My Moveable Feast
On one of my last nights in Vietnam three years ago, I remember hopping on a xe om to check out the New Century Club here in Hanoi. I felt a small victory learning how to negotiate a xe om after a month in the country. As I was riding the motobike down the side of Hoan Kiem Lake at night past the Thap Rua Tower I had a sudden sense of freedom and an uncanny feeling that this city could feel like home. It was a feeling I could not get out of my head.
Now several years later I am on the verge of another departure. This time though I am not left with a premonition of what might be but with a memories of a fulfilled dream, of a deeper relationship with this city.
There have been times I been cynical about the extreme lyricism of so many of the portrayals of Vietnam: langourous, dreamy, and rice paddy green. But now when I think back over the last half year, despite the chaos, dust and grey winter mornings I do find a kind of lyricism in my memories. So I hope you'll forgive me if I indulge in a few of the most vivid images and experiences I take away with me.
Hanoi from Under a Raincoat
This ride was on the way to lunch on the other side of town. It was raining and cold. Viet drove and I sat behind him hidden under his big plastic poncho raincoat. Mostly I experienced the sound of the Hanoi street: the honking, the sounds of motors, the clanking of soup bowls, snippets of incomprehensible conversations in passing. I could see only whatever random flashes the flapping of the raincoat revealed: wet feet, wheels, red plastic stools, puddles, metal rods balanced on a cyclo, the trunk of a banyan tree pushing through the cracked pavement. All of this I experienced from within the intimacy of the raincoat I shared with Viet, with my head on his shoulder, my arms wrapped around him and my hands in his warm coat pockets.
Hung at the Altar
Shortly after I met him Hung offered to take me out on the back of his black Vespa to Bac Ninh Province for the day to see pagodas (see "Village Life"). It was hot late summer day and the dry roads blew grit in our teeth. From on top of one of the Delta dyke roads you could see the countryside stretch out punctuated with little villages and orange brick kilns. Hung first took me to Chua Dau. There are more spectacular pagodas, but this one has an austerity, a serenity. Hung was my cultural interpreter and helped make sense of the religious imagery. Each time we approached an altar Hung would first bow his handsome head and quietly pray. Each time I was deeply moved. It was something about seeing him shift from talking about to participating in. I humbly put away my camera.
Summer Storm in Bach Khoa
It must have been my first day because I asked Viet to take me to an internet cafe so I could write home to say that I had arrived safely in Hanoi. It was sweltering and he took me to a tiny internet cafe where we squeezed between the chairs to the two remaining computers at the back. The weak air conditioning had little effect with all those bodies in such a narrow space; the strong fans helped more. Suddenly the heavens outside opened and let loose a storm like I have never seen. I was alarmed but no one else batted an eye at what is in fact a daily occurence during this wet season. The streets flooded in a matter of minutes and I was without a raincoat. After waiting in vain for a few minutes Viet found a way for us to hop from awning to awning down the street until we succeeded in picking up a cheap plastic raincoat and a couple of caramel puddings which we ate in a little tile floored storefront open to a sheets of pounding rain.
Upstairs at Cafe Nang with Dat
Dat introduced me to Cafe Nang and it will always be linked to him in my memory. Dat is one of the proudest Hanoians I know. It's unusual for such a young man to have such a passion for the history and traditions of his city. When he would walk through the Old Quarter it was always as if he was discovering the streets for the first time. He took it upon himself to show me the quirkiest little joints hidden down alleyways and up secret staircases, and Cafe Nang was one of my favourites. He showed me the little marble staircase at the back of the cafe. It always felt so Alice in Wonderland squeezing our way up, passing through a tiny ancient kitchen lined with drip coffee filters, to a little room littered with the cracked shells of red watermelon seed shells. There we would drink nau da and watch the drama that is the meeting of Hang Bac and Hang Be. With Dat I felt I had been let in on a secret world, a world of street vendors, plastic stools, and cafes with broken plaster that had not been painted since the French pulled out.
I was usually the last to be informed of the gatherings at my house. Vo Thi Sau became the Group clubhouse and I was always happy to oblige. The doorbell would ring and there would be a pod of bikes outside in the lane waiting to turn my front room into a parking lot. The guys would deposit a pile of shoes at the foot of the stairs in my kitchen and head upstairs to my living room. Someone would bring a bag of fruit to be carved up and devoured. Hardly anyone would drink a drop. My furniture always seemed to be an awkward imposition. Instead they would throw the cushions on the floor and pile on, curling up, leaning on each other, limbs all overlapping. Like a litter of kittens I thought.
Viet, Hung and I found ourselves out across town with only one motobike. It's supposed to be illegal to ride with more than two but it's a common sight and we piled on anyway. Hung drove, I rested my head on the back of his neck, and Viet sat snuggly behind me. Motobikes afford a kind of intimacy amidst chaos, and there is a powerful feeling to this paradox. I have many fond memories of conversations with Viet while we rode slowly around the city late at night with my chin on his shoulder. Then there is the physical intimacy; doubling on bikes is in fact a form of public spooning. During this particular ride I felt a supreme happiness. I surrendered to the warmth and care of two of my best friends, embraced in this little corner of Vietnamese life.