Friday, 15 June 2012

Goodbye

Well, this is it. We have only a couple of days left in Hanoi.

Thank you to everyone who has followed The City That Never Sleeps In, and especially those who commented, or sent me emails, or approached me while I was taking the rubbish out, to say they enjoyed reading it. Keeping this blog has been one of the highlights from my time here.

I wrote this final post as a column for AsiaLife, but I’ve changed it slightly to reflect my changed feelings since I submitted it for publication. At that time I was a little nostalgic and dewy-eyed about leaving, but now, I’m just excited about the future. We leave Hanoi for a long holiday in Thailand, and then a new, quiet, life in Canberra - if there’s a city less like Hanoi in the world, I don’t know it. And for us, right now, that’s a good thing.

We’re leaving with some extra baggage too: our Uncle Ho portrait, our wedding ao dais, and a baby on the way (carry-on baggage). As we are told, constantly, the baby will be a Golden Dragon, a particularly lucky and lucrative kind of baby, of which there will be many, judging by the number of pregnant women waddling around in the Hanoi heat at the moment. It’s an incomparable farewell gift from our host nation, the endowment of lunar good fortune on our new family.

Thank you, Vietnam. But we know it’s time for us to leave. 

As I have mentioned before, because you know, it's on my mind day and night, the house over the road from us was knocked down. In the middle of the night. Using jackhammers. They’ve posted an artist’s image of the government office they’re building in its place, and it speaks a thousand words. Most of them swear words.

When Nathan and I saw that image of towering steel and glass, and landscaped gardens featuring strange 2D palm trees, we both just knew: we wouldn’t stick around to see those palm trees in 3D.

The thought of ceaseless jackhammering filled us with overwhelming dread. We knew it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, if living in Vietnam was a camel.

Over the past couple of months, the cracks had already started to show. The honking seemed louder and more unnecessary; the pollution became unbearable; fruit vendors took on Machiavellian qualities; children stopped being cute, just loud.

But nothing about Vietnam had changed, only us.

After two-and-a-half years of enthusiastic ardour for Vietnam, I was cruising for a bruising. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I’d always said we should leave before three years is up, but I think it’s more just the expiry of the statute of limitations on Keeping Your Shit Together.

Living as an expat in Vietnam isn’t hard, but it isn’t always easy.  While, yes, you can drink out of coconuts and get cheap pedicures, it’s also loud, crowded and polluted. And some vegetables are grown in human poo.

It always has been that way, and I’ve always known that. But to thoroughly enjoy Vietnam’s many, many upsides, I’ve had to not let the downsides get to me. And I’ve done this through a constant practice of Keeping My Shit Together: focusing on the positive, being curious rather than judgemental, being dazzled, not frazzled.

Keeping Your Shit Together is an active process, and over time, it’s tiring. Once you begin to falter, it easily spirals into Losing Your Shit. You don’t look at your beer and think, glory be to God for cheap beer; you think, this beer is probably laced with formaldehyde. You give the stink eye to children with those squeaky shoes. You see a dog and you say to it, “They’re going to eat you”.  You look at an artist’s image for a new building and you don’t feel impressed by Vietnam’s unstoppable march towards modernisation, you just think, that building is going to be the end of me. And then you tread on a used sanitary napkin and that pretty much seals the deal.

One of the hardest things about being an expat in Vietnam is listening to the whinging of embittered expats - who’ve Lost Their Shit - who act as if they’re serving time here against their will. Their bad juju is catching, kryptonite to anyone fiercely, and rightly, Keeping Their Shit Together.

I don’t want to be one of them. I’m going to accept that in this break-up, it’s not Vietnam, it’s me, and I’m going to get out of here before I bring anyone else down with me.

I leave Vietnam with no regrets. I loved living here; it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. It has given me so much - so many memories, and opportunities, and friends and life lessons - and asked for not much more in return than just Keeping My Shit Together. I definitely did better out of that deal.

But now, I’m just ready to go home. 

Thank you to you all. Try to Keep Your Shit Together,
Tabitha x

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

So, you're moving to Hanoi

Thanks to this blog, which must successfully create the illusion that I know things about Vietnam, I've received all kinds of emails asking for advice over the last couple of years. Some of them I'm not well-equipped to answer - like, "Will my hair-straightener work in Vietnam?" - but for most I at least try to have a stab at an answer.

