Can I tell you about our early days in Hanoi?
Back in October?
So many months ago.
The weeks when we lived in a stuffy, cramped hotel room in a curious neighborhood that would have been more curious if it hadn’t been hemmed in on so many sides by major roads that were virtually impassable on foot. You walk ten minutes in any direction and you hit six lanes of scooter chaos.
For two weeks I carried Thwack around on my front, skirting the nosy, mad, exhaust-rich perimeter, ducking into places selling things I had yet to know for quickly scarfed banh cuon or furtive sips of pho broth and sneakily slurped noodles, before the boy inevitably made a grab for my chopsticks or the hot bowl (tip: babywearing and plastic-chair-low-table Asian noodle stands don’t mix).
We had routes we followed every day and people we said hello to and textures we made sure to touch (nubbly plaster, peeling paint, wooden railings, lichen heavy concrete) and all the other things you do when you have a busy 7 month old baby in a place where you have no family and no friends and no real idea of the lay of the land or the ways of the people or more than a few Lonely Planet phrasebook phrases that don’t actually work in the north.
Sometimes we got into a taxi and went places. We went to the Vietnamese women’s museum twice. Thwack liked the ethnic costume floor.
The hotel room was okay. It was a place that was safe and clean, a place to lay your head at night. Nice bed. Minibar for grocery store cheese and pickles and beer. Half assed bath tub shower. Biggest room in the place, $25 a night. Breakfast pho not included. What it wasn’t was a good place to spend 24/7 with a 7 month old boy who was not complacent. It was, after all, a hotel room.
So when we found our house on our second day of house hunting on our second day in Hanoi, the house we are in now, the lovely house near the lake, with four floors and a roof terrace and a glassed in conservatory type room upstairs, we quietly jumped up and down and shrieked internally and told the estate agent that yes, yes, of course we could wait two weeks for the current tenants to move out.
Two weeks in that hotel room, surrounded by six lane roads, living off street noodles, killing time. Lots of time.
We envisaged dinner parties and friends popping by and our art on the walls and a real home- a home!- finally, after nearly two years adrift. We would visit the local markets and cook and fill the house with flowers and, hell, we’d run around the lake and get fit and awesome.
Everything that had been on hold while we had bounced around between China and Canada and England would come into fruition and we’d create awesomeness in Hanoi, by the lake, in our lovely big house, with awesome people we would meet.
Hopes were high. Dreams were dreamt. Identities were mentally sculpted, refined, imagined.
Then the antisocial work timetable hit. Evenings and weekends.
Then the construction started, first directly opposite us in the narrow alley, then in a bigger site behind that (running all night for months on end), then another round back, then others still within earshot. Pouring concrete at 3am. Because you do. The clank clank clank of the lengths of pipe needed to bring concrete down a 75 meter long alley that’s barely wide enough for a bike and a pedestrian (ask me how I know). The always slightly-lit bedroom that refuses to be totally dark at night because of all the lights on the cranes looming high over the big construction site. Everything was gritty and dusty and caked with construction grime.
Then I reached the end of my rope when it came to meeting people I might want to actually talk to. Living abroad as an English teacher is one thing. You get to meet other teachers. And students. And admin staff. Living abroad as a stay at home mother is another. I tried to join playgroups to meet people and I met nannies who talked amongst themselves. I joined the Hanoi International Women’s Group but, since I didn’t have a nanny, couldn’t attend most of their groups and gatherings with a Thwack strapped to me.
I went to one coffee morning they organized and was asked why I didn’t just get a nanny (so cheap!). I said, because we are here so I can stay home with him while he’s small and nursing and we can afford to live (very carefully) on one income. She said to get one anyway- her kid was at home with the nanny right now. Easy peasy.
At one of the international kindergartens where I took Thwack for their weekly afternoon free play time (90 minutes for the plebes to use the Little Tykes equipment and to meet nannies and their charges) , the photo board of who was authorised to pick up the kids was a list of nannies and drivers. Many weeks I was the only parent there. Same with the music classes- me and a bunch of nannies, a few random parents, and toddlers and tambourines and ukeleles and a nice fellow singing the Sesame Street theme song.
It was lonely and exhausting and gritty (construction dust) and frustrating.
We never put up our art, because as soon as the construction started going all night we had a sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t really going to be our home after all.
We never had the dinner parties or the potluck Meatball Fridays, because, well, anti-social work timetables and no one to invite.
We struggled to make friends in a strange new world where I was surrounded by other people’s nannies and he was surrounded by people he was paid to manage. Awkward.
I struggled with all the stupid black hulking SUVs with embassy plates and frighteningly cocksure attitudes about personal space on the road and human rights. I was cut off and sideswiped and smacked by so many side mirrors that I lost count. Broken umbrellas. Nearly crushed toes. Endless beeping when in narrow alleys where they couldn’t pass me but were adamant that they must and would.
I’ve never quietly shouted fuck off you fucking motherfucker, you and the fucking horse you rode in on quite so many times as I have wandering the gentle, genteel backstreets of lovely Tay Ho.
So many black SUVs. So much honking. So many grazed elbows.
When you move to Vietnam, everyone tells you to watch out for the mad throngs of scooters. No one warns you about the big black SUVs.
So yeah, the whole expat life here wasn’t exactly what we had hoped.
However, that was only the first eight months.
We’re giving Hanoi a second chance.
And ourselves too. We need to give ourselves second and maybe third chances to make our weird new lives work.
This whole Abroad thing is very different with a toddler in tow, very different in your 40s compared with your 20s and 30s.
There is a lot that needs tweaking.
Let’s try again. New jobs, new home, new priorities.