A day-in-the-life sort of post. Somewhat.
When one decides to write a “day in the life” post, it is usually made simple by the boundaries on each end – waking up and going to sleep. Not so simple, here. When I decided to write this “day in the life” post, I had to spend some time deciding when it actually should begin. I suppose waking up is technically the best beginning…but as that happened at 2:30pm, I think it better to give a bit of a prologue. Prequel. Whatever.
Pretty normal start to a Saturday evening, assuming we acknowledge that normal in the past 5 months or so has been significantly more social and late-night than it was for the year preceding that. Two Tay girls at bia hoi (translation: two foreign girls at an almost-all-the-customers-are-men beer garden restaurant). Tofu and rice. French fries. Fresh beer. Admiring looks from nearby tables as we yell for refills (it’s what you do), invitations to join tables (rejected nicely), and one round on an anonymous admirer from the table of 12 at the back of the room. Small bar-crawl through the Old Quarter, gin & tonics abound. As things wind down to midnight (when most of the OQ closes) we head up to a place that stays open later, where the Brit and crew also eventually end up. More gin & tonics happen, conversation happen, blah blah most of you have seen a bar before.
Fast-forward to 4am, Heather’s in cab back to her side of town. Everyone in the aforementioned crew is heading to a spot along the lake that stays open until dawn, for sitting, conversing and ridiculing each other. But as we get to the parking lot…there is a conspicuous lack of the Brit’s bike. As in…it’s missing. This bar has parking attendants and tickets, meaning…it’s their fault that it’s been stolen, but…that’s little solace in the moment. The Cub is not meant for two people, let alone two foreigners, let alone two foreigners one of whom is 6’2. Did I mention that the Cub doesn’t currently have a hand-brake? I mean it has a foot brake, just…not the hand-brake option. We can’t all have be fancy…with two braking options. The hand-brake broke several weeks ago in that tiny accident I had in the Old Quarter, and…I haven’t managed to get it to the mechanic since then, and I’ve been driving the ’67 most days anyway. I might be making excuses. So the Brit is driving the Cub, when the gear shift breaks, leaving the bike permanently in 3rd gear. Bad luck evening for motorbikes. The lakeside bar happened, a house party with a roof balcony for sunrise watching happened, and I called it quits at 6:45am. Reflection: I’ve decided sunrise on a beach is magical and worth waiting for, but sunrise in a city is just a fading into lightness that makes me regret my consciousness more and more with every passing minute.
I crawled into bed just after 7am after closing all the blinds and curtains and turning on the AC to achieve that delightful “cold air big blanket” thing that I think everyone from a cold place appreciates. My eyes stung from too many hours with contacts, my hair smelled like cigarette smoke from a night of outdoor bars, my feet hurt from too many hours in heels. Ethel got the picture quickly and burrowed under the covers. We slept until 2. Blissfully.
…and then got up. It was almost time to head out to Manh’s countryside studio.
So you see…had I started this now-already-lengthy post with “I woke up, went for a latte by the lake with Ethel and then headed out to the countryside for the afternoon/evening”, you’d have missed the bike theft, the gear-shifter, the dawn on a rooftop, and the fact that I nothing more than a glorified nap while Hanoi went about its Sunday morning.
The house, his studio, is about an hour outside of town, across the river and a bit south through progressively smaller towns on progressively bumpier roads. I was obviously taking the ’67. The sun was out, the wind in my hair, the banana trees green and rice fields golden-brown (harvest underway).
A friend since 2006, Manh has recently moved himself and his studio to a countryside house in Gia Lam. He was previously the friend who always pushed everyone to relocate to a house party after the bars had all closed, so this move reflects the beginning of a bit of a different life phase. His gorgeous old house is mostly one floor, though there’s a single large upstairs room with a pitched ceiling that’s nothing more than the underside of ceramic roof tiles. All the wood is dark, there are pillars everywhere, high ceilings, windows and double-doors on every side make it beautifully airy. There’s a cat who sleeps in the shade of stacked canvasses, a dog who sleeps on a carved wooden bench in the garden, a rooster who perches in the pomelo tree, and two ducks who guard the pond. We spent the afternoon catching up among pieces currently in process, talking about the exhibition planned for February, eating fruit from the tree, drinking herbal tea from the garden, tea that is – apparently – good for the liver after a night of drinking. How appropriate.
I sat in a hammock under hanging orchids under a tree with yellow flowers under a blue sky. At 6, a small entourage of friends arrived who have made the same trek from Hanoi as I had, bringing baguettes, wine, and an assortment of things to barbecue. The day faded into evening, the little girls fed bread to the ducks, the older one braided my hair…fascinated by the brown-to-blond transition, the garden smelled like grilled pork and pomelo, and a selection of Gainsbourg jazz numbers played on the small stereo inside. People sat outside on chairs, benches, stone walls or floor cushions, cigarette smoke swirling up through the leaves, wine was consumed from an eclectic assortment of water glasses, and intelligent conversations flowed (about art mostly, but the process of doing it…what they’re working on, what cool stuff is happening in Hanoi, etc.). It was silent outside the walls, a sleepy country town literal and figurative miles away from Hanoi.
By 8:30, however, I was tired. Did I mention that I’d watched the sun come up? As nice as that nap had been, it hadn’t been enough. Ethel was at home, my bed was at home, an oversized sweatshirt and leggings and tea were at home.
Between home and I – however – was an hour long drive I’d made once, in the daytime, with GoogleMaps guiding me the entire way. My phone was dead (no one had the right charger to lend) and it was dark. With a hand-drawn map, a full tank of gas, and the ability to have pretty detailed conversations about directions in Vietnamese, I set off for home…and rolled into Truc Bach an hour later…tired, covered in road grime, and entirely content. The drive back had re-emphasized the melee that is Hanoi, a melee that I love. That said…as I write this I am looking forward to two things: first and more immediately, my pending late-night dog walk with Ethel through empty streets, second; the inevitable weekend afternoons I spend back in that garden. You know those friends that show up a bit too often and stay a bit too late? That’s about to be me.
Two weeks ago I quit a management level position, and the deciding factor was a contract re-negotiation and a conflicting vision for the Academic Department I was running. A month or so before that, in a bit of a poem phase, I wrote a piece (yeah…I know) that came back to me today. At the risk of bringing unnecessary attention to something for which I have no claim to possess talent, the last few lines were in my head on the drive home.
instead I drive past these things [referencing Vietnam, the world, culture, real life, etc.]
to get to my office
paid well for my ability
to make this place resemble the world
i left America to escape
I consume delivery salads and iced lattes
they’re quicker and easier than
stepping outside in business casual
there’s no time between the things
I don’t really care about, to do the things I do
These words were on my mind because they’re no longer true. And that’s damn-fucking-awesome.
It might have been the struggles with upper management that made me leave, but it’s this…the end of a job that kept me from really enjoying/experiencing/living Hanoi…the newfound ability to take an afternoon with friends in a garden in the countryside talking about art and travel and whatever else…the fact that I was driving with a hand-drawn map through rural towns, past rice paddies and corn fields and brick factories…it’s this that made me smile that whole freaking drive home.