The most common type of email I receive is from someone moving to Hanoi, and who is looking for tips or advice on how to make the process easier and less overwhelming. I received an email like this the other day, which reminded me in many ways of the circumstances in which Nathan and I found ourselves in Hanoi. It went like this:

"Naturally, I am both very excited and unbelievably terrified. I know absolutely no Vietnamese, know nobody in the country except the name of my contacts, and am deferring medical school (a very straightforward/safe path) for the unknown despite not being naturally adventurous. I'm not running from anything or a natural free bird, as it were - it's a great opportunity and I want to force myself out of my safety bubble to learn something genuine."

Since this blog's retirement is imminent, I thought I should try to respond to this email here, in a last-ditch bid to be more useful to those who arrive in Hanoi, very excited and unbelievably terrified, in the future.

The email continues:

"I was wondering if you had any general advice about coming to Hanoi. I think my greatest concern is loneliness due to lack of language ability, relative youth (and traveling as a single woman without a partner, family, etc), so if you have any pointers in that realm that would be great. Also, because I have no idea where to live, if you have any advice there too (I've been told to come in a few days early, stay in a hotel, and look for a place from there, but any pre departure information would be appreciated, especially in terms of what I can expect)."

Funnily enough, I think loneliness should be the least of your concerns. Making friends in Hanoi is exceptionally easy. You'll start by knowing only your colleagues, but if you're sociable, you'll very quickly meet their friends too, and before long, friends of their friends. Young, educated Vietnamese people speak English and are eager to practice it, so not speaking Vietnamese is very little impediment to making Vietnamese friends - this is actually one of the reasons it's so easy to just give up on learning the language.

The expat community in Hanoi is small, and easy to infiltrate. There will be many other people just like you, young and single, and, just like you, looking to make friends - and fast. Everyone seems to organically develop friendship groups, but you can proactively boost your acquaintanceship by joining various clubs, sporting groups, attending all kinds of different events, or meeting up with people you know from the internet. For example, Nathan and I met two good friends of ours by joining their table at a trivia night event, and they themselves had only recently met, through a Couchsurfing group. We subsequently invited them to things, they invited us to things, cross-pollinating our friendship groups.

But of all the foreigners I've known in Hanoi, the ones who seem to have had the best time here are those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their Vietnamese (as opposed to expat) friendship circle. It sounds like an obvious thing to do, but actually it can be hard. Amongst you there might be cultural and socio-economic differences, resulting in fundamentally different world-views; there might be different ideas about social norms and what is and isn't the "done thing"; there might be different ideas of simply what constitutes a good time. I definitely let my terror of potentially awkward social situations limit the kind of experiences I was open to, which I regret, because the Vietnamese friendships I did maintain are just so, so rewarding and wonderful, and who wouldn't want more of that? 

This brings me to the most important piece of advice I have about moving to Hanoi: Seize the opportunities it presents, using both hands, and your teeth too if necessary. This is not necessarily something you can really plan or prepare for, just be ready to recognise when it's happening - maybe when you least expect it - and then always say "yes".

I know engineers who've opened cafes; I know self-sworn singletons who've found lifelong love; I know people who came to teach English as an interim job and discovered that teaching is their passion; I know NGO-workers who sang on stage for the first time - as the star of the show no less; I know people who hated Vietnam during their first year, and now never want to leave.

If there are parts of your life here which are difficult - you might feel under-utilised at work, or you might miss home - Hanoi will always offer you another outlet to compensate for it. Take it. I had a friend who was deeply dissatisfied with her job, but started teaching swing dancing in the evenings to find some fulfilment. Last I heard, she was swing-dancing her way around Australia. Nathan and I are ourselves leaving Hanoi on a completely different - nay, better -  trajectory to that which landed us here. One we absolutely never could have predicted, and one that owes a lot to the opportunities which came our way since moving here. Nice one, Hanoi.

This is all very wishy-washy, I know. But for all the practical stuff, such as what to bring, and where to buy things, and how you find flatmates or a place to live, plus information on what clubs or groups you can join, it's all on The New Hanoian website, a Godsend for new arrivals. For events, there's the Hanoi Grapevine.

The only other thing I would add is regarding where to live. Something I've heard newcomers say a lot is how they want to live in a "Vietnamese neighbourhood". I totally get this desire for cultural integration, but actually, I think you'll find pretty much every neighbourhood in Hanoi will be "Vietnamese" enough for you, even the areas popular with expats. We live in a building that houses only foreigners, yet our neighbourhood is... well, you've read about it on this blog. You couldn't mistake it for being anywhere other than Hanoi. 

