Friday, 31 December 2010

It's not you, it's me

I ran into an expat friend here, and told him I was surprised to see he hadn't left Hanoi.
"Why?" he said. "I love it here!"
I reminded him that the last time I saw him he confessed to having homicidal thoughts about strangers in the street.
"Oh yeah, sure," he recalled. "But that was the summer."

I, too, love it here so long as I'm not too hot, or I'm not too hungry, or not in too much of a hurry to get anywhere, or not too fussed about treading in an overflowing gutter of poo water. When I do, however, tick one of these boxes, then watch out Hanoi: I'm bringing you down with me.

It's like the city is the ultimate litmus test for your mood. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in the Botanic Gardens, where I go most mornings at the same time to jog the same route. The only variable in this experiment is me.

When I'm in a good mood, the Gardens are glorious. There are so many trees! And so much green! The lake is magical! Oh, the reflections! Oh, the nature!

But on a bad day, I can't help but notice that the so-called Botanic Gardens doesn't really have any plants in it. Sometimes they shove flowers in these pots to create temporary displays, then the flowers die and the display is discarded, pots and all. And then people - men and women - wee behind these pots. Right next to the public toilets.

Good day: This dragon made of plates is so awesome! And his teeth are teacups! Isn't public art great!

Bad day: A downside to making public art out of everyday objects is that people with an everyday need for them will just flog them. Every day.

Good day: I love that you can just come to the park and string up a net! No need for fancy sports facilities! And these Gardens are so well used and so appreciated!

Bad day: I better put my iPod away. Who knows what kind of people are hanging around in here.

Good day: Look at the blue of the peacocks! So stunning! If I had a pet peacock I would call it Andrew!  

Bad day: There's really nothing more depressing than a caged bird.

 Good day: I love this man-made hill! It's like the only hill in Hanoi!

Bad day: Wherever you happen to find a beautiful natural spot in Vietnam, you'll find these mini jelly cup wrappers everywhere. And they were banned in Australia for choking people. Are there no limits to the evil of the mini jelly cup?

Good day: OMG is that a squirrel! A SQUIRREL! With a bright red tail! Look at him go! Who says there's no wildlife in Vietnam!  

Bad day: They released 1,000 white doves as a grand symbolic gesture for the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi. The birds made their way to the Botanic Gardens where there's now only about a dozen left. Turns out that white doves are not only symbolic, they're also delicious.

Good day: These hedganimals are so sweet! So much personality!

Bad day: What is that thing even supposed to be?

And on it goes, day after day.

Of course everyone has good and bad days, wherever they're living. But here I seem to hold the city accountable for them. I constantly demand of Hanoi that it prove to me why I should be living here, and I scrutinize every street, and every resident, to measure against my expectations.

Rather than holding Hanoi responsible for how I feel, I'm trying to understand that it's actually the other way around: how I'm feeling that day will determine what kind of Hanoi I get. The city itself is just a bystander to my moodswings.

Over time, I feel the wild alternations between the good days and the bad days - Hanoi the Hero and Hanoi the Villain - happening less and less. I think one day soon I'll wake up and it will just be Hanoi, home.


  1. This has occurred to me and I've given it a lot of thought and vaguely blogged around the edges of it before.

    Basically I think the problem is that once you are an expat you realise that you have the option to move. Most people in the world grow up and live their lives fairly close to where they were born. Once you realise that you really can move anywhere you like then you start to get itchy feet with every bad day.

    I think it's a commitment issue of a type. You have to work at a relationship.

    In addition, every single problem becomes the fault of the city. Where I might blame a business for bad service in the UK, in Vietnam I blame the whole country. When the computers go down I blame Vietnam, whereas in the UK I just think "stupid computers" or "that damn IT department".

    I am currently typing this in the UK and you also forget just what home is like and it's far from perfect. While in Vietnam my internet may go down more often, if I ring up there is a guy around to fix it inside an hour. In the UK it can take days and they can't guarantee a time when the guy will come.

    I've been tsking about litter in Hanoi and I've returned to find out that grassy verges on motorways aren't litter-free as I had remembered them to be.

    I occasionally think that the problem with Hanoi is that it's high stress, heat, pollution, noise etc so that is why we get tetchy. But then again there are other areas that are so much easier to deal with so surely it all evens out. The working environment I find a whole lot less stressful and the business of simply living is much easier.

    Going back to what I said earlier - we blame Hanoi because we can. We blame it because we could move and every time we get irritated we remind ourselves of that. We'd accept far more about the place if we had grown up there and never moved.

    But our horizons aren't just widened they are irrevocably stretched. There is no going back. We've gone from being wide-eyed and happily naive to streetwise and cynical.

    But most of us still love the place or we'd move. And most of us who've been there a while no people who tried to move but came back (I'm one of them).

  2. I totally get how you feel Tabitha, I used to walk down by West Lake...sometimes the lake was sparkling and everything was fine, the people were the epitome of middle class gaity.....on other days I ran into floating dead pigs (seriously!) and dead fish; life in Hanoi = not so good. The pig stayed there for 2 weeks :(

  3. Tell the truth... you now have a matching set of dragon plates at home, don't you?

  4. Steve: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I completely agree. To actively choose somewhere as your home is a very different thing to letting fate and circumstance arbitrarily choose your home for you. It has its trials, but you know you're doing okay when your only complaints in life basically stem from the fact that the world's your oyster.

    Emeline: That's what I'm going to call a bad day from now on - "a floating dead pig kind of day".

    Lani: Yes, you're right. I collect a new plate every day. And I grab a dove too and call it a ready-made lunch.

  5. This post made me shoot coffee out of my nose as I laughed: the Bangkok I get is definitely an innocent bystander to my mood swings. "Oh look, monks asking for alms! How traditional!" / "WHY ARE THE MONKS BLOCKING THE DAMN ROAD."


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