A sojourn in Vietnam’s capital changed the author’s life – and almost her address.
Six weeks into a three-month stay in Hanoi, wandering through a maze of streets deep in the city’s Old Quarter, I experienced a feeling I’d never had before so I didn’t immediately recognise it. It was a good feeling – like I was exactly where I was meant to be at exactly the right time. Like the footpath was rising to meet my feet and, despite its brokenness and tendency to be blocked by food carts and litter and tiny bonfires, would never cause me to stumble. Like happiness was battery-powered and the relentless sun my own personal solar charger. Like the cacophony of motorbike horns was the musical accompaniment to a grand parade in my honour. A homecoming parade.
Ah, that was it right there, this feeling: home. Since I’d been old enough to work and save up for plane tickets, I’d been a traveller, never happier than when I was living out of a suitcase. The more I travelled, the luckier I felt to be an Australian; to be born a citizen of a prosperous and peaceful country from which I was pretty much free to come and go as I pleased – that was winning the life lottery, for sure. But I never felt a great connection to the place itself. “Australia’s where I live but the world is my home,” I would say.
Then suddenly, on a sweltering August day in Hanoi, here it was, this feeling I’d imagined must be a myth or exaggeration: a sense of belonging to a place. What a glorious and mysterious thing it was! Like falling in love, you can’t communicate the feeling to anyone else. Oh, you can list a bunch of attributes and describe some qualities but that warm, tingly glow and deep sense of rightness, that’s inexplicable, unsharable.
I immediately began plotting out my Hanoian future: I would spend my days in the crumbling French Colonial mansion where I had been working these past weeks, writing and drinking thick, black drip-filter coffee. At night, I’d cruise the city on the back of a xe ôm, stopping here for a refreshing bia and there for a bowl of noodles. When friends and family back in Australia asked when I was coming home, I’d say, “I’m already here.”
Over the following months, I threw my body, heart and mind at Hanoi, studying the city’s 1000-year history, its origins and traditions, its triumphs and tragedies. From my workmates and new friends I learnt about how Hanoians live and what matters to them: art, culture, food, education and, above all else, each other. Family. And I slowly, heartbreakingly, realised that this was what mattered to me, too. As much as I felt I belonged in Hanoi, my family was my everything and as long as they remained in Australia, so must I.
And so I do. But I’m always planning my next trip to the home of my heart, always counting the days until I will once again be woken at dawn by bellowing food vendors and step onto a street swarming with motorcycles. That I will again take in a lungful of fish sauce and charred pork and feel my senses sharpen and my mind open and know that I am, for a little while at least, back where I inexplicably but undeniably belong.