But what do I know anyway? I'll hand it over to The People. Is there anything you wish you knew before moving to Hanoi? Would you have done things any differently? Or do you just have a solid gold piece of practical advice for new arrivals?

Mine? Well, start a blog. Obviously.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Sometimes it's better not to know

In Vietnam there is not much that separates the producers from the consumers. You don’t have to go to a far-flung industrial zone to see where your stuff comes from, you can just walk down the street:
Early on in my time here, I went to a store to buy a green picture frame. They didn’t have the colour I was after so the woman from the store took a black frame outside onto the footpath, whipped out a can of green spray paint, and voila, I now had a green frame. 

My first thought was “Man, this is shoddy”, and hesitated over buying it. But then I realised that if they had originally had a green frame in stock, I would have cheerfully bought it, even though this is exactly how it would have been made anyway. It was seeing how it had been made which devalued it.

This is why in countries like Australia, manufacturers go to great lengths to gloss over a product’s provenance and to eradicate all trace of the human hands that made it come into being. Evidence of the manufacturing process is a flaw: we prefer to believe our stuff just… materialised.

This subject has been on my mind recently, because it’s been staring me in the face:
That is the view from our window. On the upside, we now have a lake view, and on the downside, we now basically live inside a building site.

Due to its omnipresence, Hanoians know a lot about construction, and now, so do I. The noise of things being built and things being knocked down is the city’s soundtrack. The cicada whine of the circular saw; the reverberating hum of the machine which straightens out those big long metal poles; the plink-plink-plink of bricks being stacked; the, umm, jack-hammering of jack hammers.

The construction site outside our window has gone through a number of stages involving all of these sounds. The most exciting stage was probably when we woke up to see a Vietnamese Stonehenge had appeared:
The worst stage was when a truckload of gravel was dumped, and then shovelled down a corrugated iron chute from about 11:30pm till 3:30am. And then again from 6:30am:
Do you know what gravel sliding down corrugated iron sounds like? Like GRAVEL SLIDING DOWN CORRUGATED IRON.

Being experts in construction, Nathan and I know that the worst is yet to come. We watch the site’s daily progress with dread, shooting hateful looks at the gravel-shovelers and the plink-plink-plinkers. Unfair, really, since their lives are much worse than ours. They live onsite, in a crappy humpy that rattles and shakes on a windy night, they work under the baking sun, and while I complain I no longer have any privacy, at least I can close my curtains. These guys can’t have a wee without my beady eyes glaring down at them from on high.

The construction site’s current stage can only be described as a dog’s breakfast:
I look out at it, then can’t help but look around our house, my mind seeing through the paint and plaster walls to its skeleton. Our apartment must once have been just like that pile of poles and planks. And I think, “Man, this is shoddy”. I remember how our landlord once warned us against having a party and the guests all dancing at once for fear of the building collapsing. We laughed this off at the time, but now I’m not so sure. 

For a country with so many fakes, there’s something honest about the Vietnamese mode of production. The part played by the human hand is not just present; it’s in your face. And so too is the knowledge of its fallibility. Now please excuse me, I have some cracks I need to inspect.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

For hire: one blogger, with some wear and tear

This post first appeared in AsiaLife HCMC.

Many expats worry about how their time spent overseas will affect their employability when they return home. Fear not! The skills you’ve learned in Vietnam are totally transferable. You just need to position them in the right way. 

“I have advanced and adaptable communication skills”

What this means is you can act out, charades-style, complex medical afflictions for the pharmacist (“Two words, four syllables… That’s right: vaginal thrush!”), and, using absolutely no words, acquire exactly the counterfeit medications you need. Indeed, your non-verbal skills are so advanced that you can convey entire sentences just using your eyes. It only takes one narrow-eyed glare to say, “If this pirated DVD copy of Game of Thrones is not of superior quality, mark my words, I will be right back here to have your guts for garters.”

“I have demonstrated experience in following complex procedures, and applying specific policies and guidelines”

Do you know the correct, Vietnamese-approved order in which to add the raw ingredients to your hotpot? Yes? Really? You’re not tempted to add the noodles too soon? Well, there is no more complex procedure than that. You’re a total pro.

“I have experience in research and analysis across a broad range of fields”

Well, you might not leave Vietnam an expert in its history or language or culture, but I bet if I asked you for the nearest store that sells cheese, or where to go for the cheapest beer in a 100-metre radius, you would be all over that shit. You are an expert: you’re an expat expert. And that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of strategic research and analysis to find the closest cheese and cheapest beer.

