Diane Lee - Almost Happy in Hanoi

I’m almost happy in Hanoi again… and here’s why

After all the doom and gloom of the last year or so, this is an “I’m happy in Hanoi again” post. It’s taken a Stupid Fucking Virus™ pandemic, lock down and a bicycle to start enjoying this city again.

After a long winter, punctuated by brief bursts of warm weather, summer — with all its sweltering heat and horrible humidity and ferocious storms — has finally arrived in Hanoi. I’ve packed away put my winter coats, jackets and jumpers (actually, I’ve posted them to Australia in anticipation of my return) and hung my sleeveless shirts and floaty dresses and baggy cotton trousers in my wardrobe, ready to wear. Usually, I’m not a fan of the summer. I sweat. I moan. I whinge. I complain. I can’t get cool. Even when I’m sitting under the fan, with the air conditioner blasting a breeze straight from the North Pole.

‘You’re Australian,’ people say, mostly unsympathetic. ‘You should be used to the heat.’

‘Yeah, but Australia’s summer, especially where I’m from, is not like this.’ I reply, wilting as the words drip like melted candle wax from my mouth.

Freedom, for me, always has been — and always will be — about choice.

But this year, I welcome summer because it coincides with the ending of the soft lock down in Hanoi. I now associate heat with freedom. I can choose whether I want to work from home, or from my favourite cafe where they serve ginger and honey tea in a delicate Vietnamese ceramic teapot, along with a fat slice of buttery lemon cake on a matching plate. I have the option to have lunch at home, or at one of the delicious and cheap vegan restaurants or street food places near my apartment. I can walk outside or shop without worrying about my personal safety or xenophobia if I don’t wear a mask (which I experienced even when I did). If I’m out, I can stop and have a coffee or sugar cane juice or iced tea on the street because vendors are allowed to trade again. Freedom, for me, always has been — and always will be — about choice.

But being happy in Hanoi again is also about other, simple things.

1.  Riding my bicycle

During the lockdown, my usual mode of transport ceased. Going anywhere was actively discouraged, so no more Grab. No public buses. No taxis. Visits to the supermarket were allowed and walkable, but it was a little too far over the obstacle course that is footpaths to be practical. Going to the supermarket by motorcycle taxi is a five minute trip, but on foot, it’s more like twenty because of the level of complication involved. At any moment, one’s life could be ended by a misstep, impalation or terrible timing. And police were out in force, stopping pedestrians and quizzing them on their destination (which explains why people walked the streets of Hanoi with shopping bags during the lockdown!), so it was more risky than usual to walk.

Enter Stan. My bicycle.

At any moment, one’s life could be ended by a misstep, impalation or terrible timing.

I bought Stan, a white mountain bike with a sturdy frame and thick tyres, a few months after I arrived in Hanoi. For a city of almost nine million people and traffic jams and serious accidents and crazy motorists who pay no attention to the rules, it’s quite surprising to learn it’s an incredibly cycle-friendly city. I eagerly rode Stan around my district when I first bought him, but the longer I was here, the lazier I got and ended opting for Grab if I needed to be anywhere because it was quick and cheap. Who could be bothered cycling anywhere when you could order a motorcycle via your app for a few thousand dong?

But with the lockdown, I was desperate for exercise (I hadn’t been to the gym for months) and needed an efficient way to get around. So I dusted off Stan, pumped up his tyres and off I rode. I cycled back alleys and empty roads and quiet streets. Over unforgiving speed bumps and through puddles and potholes and across the crusty, dusty eternal roadworks of precipices and abysses that is the streetscape of Hanoi. Past pots of petunias with their bright splashes of pink and purple and violet, and shops with gates locked and doors shut tight, spray painted with phone numbers and addresses advertising haircuts and taxis and delivery services. Alongside West Lake with its rotten fishy smell, blue-grey breeze and beguiling skyline of sleek, modern apartment blocks and skinny, worn out housing. Yelling chao and hello over my shoulder to people I both know and don’t as I cycle past.

The thing is: Grab services have been restored now. So have buses and taxis, but I’m loving riding my bike to wherever I have to go, so I’m going to keep going, careening around the streets of Hanoi, free and carefree.

2. Still learning Vietnamese

One of the joys of living in Vietnam is learning the language: it would be almost impossible to learn Vietnamese in Australia. I use it every day: taking motorcycle taxis, going to the supermarket, eating on the street, going to cafes and restaurants, getting jewellery fixed, talking to my building security and landlord. It is a living language for me, a rich experience, an engrossing activity.

I have been learning (not studying, because I am lazy) Vietnamese almost since I arrived in Hanoi. It seemed the smart thing to do because I felt disabled. I couldn’t communicate with taxi drivers — which was my primary mode of transport before Grab — and I couldn’t read anything. Vietnamese looks like English and it seems like you can pronounce it but this is all a lie. Vietnamese is one of the hardest languages in the the world to learn: six tones and strange vowels and consonant combinations that are difficult to get your mouth around. The grammar is relatively easy — no real tenses or conjugation of verbs — but the structure is quite complicated. On the up side, the language is phonetic — once you know the tones, you can read it because know exactly how to pronounce the words. The diacritics tell you how.

‘Vietnamese is so difficult because of the tones,’ people who have tried — and failed to learn it — tell me.

