Hanoi, Hanoi take me in
The one-month mark, which takes place tomorrow, is important when you move. You’ve had time to learn the names of your classmates, which ones you like and those you don’t, get lost on the way home from school and overcome your fear of crossing Western Avenue…or to step into a sea of xe may (motorbikes) during Hanoi rush hour, walk slowly to the other side of the street and realize you’ve survived.
One month is long enough to have gone through the range of emotions that accompany moving–fear of being the new kid (again), ecstasy at learning that your friend from work is actually also your new housemate (awesome!), culture-shock induced frustration, the annoyances of having the water at your hostel shut off just as you strip down for a shower. There’s the sense of humiliation that comes from accidentally paying 9 USD for a pair of flip-flops and the sense of relief when all those zeroes stop being so confusing.
It’s sunk in that I live here; I’m not visiting. It’s home and, despite being vastly different than any other place I’ve lived, it’s beginning to feel like home. I’m utterly taken with it. The architecture blows me away–turquoise variations on Parisian apartments–but it’s elegance is checked by the fact that a woman with a heavy shoulder pole is trying to earn a few thousand dong in order to pay her boarding house for the night. Houses with smashed fronts reveal families watching poorly dubbed Korean soap operas. Thirteen-year-old boys offer to shine my shoes–um, they’re plastic flip-flops? There’s so much that is decrepit that it is difficult to walk into Hanoi and fall in love at first sight.
And then there’s the language, tonal and vastly different than anything I’ve studied with its “D’s,” “R’s” and “G’s” that are pronounced like “Z’s”. Being virtually mute for a month isn’t easy if you’re loquacious, although I think I’m headed in that direction in Vietnamese. Last night, I went on what wasn’t-a-date-or-was-it with Tien, my regular xeom driver. (A xeom is a motorbike taxi). Usually the guys who drive them aren’t terribly talkative or can’t go very far beyond, “Where you from?” and “How long in Vietnam?” Tien speaks little English; I speak little Vietnamese but we’ve bonded over the past few weeks. He chats to me as he drives and we understand each other well, despite the language gap. He’s patient and repeats things and doesn’t treat me like an idiot despite the fact that I have the vocabulary of a two-year-old. We had a fairly in-depth conversation about our families, the weather, alcohol and food over oc (snails–pronounced awp), tra da (iced tea–pronounced cha da) and the burning effect rice vodka has on your throat with the help of my trusty phrasebook.
My ability to communicate with Tien has mirrored my understanding of Hanoi. I won’t claim to understand Hanoi, but I get it more now than I did a week, two weeks, a month ago. I can’t define many words in Vietnamese, either, but I can understand more than I can communicate well enough to walk into a cafe and fool old men into thinking I do speak Tieng Viet when I place my order. I understand enough to make friends. It’s as if Hanoi has opened up and embraced me, promising to share its subtleties if only I’ll calmly get through the difficult parts of the day. That sensation of falling in love with a new place, which I have done so many times, is why I came.
Note: I’m changing the name of this blog. I haven’t decided what it shall be but let’s be honest, despite my intentions to write about food, it hasn’t happened yet. I love the food here and you’ll be hearing about it–especially those snails–but there’s so much else to cover, from art and architecture to language and culture to history and travel.