“I am financially adept and have considerable experience in profit-and-loss calculations and business negotiations”

Finances? Pffft, piece of cake! To be more precise, piece of cake you got for half-price because you found a baby rat in it. Score! Your entire life is a profit-and-loss calculation. Sure, it’s running at a pretty constant loss of about 40 percent because of your poor bargaining techniques and enormous nose, but there’s a gecko living in your kitchen who you’ve named “Gordon Gecko” which is totally the kind of reference that only a hard-hitting business mogul like yourself would get.

“I can interpret and analyse complex and ambiguous situations, generating appropriate recommendations and solutions”

You sure can. For example, when your neighbour asks you “Do you have children yet?” you employ in depth analysis to understand this to mean: “You will surely die ALONE and BARREN.” Your solution is to rub your belly and pretend you’re pregnant when really you’ve just eaten too much of that chè with the rainbow jelly in it.

“I thrive in a fast-paced, dynamic environment”

Umm, every time you use your hairdryer, blue sparks come flying out at you from the wall socket. I think you can handle working in a “dynamic” office.

“Challenging situations bring out the best in me”

For you, a challenging situation is like a shot of rice wine made from rotting goat’s penis: it MAKES YOU STRONG. Sure, it could also make you vomit into your handbag all the way to the Family Medical Practice, but whatever, that’s still not the worst in you, is it.

“I have advanced problem-solving skills”

It only took you twelve months to work out which type of Vinamilk is the one with no sugar. You are basically an ace code-cracker.

“I operate to the highest levels of personal integrity and ethical standards”

You wipe your chopsticks with a napkin before you use them. That totally counts.


And just like that, your time in Vietnam reaps dividends. If you need a reference, just send them to me. No-one’s going to call a referee in Vietnam anyway.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

You wouldn't read about it

One of the most enjoyable things about living in Vietnam is never having any idea what's going on. My eyebrows are permanently knitted at the inexplicability of it all. 

As part of my ongoing quest for answers, I read the Vietnamese news sites, which are undoubtedly another of the most enjoyable things about living in Vietnam. 

Nothing unknits your eyebrows more quickly than headlines like "Your husbands are gays!", or "Rotten tripe source meant for restaurants uncovered" (featuring a villain known as "Tuan Pig's Intestines"), and especially, "Goat penis bacteria adds to food safety scare". 

Care to know more?

"Ho Chi Minh City destroyed nearly 1.5 tons of goat penis contaminated with bacteria Wednesday in the latest chapter of Vietnam's food safety saga, which has seen putrid pork and rotten beef flood local markets. 
On Sunday, district inspectors found NDT Company in Tan Binh District had imported large quantities of the product from Australia. 
The shipments were labeled as inedible and not for human use. 
Nguyen Thi Thu Nga, chief inspector of the HCMC Animal Health Agency, said the products were contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella and E.Coli, and also failed to meet other food safety criteria. 
However, inspectors said 47 of the 72 boxes imported had been sold as food."

And right there, you have the problem with the Vietnamese news: it raises more questions than it answers. Australia exports goat penis? Seriously, do they really mean 1.5 TONNES of goat penis? And DID I EAT ROTTEN GOAT PENIS FOR LUNCH?

While reading the Vietnamese press is a pursuit which reaps daily rewards ("Illegal sperm trade booming in Vietnam", featuring the choice quote: "If you don’t want to pay for the expense of artificial insemination, I can implant my seeds in some hotel"), there are some stories I've enjoyed following longterm. 

For example, late last year there was a string of reported hypnotism-induced robberies. There was the gold shop - "Owner hands robber $200k, hypnotism suspected" - and there were the "dark-skinned" foreign thieves at the Vietnam Airlines office - "Plane ticket seller hypnotized, taken $350". This article from 2010, which reports a range of other hypnotistastic crimes, suggests that "In reality, hypnotizing people to steal from them is not a new phenomenon. It was first reported in Viet Nam in 1975, according to Khong Nguyen, a kungfu teacher. The trick, originating in the southern provinces and HCMC, has now spread all the way to Ha Noi."

WTF Vietnam. W.T.F.

Another long-running story is the near constant hysterical mass fainting of school girls. According to this article, "mass hysteria is a psychological disorder that can occur among young girls who have a physical or psychological imbalance", cured by drinking hot tea and taking a rest. Another article suggests mass fainting can be fixed by "readjusting seating assignments". This article pins one school's fainting problem on student claims that "a toilet inside their dorm is haunted and they have seen ghosts". 
The haunted toilet block.

