I’m about half-way through my stay in Vietnam. It’s been eye-frying hot the last few days & it has sapped my energy a bit. Glad it’s Sunday & a little cooler. Having a bit of bread & cheese & coffee in my room this morning — there was a large Japanese family in the small dining area downstairs — and I’ll go out before it gets too hot & take some pictures, then try to get some work done this afternoon. The week that starts tomorrow is going to be busy, culminating Friday with my conference presentation on translation “best practices,” so, yes, I’m glad it’s Sunday.
I was talking to an American expat here who runs a company that provides training & education for Vietnamese students, helping many go to study in the US. He’s also beginning to bring American students to Vietnam, which is why I was talking to him, but that can be a subject for another day–I just wanted to make a note of something he said in passing. Mentioning an American student who had spent time studying in Vietnam and was returning for a longer stay, my friend inquired, he told me, about the reason for his return. “Love,” the student had replied. “Ah . . .” I began to say. . . It turns out he has a Vietnamese girlfriend. (That’s cool–I only get creeped out when 50 year old American / German / Australian / Korean men come to VN and take up with Vietnamese women half their age.) But my “Ah!” had not been meant to acknowledge the narrow definition of “love” — I was thinking that the student, like me, had fallen in love with the place, not merely a particular citizen of the place.
“I fell in love with the place” is of course a cliche, but I can’t really think of a better way to express the feeling I have when I come here. Hanoi is not my home, but coming here feels like coming home. I have felt this I think–or some version of it–from the day of my first arrival & now when I go out in the evenings to walk around the Old Quarter, I feel a deep affection and a sense of peace, even amid all the honking & hammering & the cries of vendors & school kids darting along the sidewalks among the chickens & parked motorbikes. There is a liveliness here that stirs my heart. Which is not to imply that it never makes me crazy. It does. That’s the way love is.
All my Vietnamese friends complain how much worse the traffic has gotten in the last few years & are surprised when I say I think it has gotten better. I’m willing to grant that Hanoi traffic is chaotic, but when I first came to Hanoi there were perhaps half-a-dozen traffic lights in the whole metropolis. Now there are lights at virtually every major intersection. It’s true that they sometimes have burned out bulbs, but they’re there and drivers take at least some notice of them. I’d say compliance runs about 80%. That is, when the light goes read, about 80% of the oncoming traffic stops, with the other 20% racing through as the traffic from the other direction begins to move. Pedestrians must take nothing for granted. Most of the traffic is still motorbikes, though there are many more cars than when I first began coming to Hanoi & the general rule is that the bigger the vehicle the less likely it is to stop for a light. Oh, and all the drivers are talking on a cell phone. Still, the lights give pedestrians an opening they did not have in the past. For one thing, once the front row of traffic stops (which can take some time in its ragged compliance) the traffic behind is blocked, leaving the way (mostly) clear. For the most part, people don’t go fast, but move mostly with the flow of traffic. I’ve been here almost three weeks, walking the city every day, and I’ve seen only one accident.