This is not a story about moving to Hanoi as an American. This is not a story about eating phở cuốnby the lake where John McCain was shot down. This is not about learning to call the Vietnam War the American War.
This is a story about moving to Hanoi, but this is not a story about moving to the capital of a communist country. It’s not about secret police and censored websites, neighborhood loudspeakers and propaganda text messages, the illuminated hammer-and-sickle signs hanging over the street. It’s not about the dribble of bird shit down the side of the Lenin statue’s face, or the toddlers careening in shiny remote-control mini-SUVs beneath.
Nor is this a story about moving to a developing country. Because Vietnam is a middle-income country, and if you’re coming to it from a developing country, like the narrator of our story, you would immediately see the difference between the terms. You would see it in the ways our narrator does: in the arching overpasses and landscaped parks; in the electric bikes and public buses; in the armies of trash collectors in their rubber boots and conical hats. You would see it in the limbs of the residents, in the way everyone looks so glowy and plump compared to the place from which you’ve come, and you’d see it most of all in yourself, in the way these things make you feel as though you’ve returned to the functional world.
As such, this is not about potholes and dangling electrical wires, about alleys that flood and electricity that snaps shut in one big “pop!” This is not about shoddy construction and watered-down cement; about people holding their babies over the curb to pee; about cats chained in doorways; about the things one can carry on a motorbike than you never imagined one would need to carry on a motorbike.
This is not a food story, which is a shame because that would be a more likeable and sellable story. This is not about dog meat or egg coffee or the way the smoke wafts down Chicken Street. This is not a “getting to know the culture” story: this is not about misadventures in learning a tonal language; not about haggling; not about getting fitted for a traditional áo dài; not about being called fat when your whole life you were flaca, skinny white girl. This is not a white-woman-in-Asia story: this is not about getting ignored at bars because our narrator doesn’t go to bars. Our narrator sits at home in her bathrobe with the AC on. This is about a narrator who doesn’t want anything more than that.
This is not about the cowboy language center where our narrator works when she first arrives in Hanoi, with its photocopied books and wheezy ACs, its teachers with sunburns and counterfeit TEFL certificates. This is not a seedy-side-of-Asia story. There are no bia hơis in this story; no late-night motorbike accidents; no gangsters with silver chains; no prostitutes from the countryside; no sun-crisped sexpats; no one who smokes crank; no one who shoots dope or gambles or falls in love with a massage girl who gives him crabs and demands $500 for a $25 abortion. There are no big shots in this story, no schemers, no grandiose dreamers—there are no dreams in this story.
There are no ruminations on first-world privilege in this story. There are no yoga housewives; no ladies who lunch; no one with drivers or nannies or housekeepers they pay to grind peanut butter with a mortar and pestle. There is no grappling with the inherent advantages of passport, skin color or native tongue, because there is no grappling in this story.
This story is about fumbling. Or rather, this story is about what happens after the fumbling—a fumbling that takes place outside of this story and is only hinted at through examination of its shattered remains. This is a story about shattered remains.
This is a story about a narrator who moves not to Hanoi but to Phnom Penh, with the plan to write a book. But she discovers her book to be unwriteable, and goes broke in the process. Goes paranoid and insomniac and perhaps a little crazy in the process. She starts to think that maybe there are little men watching her. When she realizes this, she withdraws her last $400, packs up what’s left of her life and takes a one-way bus to Vietnam.
This is about a narrator who comes to Hanoi like that—a bag of broken pieces, to a city that grinds everything into broken pieces. This is a story about what happens to those broken pieces.
This is a story about loneliness. About the crushing kind of loneliness no amount of Skyping can cure. This is about riding the elevator up fifteen floors in a rickety housing complex to tutor a newly arrived Korean teenager; this is about his mom feeding you homemade kim chi afterwards; this is about sitting at their knock-off IKEA table that a thousand other Korean expats must have sat at and trying to talk to each other through a wall of language and loneliness.
This is a story about being sick. Really sick. This is about the way the pollution settles in your nasal passages, about the feeling of infection: the heaviness in the joints, the blood aching, the heat like a faraway train inside you. This is about taking rounds of antibiotics, getting cupping done on your back and it not being a cultural experience—feeling the skin pinching, popping, having all the mucus drained but the pressure of the infection remaining. This is a story about realizing you’ve been so sick you haven’t smoked a cigarette in two months. This is a story about having diarrhea every morning; about the way your skin itches when you have worms; about your roommate driving you to the Korean Friendship Clinic where a tired-eyed 25-year-old doctor tells you he can’t find anything wrong.
This is about knowing what’s wrong.
This is a story about mold, about the smell of mold as it eats through bamboo furniture, about the gray spots that sprout on your clothing and shoes and the battered old purse you carried here, from your old life. This is a story about everything going bad, Hanoi eating everything you brought there, everything you had left, which admittedly wasn’t much—the bristles of your make-up brush getting crusty, the hair gel separating, the crunchy texture of all the fabrics. This is about your contact lenses going gummy from pollution, then getting thrown out by a trigger-happy cleaner. This is about not being able to replace the contacts, demoting yourself to glasses and it changing the whole look of your face. This is about looking in the mirror and not recognizing your face.
This is a story about fear. About the size of fear—roughly the size of your fist, which is also the size of your heart—and the location of the fear in your body: below the heart, near the gut, also called one’s center of gravity. This is about moving to Hanoi never having learned to ride a bicycle. This is not a story about learning to ride a bicycle. This is a story about failing to learn to ride a bicycle, in a functional sense of the term, and failing to learn to drive a motorbike, in any sense of the term, and the isolation and shame that grows out of that. This is not a story about learning to love oneself in the face of that isolation and shame and fear. This is just about the fear.
What can you say about this story? It isn’t one you want to read; it isn’t even one you want to write. The one you wanted to write, tried to write, was half-scribbled napkin notes fluttering out of the window of the bus that brought you to Hanoi. The one you tried to write isn’t in this story, or is stalking just outside this story—which isn’t, if we’re being honest, much of a story at all.
Winter comes in this story. The bugs die and the lotuses die and our narrator digs her hands in her pockets and goes on long walks. She does not die. Instead, she turns 30. Things sink away. She throws out the t-shirts that have gone moldy, the purse that peeled and cracked, the relics of her old life and the person she used to be.
She keeps the loneliness.
She keeps the fear.
She just puts them in a smaller place.
And after Hanoi has consumed everything—after it has taken all those broken pieces and smashed them into a dust that mixes with the smog and smoke and arsenic that coats everything in Hanoi—a space begins to open in our narrator. The old story isn’t gone exactly, but she realizes she’s living a new story.
A year after moving to Hanoi, our narrator decides to actually live in Hanoi. She signs a contract, gets a work permit, starts taking Vietnamese lessons. She drives around the block slow and wobbling, her shoes scraping the asphalt. She buys a face mask and stops going on walks. Her diarrhea lessens.
She moves into an apartment by that John McCain lake, the nicest apartment she’s ever lived in. Its walls are faded and its tiles are chipped, and sometimes when the light comes through the bamboo curtains, it’s so bright she swears she can hardly see, can hardly sense it—can hardly feel that other story, waiting along the edges for her.