But for me, the most compelling running news story is the many versions of the tale which can be summarised as "Vietnamese farmers rush to meet demands of Chinese traders, catastrophe ensues". 

For example: Vietnamese farmers abandon rice to grow sweet potato for Chinese traders, and now have no rice to eat. Or: Vietnamese farmers hack up lychee trees to sell dry leaves to Chinese traders, destroying the productivity of their own orchards. Or: Vietnamese farmers start breeding leeches to meet demands of Chinese traders, and then end up infesting all their fields with leeches.
Leech. Available at discount rate.

All of these articles have the underlying theme of the "enigmatic", "mysterious" and "dubious" purposes for which the products, such as 500 kilograms of leeches (!!), are being bought by China. And, it turns out, their suspicion is well-founded.

Behold, my favourite Vietnamese news story of all time, called "The wicked tricks by Chinese businessmen". 

The article is actually a history of all of the stories of the type "Vietnamese farmers rush to meet demands of Chinese traders, catastrophe ensues". Yellow snails were bred for food, and then ate all the rice; corn silk was suddenly in demand, leading to the destruction of food corn crops. And then: 

"Chinese buy cats, mice destroyed crops 
The biggest “rat pandemic” occurred in 1997 and 1998, when all the cats were sold out to Chinese businessmen. 
At that time, Chinese offered high prices to collect Vietnamese cats. This prompted Vietnamese people to trade cats by collecting cats from Vietnamese families to sell to Chinese businessmen.  
Just after a short time, no cat was seen in the whole northern region. The absence of cats led to the appearance of mice. The harvests were destroyed, while rice at families was eaten by the mice. People wished they had not sold cats and they were burning to kill rats.
Only in 1999, when the first industrial cat farm was established in the north, while people could create new species of cats, did the “rat pandemic” begin easing. 
Chinese collected buffalo’s toenails, a lot of buffaloes were killed 
Chinese businessmen also hunted for buffalo’s toenails, offering high prices for them. Especially, the toenails from four legs of a buffalo could be sold to Chinese businessmen at the prices which were well higher than the value of a buffalo. 
As a result, Vietnamese farmers rushed to cull buffaloes to get toenails, though they had to bargain away buffalo meat. 
No one could count how many buffaloes were killed at that time. However, it was clear that the buffalo massive sale led to the fact that farmers did not have buffalo to plough rice field."

Three words: Industrial. Cat. Farm. Two more: Buffalo. Toenails.

To ask whether this article raises more questions than it answers is like asking whether the Chinese like leeches. I don't even know where to begin. It seems to suggest that the "wicked Chinese businessmen" are inventing a completely false market demand to purposefully destroy the livelihoods of Vietnamese farmers. But this seems so… I don't know… ridiculous? But maybe they are! Sitting up there, rubbing their fingers together, plotting what they can buy next. "What about buffalo toenails! Mwahahahahahaha." 

All I know is that Vietnam has been a very poor country for a very long time. The lure of what are essentially get-rich-quick schemes is obvious. You can just imagine how rumour of one farmer's success with cats or snails or leeches would spread to other farmers as quickly, and as desperately, as a hysterical fainting spell amongst school girls. It's also a country which has only known peace as brief spells between wars. That hardly fosters long-term thinking. 

But apart from that, I know nothing. I return to my state of wonder and flummoxment. And I have news to read. Today's headline: "Vietnam cracks record for world's smallest egg".

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Fear and self-loathing in expat land


