Thursday, March 4, 2010

Home in Hanoi

A recurring theme in the life of every expat is the idea of home. On the one hand, this shouldn't be an issue at all: home is where you hang your hat. But when you dig a little deeper, there are a number of psychological and emotional issues associated with having a sense of place. Where do you feel rooted? Where do you have history? This aspect of home – the place where you have history – is sacrificed by every nomad.

The last couple of years have been a whirlwind of activity revolving around the idea of home. At this time two years ago, home was an 1890 Victorian brick building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that I had spent the previous few years living in and restoring. Houses have history; they're alive. There is nothing like a house to give one a sense of belonging. To be honest, I miss my house...and the sense of home that it gave me.

But life being what it is, change happened. And I found myself living in Hanoi, Vietnam, and I found myself liking it. And as I've learned the language and begun to understand the country and the culture more, my relationship to the place has deepened. I've begun claiming ownership over Vietnam, as it as begun claiming ownership over me. Will I ever be Vietnamese? Of course not. But I am as much a part of the fabric of today's Hanoi as someone who's family has been here for generations.

Nine months into my Vietnam sojourn, however, I needed a break from it. I found myself missing what I called "my" level of development. The world I come from has shopping malls, plastic-wrapped meats, and Starbuck's. These things I sneer at when I'm stateside became exactly what I missed. Maybe it was the lure of the familiar. For all I try to be a rebel, maybe at heart I'm a middle class bitch.

So I went on vacation into a part of the world that had "my" level of development. And then something funny happened. A few hours into my first Kuala Lumpur shopping mall, I was done with it. Though I continued to explore and enjoy the region, it was clear to me that I could not stay long there. It had "my" level of development, but it wasn't home.

Paul Bowles wrote that one difference between a tourist and a traveler is that a tourist "hurries back home" at the end of a few weeks, whereas a traveler "belongs no more to one place than the next." In Malaysia and Singapore, I was a tourist. But the place that I wanted to "hurry back home" to, funny enough, wasn't Pittburgh. It was Hanoi.

Arriving back in Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport on Sunday, it was hard not to contrast it with my first arrival, nearly ten months earlier. There was the jostling ride back to town over pot-holed roads, the cacophany of horns, the intersections with motorbikes and cars converging from all directions. There were the slow bicyclists and the conical-hatted yoke ladies forcing everyone to weave around them, and the mad drivers going the wrong way against the traffic. It was all the same lunacy that I'd stared at months earlier, with my mouth agape. But this time, it all seemed to make sense.

Conversing (in Vietnamese) with a passenger on the bus back to town, she asked me why I was studying her language. I answered, "Because I live here."


  1. Wow; 9 months already?

    You aren't missing anything back home. Unless you enjoy screaming astroturf idjits at town halls.

  2. Enjoyed your post. From another expat calling Hanoi home I understand exactly what you are saying.

  3. You answered a question that I posed a long time ago in your blog. I had often felt I could never be an expat because of that need to sacrifice the place(s) where I have history. I thought that those who could be expats and those who couldn't, like me, were just of a different breed. Now it seems that we are all the same, just that you have been willing to grapple with and let go of that need for the reminders of one's history.

    And in the process, make a new life, with its own history and memories, in a place far away, which you seem to be having a grand time doing.

    I must get back to you, Hal, with some of my questions about teaching, Vietnam, the transition, and other related topics.

    Thank you for this lovely, very open post. Beautiful writing, as always.

  4. Hal,

    Great blog! I am from Queens, NYC.

    I think your travel blog is amazing and you have great photos!

    My name is Randy and I am currently teaching English in South Korea
    with my fiance. We are looking to teach in Vietnam.

    We will have one year of teaching experience in middle school and we both have our TESOL certificate (100 hours).We are looking to move out to Vietnam after our contract is finished in late August. How long have you been teaching in Vietnam? Is it really necessary to get a CELTA? (We prefer not to get it) When we first made the move to Korea there were countless resources to teach in Korea but we are finding the process to be a bit challenging for Vietnam. What would be the best way to go about finding a job out there? How did you go about finding a job? Would you recommend any good recruiters or people totalk to?

    Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank You,

    Randy Pulayya
    Bachelor of Arts, Advertising
    University of Florida '07

  5. i found your blog by chance and am fascinated with your journey in vietnam.

  6. This is a lovely blog! Will be by again to visit.