I first saw Hanoi in a dysenteric, rain-slicked haze in the winter of 1991. For the previous six weeks, my girlfriend and I had crashed motorcycles, been chased by police, and illegally hopped public transport up the 3000 kilometers of Vietnam's coastline, openly defying all the restrictions placed on the first wave of Western travelers that had begun to trickle into the country after decades of war and Communist rule.
Here's how things were in 1991: tourists were allowed to fly into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Hanoi, and wander freely within those cities; travel outside, according to the rules, had to be by official car and driver, with official guide, to official sites, and so on. The temptation to flout authority was irresistible, so we rented a motorcycle for a week-long junket through the Mekong Delta, where every day we were detained by bewildered authorities, viewing their first white faces in 15 years (if ever). These local officials were usually confused enough about Hanoi's ever-shifting laws to be susceptible to whatever cock-and-bull story we could invent to get us out of the jam, and after watching us mime and clown and assault their ears with a painful melange of English, broken French, and Vietnamese, they would inevitably scratch their heads and escort us to the edge of town, relieved to push out of their jurisdiction.
The week in the Mekong had been delightful, and buoyed by our success, we had hopped a public bus to Nhatrang, and spent a couple of weeks in the central plains of Vietnam. From Nhatrang we'd gone on to Hoi An, Quang Ngai (where we were nearly deported, but bribed a local official into giving us a private tour of the My Lai massacre site instead), Danang, and Hue, where I believe it was a spring roll that felled me. At any rate, by the time we boarded the all-night train to Hanoi, I was already starting to feel the fever and chills that signalled the onset of dysentary. So it was in this weakened state, in the early morning, pulling into a rusting train yard, and accompanied by a shimmering mist that the Vietnamese rather poetically call "rain dust," that I first saw my soon-to-be adopted city.
My first few days in Hanoi were spent in a cheap hotel with faded wallpaper and a wrought-iron balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, shitting pus and blood into a cracked squat-toilet, and waiting for the antibiotics to take effect. I remember, soon as I was able to walk, the lovely tree-lined footpaths around the lake, and a rabbits' warren of narrow alleyways and merchants selling everything from bicycle parts to hand spun silk to boiled duck embryos served in the shell. I remember a blend of French and traditional Asian architecture that seemed a opium-laced vision of Montmarte. And though 18 years have dimmed memories that were hallucinatory to begin with, what I most remember is Hanoi's gray, dull light, the low mother-of-pearl skies, and a constant gentle sprinkle of rain dust within which I gradually regained my strength.
From 1991 fast-forward to 2009. I would love to say I'm returning to Hanoi, on a one-year work contract, because the city never stopped beckoning, but the truth is more prosaic: I need the money. Or rather, I've decided I would rather earn my shekels doing work I enjoy in a place where I'm as lost as a feather, than slog through mundane job after job to maintain my toehold on Western middle-class luxury. I'll give credit to myself: as US employment goes, I've done as good a job as many at working on my own terms, but a recent divorce saddled me with debt and recent forays into American corporate culture left me unsatisfied enough to decide it was time for a change.
So why Vietnam? Having spent several years as an ESL hobo in Asia in the early 1990s, I have long maintained this line of work as a fall-back option. A few months ago, with the divorce and whatnot, I started seriously considering a return to the ESL life. The more I researched, the more Vietnam kept emerging as the best combination of money and lifestyle. Fast-growing economy, eager students, beautiful landscape, thriving arts scene, and some of the best food in Southeast Asia. A quick reading of online expat forums made me feel I'd be more comfortable in Hanoi than HCMC, so when a half-way interesting job appeared, I applied for it.
At 46, I will be the new teacher at Language Link Hanoi, a reputable British-based language chain with more than 120 institutions worldwide. By all accounts a place that treats teachers fairly and offers students an honest education. The pay is decent enough that I will be able to save money while actually enjoying Hanoi, and the way I figure it: it's as easy to have a middle-aged crisis while putting away some coin, as while not.
This morning, I leave from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Bangkok, Thailand. After about five days in Bangkok, I'll head to Hanoi to begin my new life. I leave New York 9:00 AM on Monday and arrive in Bangkok 5:30 PM on Tuesday. Just a regular 9-5 gig.