There are times in your life when you have a profound reaction to a person or place: a feeling so violently immediate it feels like spiritual vomiting. I had one such reaction the other day after landing in Hanoi, jet-lagged after my planeslog from Istanbul to Doha to Bangkok (there to suffer through a six-hour layover in a food court filled with fat Russians and two teen whores), then finally on to Vietnam. My reaction was this:
I fucking hate this place.
It was, obviously, not a pleasant reaction. It was certainly not expected. I have--since the very moment I got off the phone with the trust's lawyer--been anxiously, droolingly planning for my arrival here. Vietnam was my non-negotiable: the veritable Bucket to my Bucket List. And now here I was, at last in the country, and all I could think about was how long I had to stay before I could find a cheap enough plane ticket to leave.
And why, you ask?
Perhaps because my Bucket List resembled an Anthony Bourdain episode by way of The Scent of Green Papaya and Marguerite Duras. But the reality of Hanoi is more madhouse than North Sea China Lover: The No Reservations Episode. Hoan Khiem, the old quarter, the very heart of "graceful, old Vietnam" (or so says the Lonely Planet Guidebook, curse them) is filled with grimed warrens of shops below crumbling apartment buildings, piles of trash, motorbikes parked in houdstooth-rows up and down the walks, scents of garbage, scents of urine, shit, women swinging baskets of mangos on shoulder-poles at your stomach, taxis, motorbikes, taxis, buses, people on stools, people shouting, people pressing up to you to see if you'll look in their shops, try on their shirts, buy their handkerchiefs, buy their sunblock, buy their bowls of pho. There are birds in cages everywhere, tiny markets, kittens in a box, something boiling in a pot, something steaming in a cart, something spilling from a café entrance. The air is so impenetrable with fog that at Tay Ho lake you can barely see the buildings less than 3 miles away on the other shore, and every street is a continual roar of honking horns.
But the real problem-- the most obvious problem--is the traffic.
Imagine, if you will, a city in which almost every person rides a motorbike, there are no traffic stop signs, no speed limits, few sidewalks, no sense of lanes or oncoming or outgoing traffic, only two stop lights within 20 square miles, and no one has EVER read a driving handbook. Then make sure every motorbike is laden with at least two people wearing face masks and a full-grown orange tree strapped to the back seat and you might have something that begins to resemble Hanoi.
Oh, and then imagine trying to go for a walk.
It's funny that I wrote about faith a couple of posts back, because until I reached Hanoi I had no idea what real religious faith consists of. Real religious faith is walking out into a veritable hurricane of motorbikes and taxis coming from every conceivable direction (INCLUDING the sidewalk), putting one foot firmly and slowly in front of the other as everyone tries their best not to hit you EXCEPT for the taxi drivers, who evidently get 10 points for every pedestrian they clip, and the bus drivers, who are big enough that they get to rule the street. You must continue in a straight line, because to go back means that the bikes who have swirled behind you as a method of avoidance will now crash into someone else were they to change direction, and to go sideways means that you will get hit by yet another stream of traffic busy turning left (or right, as the case may be) and trying to cut into the tiny opening your presence has now opened in the wave of traffic. Hanoi, like nature itself, abhores a vacuum, and if there is a space of about two feet anywhere in this city, Hanoians will drive on it, park on it, cook on it or spit on it. You, in your own hard-won two feet of space in the street, must protect that space in order to protect your very life, and if you begin to freak out and stop moving, the taxi WILL hit you, or hit what's left of you after the bus has had its way, and if you move too quickly, the bikes will run over your feet. And if you stop and, like me, start very nearly to cry, the people on the other side of the street watching you will begin to applaud.
Here, I should perhaps mention that, in my life to date, I have been hit twice by cars. No, not the same car, smart ass: two DIFFERENT cars, at two different times in my life. I am a twitchy, anxious person in traffic as a result, so now you can imagine why, on any Hanoi street, I might be shrieking and jumping up and down, ranting like Mel Gibson at the methadone clinic where he has just been asked to join their St. Vitus's Dance Off.
Added to this are the many other charms of Hanoi, namely the city's Cocktail Hour of Propaganda, as every day from 5-6 someone gets on the loudspeakers to blare out some long rant that may or may not be political in nature, and the spine-dissolving levels of MSG in some of the restaurants that have me wilting and sweating in my seat, and the fact that the city's extraordinary pollution levels have, in two days only, given me a hacking cough.
Why did people tell me I had to live here exactly?
And why, even more bafflingly, am I going through the motions of setting up house? Depressed, shell-shocked, day by day I go about the basics of survival. Finding an apartment near Ba Dingh, near the embassies (nice place: cheap, beautiful, light-filled, totally clean AND IT COMES WITH A MAID SERVICE), getting a phone, ordering drinking water for the apartment, mapping out where the bookstores and good cafés are, finding the markets. Going so far even as to find a gym in the area (picture me, surrounded by 15 sweaty middle-aged Vietnamese guys in a weight room, each of them hollering questions, so excited are they by the prospect of me joining their gym: "How old you are! How tall you are! How much you weigh!" Oh God. I hope these were meant to be questions.). Why am I doing this if I hate this place so much?
Well, obviously I'm a masochist of some sort. I mean, I did spend three years in academic administration.
And I'm also--and this is hard to explain--sort of fascinated by the depth of my revulsion for the place. I can't believe I'm feeling it at all, actually: I half doubt that this is about Vietnam and not the violent disruption of leaving Paris. Or the exhaustion of nearly a full month of visitors and traveling. Or the anxious waiting for Sean to arrive so that we can see each other again. Something, anything, other than just the shock of arriving in a third world nation. Because if it is just that sort of shock, well then: THAT I can get over.
Interestingly, the last time I felt such revulsion was the only other time I pursued something that made absolutely no sense to me, and that activity was Speed Dating. After I got divorced, I did what a lot of divorcées do and totally gave up common sense. Actually, to a recent divorcée, Speed Dating might make some kind of sense, because if you can't pick the right mate with careful planning and the help of a good serotonin reuptake inhibitor, you might as well try it at a bar with 18 hyperactive legal secretaries and an IV's worth of Singapore Slings. At least, this was my reasoning at the time.
ANYHOO, over the course of that disastrous evening, I learned two important things:
1) Six minutes is an eternity actually
2) Anyone can get to the point of telling someone else to fuck off within less than a minute of meeting them.
So. That's good to know.
Also, honestly, I'm just curious. What WOULD it be like to live in such a madhouse like Hanoi? What would it be like to experience, if even for a fraction of time, the kind of conditions that 3/4 of the world has to live with everyday? Now that I write this, it strikes me that Speed Dating might be the perfect analogy for my year abroad, because money and the security of my life back home--like the Speed Dating set-up itself--has provided me with the luxury of imagination: the ability to experience the rapid highs and lows of about a dozen different relationships without the necessity, or risk, of committing to any one of them. Do I like this potential boyfriend? This one? This one?
But perhaps this analogy is stupidly dangerous, since--let's be clear here--there should never be any glamour in sticking with a bad relationship. No matter how hard Sex and the City has tried to suggest otherwise.
So, bafflingly, discombobulatingly--with odi et amo and a four-month lease--meet Hanoi, dear reader: my newest boyfriend.
I really fucking hate him.