If you’ve read much of anything I’ve written about living in Vietnam (like this or this), if you’ve lived here before or visited here before, you know that making this place your home means existing in a love-hate relationship with your surroundings. Some days are frustrating battles, filled from start to finish with illogical situations, traffic, bad weather, and a number of other Hanoi-normal events that just get to you sometimes. Other days convince you that there’s nowhere else you’d rather live.
For the past three days, I’ve been proctoring examinations at one of the international schools, making a bit of extra money since my spring advising schedule is rather light and flexible. It’s a 20 minute drive from my house presuming there’s no traffic, the computer based exams take 15 minutes to set up, and class starts at 8:10 – meaning my alarm (set to the latest time I can possibly manage) goes off at 6:45.
I haven’t gotten up before 10ish in over four months, and it is not an enjoyable experience.
I’m exhausted, having stayed up to my normal “early” bedtime of 1:30. My brain hurts as I drive across town in the rush hour traffic and heat that normally happens while I’m blissfully asleep in my bed in my air-conditioned apartment…with Ethel.
Having gone to bed earlier (12:15) with intention, I expected to be less tired. Not so. Frantic excuses and reasons to blow off the job are the first things that come to mind when the beeping noise beside my head starts. Resentment. Sadness. I drive across town swearing under my breath at the cars in front of me, realize I don’t have any make-up on only as I pull into the parking lot, and feel like I barely remember what it’s like to have time to myself during the day.
Morning 3 is today. Last night I threw Ethel in the dogbox and made an impromptu trip up to Jules’ house to sit around and have a few drinks. I promised myself I’d go home around 11, something I came close to accomplishing. I didn’t join the late night fun that moved to a bar in town and continued until the wee hours of the morning, I had work. Based on Morning 2, Morning 3 should have been worse…but it wasn’t. Maybe it was nice evening preceding, maybe it’s the fact that it’s the last day I have to do this damn alarm thing…who knows…but today…it was one of those “Damn I love living in Vietnam” drives AND it was at a time that I’m not normally awake, meaning I got to see a Hanoi that has usually moved on by the time I’m up and about.
- I don’t normally leave the flat until 11 or 11:30, savoring the quiet morning working from bed with a cup of coffee and the sound of Ethel snoring under the duvet. When I step out onto the street, it’s an easy 35 degrees out (95F) and the sun is directly overhead. It’s hot, VERY humid, and the streets are nearly empty, as everyone’s indoors or in the shade in a hammock or lawn chair, napping through the hottest period of the day. Ethel and are both ready to lie on the cool tile floors and drink a liter of water by the time the “morning” walk is over. A morning walk at 7am, however, is an entirely different matter. It’s warm, but not stifling. Fruit and veggie vendors abound; women with bicycles full of ripe mangos with a warm yellow skin several shades lighter than the dark orange-yellow inside, full of green-on-the-outside-orange-on-the-inside oranges in a perfect cone, with one sliced in half occupying the pinnacle, with mangosteens or limes or garlic or longans or dragonfruit or sweet potatoes or pineapple. The dozen varieties of breakfast noodle restaurants are all open and hopping, with bossy matriarchs ladeling broth from steaming soup pots you could put a 6-year-old in into bowls and barking orders at assistants who have to keep dishes, spoons, and chopsticks clean and keep the tables clear and stocked with bowls of fresh herbs, containers of pickled garlic, dishes of chili flakes, and little jars of toothpicks. These all close up by 10. All I usually see is a pile of tables and stools chained together, awaiting the next morning.
- I’m not sure why, but as an avowed holder of distasteful feelings towards children, parents driving their kids to school in the morning is significantly sweeter than the afternoon drive home. The bike next to me had 7 (ish) year old girl on the back, Totoro backpack full to the brim, chomping down on a banh mi trung while grandpa weaved through traffic on their Honda Dream.
- The wholesale flower market, which I’ve only seen at 2 am when it opens and I’m still awake, is still running at 7:15 when I drive by (it closes around 9). Women sort roses and every other flower imaginable by color, bundles of 100 getting wrapped with newspaper and twine. An old lady in patterned PJs crosses the busy road steadily with a bundle of yellow roses under one arm and a bundle of mixed peonies under the other, each bundle the size of a duffle bag.
- The road I take to this particular work weaves along the north side of the lake, past the posh Western neighborhood with private school kids waiting for the bus in bits of tree shade on the sidewalk, past lakeside cafes, past a slightly outdated and rusty water park. This road is relatively shady, and is therefore full of morning exercisers, whether they’re riding their bicycles around the 17 kilometer loop, swinging their arms on the sidewalk to increase joint flexibility, or doing pull-ups and puffing out sweaty chests on the makeshift work-out equipment in the tiny parks that line the lake.
- Guys delivering bundles of coconuts and bags of ice to the thousand cafes on this road putter along with me. Well they putter, as I’m on a mission and am driving a bike not laden down with 40 5-kilo bags of ice in a giant metal box covered with blankets for insulation against the sun. These coconuts will have the top hacked off and a straw stuck in, the ice will be added to tea and coffee and passion-fruit juice and lemon juice and lemon tea and soda and any other cold beverage you can imagine by the hundreds of working people nearby who take small coffee breaks by the lake throughout the day.
I finished up around 3 and came home, seriously in need of a nap. Ethel was as enthusiastic about my return as she was about the midday cuddle. At 5 the little old lady that lives downstairs (my flat is the 4th floor of her house) knocked on my door with a tray of bun nem: cold rice noodles and savory broth and fried springrolls that you eat with fresh greens. They were delicious, of course.
My Hanoi…on a Thursday. Abnormal only in terms of the hours kept…not the experiences had.