‘No,’ I say. ‘The tones are not the problem: it’s the vowels.’

Actually, it’s the chaos of tones and vowels.

Particularly this vowel: ô. Out of all the vowels — and there are some doozies, the “o with the hat” breaks my balls every time. The closest I can get to pronouncing it correctly is the “aw” in awful and only because I have an Australian accent. And it’s still not quite correct. Apparently, Americans have a terrible time with this ball breaking o with the hat because (I’ve been told) there’s no equivalent with their particular accent.

Still, I don’t, won’t, haven’t, can’t let this defeat me, because — to my eternal surprise and endless joy — I am conversational. I’ve had people who don’t speak it call me fluent, and, depending on the context, I guess I am. My listening still needs some work, but I can talk up a storm (chém bão) with just about anyone on the street. And most are surprised that an old, white Australian lady can speak Vietnamese street slang, and talk with them so well and so naturally.

No one expects an old, white lady to be conversational in Vietnamese. It’s kind of cool.

I have two private lessons per week, with a patient and kind teacher named Tuan (actually, all three of my past teachers have been patient and kind), who I’ve been studying with for about a year. Those lessons continued during the lockdown, and they were the highlights of my week. Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon would be punctuated with Tuan visiting  my apartment; I would make him coffee and we would chém gió (slash the wind a.k.a. shoot the breeze) for an hour or so. Our conversations are almost entirely in Vietnamese now. Often I get the adjectives around the wrong way, and when he gives me a certain look, like a wise father teaching his young daughter to talk, I know to swap the words around. Sometimes I grapple for the right word, and he feeds it to me gently, because nine times out of ten, I know it. It’s there in my brain, waiting patiently for its turn to pop into my mouth.

I meet foreigners who have lived here for 10 years and don’t speak Vietnamese. And I get it. There’s no real need now — there’s enough English spoken to get by, particularly by younger people. I’m glad that I had the sense to start learning it when I arrived — everything was new and exciting and different. And I like the surprise factor. As I said before, no one expects an old, white lady to be conversational in Vietnamese. It’s kind of cool.

3. Embracing creativity

Hot days, darkened rooms, drawn blinds. Making stuff. These are the pleasant memories I have from my childhood. Mt Gambier, known for its frigid winters — lawns white with frost crunching underfoot as I walked to school in the morning, hands and neck wrapped in hand-knitted mittens and matching scarf — was also hot as hell in summer. We didn’t have air conditioning in any of our houses — and we moved around a lot as each of my mother’s three marriages dissolved — but we did have evaporative cooling and fans.

As a child, I would spend searing summer days sewing, reading, writing, painting, drawing, crocheting, knitting, crafting. I loved craft kits: paint-by-numbers (oil on velvet and acrylic on canvas), spirograph, origami and jewellery-making from plastic resin. Creative pursuits dwindled the older I’ve gotten, as the pressure to earn a living and the lure of passive entertainment became a permanent fixture in my life. In the last few years, I dabbled in mosaics, drawing, quilting and tapestry that were discarded as I discovered I had neither the space, time nor inclination.

Crafting was soothing, calming and restful. My brain loved being in the zone — it’s the perfect way to do mindfulness.

In Hanoi, time and a flexible lifestyle are on my side. I’ve taken a few workshops and courses: film-making (one of the worst courses I’ve ever attended and PayPal agreed with me and gave me a refund); tie-dying; earrings, book-making and calligraphy (with traditional Vietnamese do paper); photography; and cooking to name a few. During the lockdown, because I couldn’t go anywhere, I stocked up on arty-crafty kit stuff: paint-by-numbers (unfortunately, I received a scene from Frozen instead of the landscape I ordered, and have consequently lost interest), a tapestry and a colouring book. I would work in the morning and spend the afternoons creating. I enjoyed being on my own, making stuff again. Crafting was soothing, calming and restful. My brain loved being in the zone — it’s the perfect way to do mindfulness.

Since the lockdown, I’ve discovered, and become addicted to, embroidery. Like all things in Hanoi, I discovered the workshops via Facebook. Hardly anyone has a website here because a) no one wants to spend the money and b) setting it up and maintaining it requires a degree of skill that not so many people have or can be bothered acquiring. But I digress. Embroidery. Workshops. Creativity. So far, I’ve completed four workshops and three projects: a Vietnamese pepper plant, a lotus flower and a tote bag. I still have my first project to finish — lungs — but I plan to complete it this week. And then I’m planning my next project: embroidering my pollution mask (it’s a carbon activated and washable) with either a koi fish or turtle. Or a goldfish. I haven’t decided yet.

What I love about embroidery is how beautiful and surprisingly easy it is. With just six stitches, I can create stunning work that looks — impressively — technical and difficult. And it’s quick. You can finish a project in an afternoon, or over the course of a few days or a week, which is immensely satisfying for those of us who are impatient and prefer their creativity on the instant gratification side. And interestingly, the colouring book that I bought during lockdown is full of designs that could easily be turned into gorgeous embroidered pieces.

Last word

I’m glad — and grateful — I’ve found some semblance of happiness here in Hanoi, because it’s eluded me. I almost feel like I’m on holiday… and it’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt this way.

Image by lauraelatimer0 from Pixabay

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