So before I know it, I’ve been here for six months. Sweaty, stifling October days when I arrived were replaced with months of uniform grey – which in turn have been replaced with sweaty April and now May. The temperature climbs and the rains fall.
Perhaps other great men have spoken more eloquently of the Vietnamese rain – but sitting and watching it crash almost unnaturally from the sky I think of the all American hero from Alabama:
We’ve been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stinging rain…and big old fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night – Forest Gump.
Apparently it isn’t even the rainy season yet.
The six months has passed in the blink of an eye. Unnaturally quick. A few months ago my enthusiasm for Hanoi dropped a little. I don’t really know why and at the time I barely even noticed it. Work was good, social life was good – everything was good. It wasn’t sadness in any way – I just think the initial excitement was replaced with complacency – dreary January and February didn’t help. As humans we seem genetically designed to slip into routines. We like to put cruise control on and sit back and enjoy the ride. It will happen whether you live in London, or New York, or Hanoi – anywhere. Complacency is a bitch, but it’s even harder to spot.
In the past six years I’ve never spent more than nine months in one place – and I have a sometimes unhealthy tendency to let me mind wander into the future. When I leave Vietnam the plan had been to take the long way home – up into China and across Russia on the Siberian Express. But then what? Maybe Saudi Arabia, maybe somewhere in Europe. My friend Simon emailed me with the kind of proposition that left me drooling. Brazil for the World Cup – so I began to look at jobs in South America.
It all became a muddle. For a couple of weeks my mind would spend long periods of time in the future sometimes completely oblivious to those things going on around me. Looking back, it seems absurd to be so sure that I would leave after a year. Who knows what will happen in that time. I’m a firm believer in picking up your life every now and again and shaking it vigorously – and just seeing where all the pieces settle. Maybe it will be better, maybe even be worse – but it will be different. A re-think was needed. Life needed to be shook.
After a quick trip home, I moved house. A very welcome change. New surroundings always helps. Next was to try and clear away the thoughts about the future. Often easier said than done. It was a gradual process which really hit home a few weeks ago. I attended a movie about the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese. The subject was powerful and at times quite horrific – but it did underline what an astonishing achievement this level of forgiveness has been on the part of the Vietnamese people. Oddly it seems the scars seem rawer and deeper in the U.S.A than in Vietnam. It also acted as a real slap across the face. Why the fuck are you day dreaming about Brazil when you’re in Vietnam? Suddenly I felt like I still know next to nothing about the people and the culture that I have spent six months immersed in. My mind drifted back to when I was a child watching Vietnam war movies. I opened up the atlas and flipped through till I found the tiny snakelike little country in South East Asia. It seemed like a wonderfully mythical place; and joined the growing number of ‘must visit’ countries. And now I’m here. Who knows for how long. Or when I leave if I will ever come back. Suddenly everything seemed a hell of a lot more important.
So I when I got home I emailed a few teachers about starting Vietnamese lessons again, emailed one of the centers in the film about volunteering with them and made a concerted effort to put the future out of my mind – until the future needed to be decided. And to concentrate more on being in Vietnam. Traveling is without a doubt my favorite thing to do – but just because you do it doesn’t mean you are immune for the normal trappings of life. You may live somewhere exciting and relatively new but you still have to drive yourself to make the most of it
I remembered a friend introducing me to the concept of doing at least one new thing every day. One truly original thing. Eating or drinking somewhere new, going somewhere new, speaking to someone new – even simply walking down a new road. It seems simple, but you’d be surprised how easily your day follows exactly the same pattern if you let it. I started to do it again. Of course there are days where you work all day long then stagger exhausted home at the end of it. It does take a bit of perseverance to do sometimes but well worth it. My new thing yesterday was to go to the swimming pool near my house. As I left the changing room the two giggling old women winked at me. I turned to see that the ‘sheet’ covering the cubicle had in no way what so ever preserved my modesty.I had given them a grandstand view of my white ass for the past five minutes. They burst out laughing.
“Perverts” I muttered as I felt my face turn red – but joined in the laughter anyway.
Recently I have been lucky enough to have many students I’ve been genuinely sad to say goodbye to – maybe because of it I’m probably enjoying teaching more now than I ever have done. Of course there is always a flip side. I have been burdened with one demonic spasticated monkey (whose will remain anonymous) – just normal enough to be allowed to remain in society, but only just.
His father attended the parents meeting after his sons midterm test (which he did appalling in). I told him in no uncertain terms that his child was an animal. I felt he had probably heard this before. He was waiting for me after the class a few weeks ago.
“Is he getting better” he asked earnestly. His son had just spent an unnatural amount of time either; screaming at the top of his voice, writhing around in his chair with his eyes balls searching for the backs of their sockets – or doing the same on the floor. I looked at his father with a mixture of disbelief and pity
“No” I replied, probably a little too bluntly.
“Is there anything else I can do” he asked hopefully. What the fuck did he want me to say? I suggested a dog muzzle and a thick metal chain – followed by serious medical attention. I do honestly feel bad for the boy because he quite obviously has serious behavioral problems that are not being dealt with.
I’ve grown quite accustomed to the traffic. Don’t get me wrong I still shout obscenities at other motorists who piss me off – but it’s not with the same rabid, I want to beat you to death with your own helmet intensity. Really I only do it now because I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t. If you spend every second letting Vietnam’s irritations get under your skin you will lead a very bitter existence. And what is strange just how long that took to properly sink in.
Petty problems seem a lot smaller now. In the grand scheme of my life will they really factor when it’s all said and done.
Hanoi is not always an easy place to live. It’s taken six months to reach a happy equilibrium with it. The city is what it is, and it’s about adapting yourself to it. The city won’t change. It’s about finding those little things you love. Exploring the city at night when the traffic has subsided and every street corner has one of those wonderfully Vietnamese scenes taking place. Tiny plastic stools, smoke, smells – hordes of people chattering away happily. The complex history. The fact that so much constantly straddles the line of absolutely fascinating and the absolutely absurd. I love how I can walk down the road for five minutes and it’s guaranteed that I will have seen at least ten things that are either utterly brilliant, utterly awful, completely fascinating or just completely stupid. There is never a dull moment.
The little temples, lakes and parks that dot the city – little pockets of calm and serenity in the midst of the chaos – that are much needed if you are to survive – as are the trips out of the city. Perfume Pagoda, Mai Chau, Ba Vi,Tam Dao, all within an easy days reach. And all jaw dropingly beautiful. On a recent trip back from Mai Chau I came to stop just outside a small village. The others were a little way behind so I got off my bike to stretch my legs. In front of me stretched radiantly green rice paddies. Interrupted only by craggy limestone cliffs that rose majestically from know where. The village to the left consisted exclusively of old fashioned wooden stilt houses. The inhabitants tended the rice fields at a leisurely pace. To say the scene was postcard perfect would be an understatement to it. It was just perfect. This really is Vietnam I thought.