This post first appeared on Crikey, and features a couple of observations from previous blog posts. Sorry for the rehash - I hope to post properly soon!
----
To the Vietnamese who live around me, it’s clear where I fit in here: I don’t. The differences between us are as plain as the enormous nose on my big fat face.
In Vietnam, I am, and always will be, a Tây.
I can hear the call of “Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây” in any market as vendors announce my presence to each other, making it pretty much synonymous with the sound effect “ker-CHING!”
I’m not offended one bit by this label. Not even when I had new passport photos taken and the shop filled in the “Mr/Ms_________” section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”, and filed it away under T.
Because I am a Tây. Even if they would let me, I would never try to pretend to the Vietnamese that I’m just like them.
However, before I moved here, I envisioned making for myself a perfectly authentic, local Vietnamese life. I was sure I would assimilate beautifully. I was very much the kind of person who would travel to Asia and scoff at tourists eating pizza. “What’s the point of even coming overseas if you’re just doing what you do at home, eh?” I would say, indignant and unbearable.
Now, my favourite café in Hanoi is run by a Melbournian and serves soy chai lattes. I like Vietnamese coffee very much, and drink it often. But you know what I like more? Soy chai lattes.
I don’t care any more about my street cred or my authenticity, or being pleased with myself for being the only foreigner in a local coffee shop. That soy chai latte doesn’t lessen the Vietnam-ness of my life here; in fact, it makes it better, offering me enough comforting familiarity to better enjoy the rest of my very Hanoian day.
When visitors from Australia ask me to take them to my favourite cafe in Hanoi, I know better than to take them to this place, my real favourite café. The one and only visitor I’ve taken there looked around and said, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of foreigners in here”, and there was judgement in them there italics.
To me, this is like going to a Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown and complaining, “Hmm, there sure are a lot of Chinese people in here”.
The formation of communities with shared ethnicities and cultures is the most natural thing in the world. Liberal-minded, politically correct, cultural relativists like myself love them for bringing “diversity” and “colour” to our neighbourhoods. Yet those of us who move overseas seem to think we’re above needing the familiarity of such communities ourselves. We’re sure we’ll just slot right in to our new home because we’re so open-minded and adaptable.
No, we won’t become your typical "expat". Now, there’s another word with its own synonymous sound effect: one of retching.
“Expat” conjures up two stereotypes, both of them unseemly: one clad in white linen, drinking gins and tonic, and oppressing the natives; the other sunburnt, overweight, subsisting entirely on baked beans and whinging about the locals. Both images emphasise that the expat is stubbornly, wilfully, unassimilated.
It’s a word with such awful colonial overtones. All at once it projects cultural superiority and barbarism. And for a word which is supposed to be all about someone moving to a new and different country, all it does it emphasise where they’ve come from: it seems you’re only an expat if you’re from the developed world, otherwise, let’s face it, you’re an immigrant.
It’s because of these connotations that people, like me, try to dodge the dreaded expat label. But despite my best intentions, I have become just another expat. I might not have a white linen suit, but I’m still a Tây who hangs out with other Tâys and does your typical Tây things.
So every one of my soy chai lattes could taste just like self-loathing, or I could just get over myself and own it: I’m an expat. I’ll still say it with teeth gritted against all those historical connotations, but I’ll say it: I am an expat.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Hanoi Moments

I was recently asked to write something about Nosey in Newtown, my old blog, which saw me sifting through its contents, three years after I stopped updating it. 

I came across these, which I photographed around Newtown, and which are still as awesome today as they were in 2008:

I love, love, love this idea of memorialising the sites of significantly insignificant moments in your personal history, and associating them with the place where they happened. 

To really know a place, to have a relationship with it, is to walk amongst these associations and memories. They’re not necessarily important or noteworthy to anyone but you - like those commemorated above - but they forever connect you to where you are. When your collection of connections is large enough, you have yourself a home.   

My Australian home, Newtown, is thick with spatial souvenirs. As I walk down any street, I pick my way through reminders of all the other times I’ve trod the same footpath: each year when the cement under my feet is cushioned by the fallen Jacaranda flowers, it’s a reminder of the last.

Hanoi is crowded with connections too now. I could plaster my own paper plaques all over this town...

This was where we debated how much money we’d have to be paid to swim across Truc Bach lake:

This is where I misunderstood the silken tofu seller and started bargaining, fiercely, for a higher price than what she was actually offering: 

This is where the bus stopped and the driver opened the door so he could watch the Vietnam – Singapore soccer match on the café’s television:

This is where I watched a beautiful orange butterfly floating through the traffic, until the driver in front of me snatched at it, crushed it up in her fingers, and wiped her hands together to scatter its golden dust:

This is where I first met up for a coffee with a brand new person, and by the end of the cup, I had a brand new friend: 

This is where I was horrified by the sight of a large, furry animal - maybe a bear? – tied on to the back of a bicycle in traffic, but as I got closer, I saw that it was a large, furry stuffed toy dog, with button eyes and floppy ears:

This is where Nathan and I had a competition to see who could stay on their bike the longest without pedalling:

This is where a particularly long dog is sometimes chained up, prompting Nathan and I to both shout “LONG DOG” as we pass:

This is where a schoolgirl cycled up to me, said hello, reached over to shake my hand, asked where I was from, said goodbye, and cycled off:

This is the spot where I stood when I knew I would spend the rest of my life with Nathan:

The thing about memorials, even those made of paper, is that they’re forever. I know that if I ever return to Hanoi, no matter how much it has changed, I’ll feel right at home.