It’s impossible to talk about Hanoi, Vietnam without mentioning the traffic. It’s the constant conversation piece that like denim and The Beatles, never goes out of style. It’s a swarm of ants on a rotten banana roadway, coursing and honking and pulsing and eating–always eating. Life in Hanoi happens on the street; is the street. Hanoi is a village that hasn’t yet realized it’s a city. While an implicit organization exists beneath the mayhem, I haven’t figured it out yet. I just follow the flow of traffic, ready to slam on the breaks for a fruit vendor wandering into the road or a kid chasing a soccer ball. Sometimes I want to stop and just absorb the place; the impossibly clotted roadways, the ceaseless cacophony, simple smiles that betray a lack of concern for the 21st century. But I can’t. I have to focus. Or I die.
The pavement, like the rest of Hanoi, is a laboratory. For a few hours a day, I’m a teacher. But I spend the rest of my time here engaged in deep experiments. I watch myself watching an alien colony, dropping (by necessity) my entrenched ideas of necessity.
By American standards, my life here is uncomfortable at best. I wake up to the sterile white walls of a glorified hotel room which I rent for $200 a month. Horns define the silence at all hours, piercing the thin walls like torrential rhythmic rain. I’m tired. A smog monster is lodged in my lungs, and my first trip is always to the bathroom to hack it up with fitful coughs. My motorcycle, like my life, always seems on the verge of breaking down–and who knows where it’s going to happen. My landlord was in the lobby singing solo kareoke until late, so I didn’t get much sleep and I’m cranky. It’s almost a hundred degrees and it’s not even nine yet. I might have lice. And, sure enough, there’s another dead cockroach belly up on the bathroom floor. I pick it up by the antennae and toss it into the toilet with the rest of my morning deposits. Breakfast time.
The psychic precipice that we all exist upon, that ledge of sanity that we all unknowingly cling to has never been more apparent. And my grip has never been tested quite like this. My emotions fluctuate from boiling rage to placid, easy euphoria in a matter of minutes. Sometimes I want to go on a bulldozer rampage through the streets, and the next moment I’m awed open at the sheer honesty of Life lived in public. There’s nowhere to hide here; no private mansions to escape to, no doors to close and make it all quiet or safe or comfortable. It’s maddening. I have to face the street and the eyes and the people–all those fucking people–at my worst. I have to wander out of my room wearing my sadness and my loneliness like a transient tattoo and deal with the stares of neighbors I’ll never know. Some mornings I sit in my dark, hollow room and look at flights online as traffic mocks me from the other side of the walls. On those days, I take comfort in knowing that I’m one click and a bit of credit card debt away from ending this masochistic experiment.
But there’s other days, too.
On the other days, I wake up to the same racket, the same faint traces of sewage on the smoggy breeze, the same perpetually unselfconscious gazes, and I feel blessed. No, more than blessed. On those days I feel home, locked into some sort of creative flow that like the arterial concrete four floors below, pulses endlessly to its own rhythm. I can’t turn it off, just as I can’t turn it on. The only real choice seems to be whether to muster the courage to join it or stand stalwart on the sidewalk, resisting the pressurized advance. When I catch that flow, when I find the perfect seam in traffic and race past the pack into the glory of the open road, when I teach a good class and finish it with a beer, that’s when I know I made the right decision. On those days, I have more energy than I need, my body pops and fizzles and I smile as a motorcycle cuts me off without looking. Ideas purr like the motor beneath my body and I thank my good fortune that I get the experience of living in a city that acts as sandpaper for my soul, wearing down edges through painful yet necessary trials.
Somewhere in this experiment, in this twisting maze of carbon and rumble and wafting beef over hot charcoal, I catch a glimpse of what I’m seeking: Minutes, hours, or even days of knowing myself not by my accomplishments (or lack thereof) but by my presence, by my ability to appreciate the insanity of this city–a microcosm of the true absurdity of Life instead of Nothing–and by my incremental steps into releasing my expectations that things should happen in some specific way, that I should understand, that I should be happy all the time. I will stay here, in this sticky heat, until I feel it’s time to move, when the grit has done its job and I am no longer searching but embracing.
And, I guess if that’s the case, I should fix my motorcycle.