; however, I’m intimidated to leave the house without Bắc; It is easy to get lost in the narrow, winding alleyways around her house, and almost no one here speaks English.

Today, however, I am determined to step out of my comfort zone (“year of no fear!“), rather than sit at the miniature desk in the dark corner of Bắc’s house where I have been working.

But the bike her sister has loaned me has a flat tire, and any cafe is too far to walk. I start to walk back inside, surrendering to another day spent inside. It all one, huge challenge.

“And isn’t that what you are looking for, Shannon?” I say out loud to myself as Bắc’s neighbor eyes me through her rusting gate.

“You’re right!” I turn on my heels.

“Go find a cafe right this minute, deJong!” I grab my orange timbuk2 bag, lock the house, the house gate, the yard gate (for a communist country, there sure is a lot of safeguarding of personal possessions…), and start walking down the street in pursuit of a Xe ôm  (a motorbike ‘taxi’).

I walk toward the main highway. Diesel and dust mix in my nostrils, cakes my face. A woman squats next to a small red plastic stool. An array of sodas, cigarettes and peanuts are displayed in the dirty glass stand beside her. She is lighting on fire a pile of garbage and dried leaves with a clear blue Bic lighter.

“Xin lối?” I ask. Excuse me?

She looks up, her eyes full of humor, as if to say “What can you possibly want from me?”

“Chaò, chị. Xe ôm, ở đao?” I smile, apologizing for my disgraceful accent. She stares. “Xe ôm? Xe ôm?” I ask over and over, and make a gesture as if I’m riding a motorbike.

Just at that moment, a man on a motorbike drives up. The woman points to him. “Xe ôm,” she says.

But, of course.

We struggle to understand each other, the man and I. I pull out the buisness card of a friend who lives near cafes a-plenty. I keep pointing to the directions of where I’d like him to take me, asking Baò nièhu tiên? How much? but he just points to his head. I tell him in Vietnamese I don’t understand, and he looks flustered.

Point, point, point. Head, head, head.

Ah, yes. A helmet. A new law in Vietnam requires all motorbike riders to wear a helmet. I assume he is telling me we’re going to go find helmets. But where is that, exactly? And, hey wait a minute — how do I know you’re a real Xe ôm driver?

No time for questions. With the woman now ushering me onto the back of the motorbike, I hop on, and am taken down the street, across on-coming traffic, around the corner to another soda, cigarette, peanut stand where a second Xe ôm driver is summoned.

I show this new driver the business card, ask again how much, am told 30,000 dong (less than $2), tell him in English “it’s a deal,” strap on my dust mask to cover my mouth and nose, secure the helmet he is offering me, and before I’m fully seated, we are in motion — zooming along in the opposite direction of where I want to be going.

But I let him drive me into the unknown. At this point I figure there’s got to be a cafe somewhere along our trajectory, and I am laughing too hard to stop him, the wind whipping past me like a ridiculous roller coaster.

…To Be Continued

§557 · February 4, 2009 · Adventures in Asia, Location-Location, Narrative · Tags: , · [Print]

1 Comment to “Rollercoasting”

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Shannon you are so courageous! I am in awe. you’ve set the scene extraordinarily and thoroughly taken me from my now-seeming overwhelmingly comfortable (and safe!) office chair in San Francisco to being floating bystander witnessing your journey. The best part is that on top of that fantastic cliff hanger, I know you’re safe because you’ve at least written/posted this much… it seems writing a novel could be as simple as recounting your adventures.

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