April 17th, Casa
5 AM. The alarm goes off. ITA
Here we go again.
5 more minutes in this empty bed; another cup of coffee; another trip.
Backpack on my shoulders, passport in my pocket, and for the first time in 4 years I close the door of home—MY home—behind me.
A metro, a train, a plane, towards a place that always speaks to me.
While we fly above the alps I pound down my usual two glasses of—disgusting—red wine in hope of getting some sleep. Despite the agonizing shrieking of the—undoubtably possessed—kid sitting two rows behind me, I manage to fall asleep.
I have a weird dream: i’m on the phone, it’s a phone call I had been wanting to do for a long time, while it’s still ringing some friends get into the room and yell at me to hang up, taking away my iphone and throwing it away.
I wake up a bit shaken, not from the turbulences but because I realize who was on the other side of that call.
Fuck sleeping, i’ll just watch a movie!
April 18th, Hanoi
As soon as I get out of the airport the heavy and humid air reminds me that I’m back in Hanoi. It’s my sixth time in Vietnam, I came here for the first time 4 years ago, in another life, with a poet, and from the very first unmistakable humid breath this country stole my heart to never let it go again.
I take a cab to Hoan Kiem, the Old Quarter. I look outside the window, the firsts rice paddies, the water buffaloes and the farmers wearing their conical hats appear, i feel melancholically happy and light, and the words of Bourdain resound loudly in my head:
‘It’s good to be alive, and back in Vietnam!’
I check into the hotel. Four floors of steep stairs, the humid and dingy room, the usual shower above the toilet. I wash away the 20 hours of traveling, I’m dead tired but Hanoi is out there and I don’t wanna miss a minute of it.
I call Loan to tell here I arrived and I go down to the street. While I wait for her I get a glass of sugar cane juice in a little shack of dubious appearances and i sit on the unmissable low plastic stools, scattered everywhere on Hanoi’s sidewalks. I look around, every time I come back to Vietnam I find it a bit changed: there are more tourists in the streets, more restaurants with signs that say “Pizza/Hamburgers/Tacos”, more cars, more western chains. These are not changes I like much, I tend to be very nostalgic for a past that I know it can’t go on existing forever.
Loan materializes on her white scooter 10 minutes later, beautiful as always with her pink Hello Kitty helmet. I hug her tight, it’s always a joy to see her again. We met a few years ago on a bus in Bangkok, she was traveling with her sister and her dad—their first vacation after her mom passed—they were going south, I was alone and I was going North to cross the boarder with Laos by land. We exchanged our IG accounts and met each other again a few weeks later in Hanoi, quickly becoming friends, and now I see her every time I stop by.
“Bun Cha?” she asks me handing me the helmet (luckily not a Hello Kitty one).
“Obviously!” I tell her jumping on the saddle.
The streets are messy as usual, rivers of scooters in every direction defy the laws of physics, street vendors shout loudly, whiffs of smells that make you dream or wanting to puke fill my lungs. oh Vietnam, I truly missed you!
We stop in one of my favorite restaurants, Bun Cha 34, I had been waiting for this moment for 8 months! While I stuff my face with food loan looks at me suspiciously and tells me:
“OMG, you lost a bunch of weight babe…what’s your secret?!”
“You just need to get your heart broken!” I laugh but there’s nothing to fucking laugh about.
“Aaww, what happened? tell me!”
“I prefer to not think about it anymore Loan. Tell me about you instead, how’s the new job?”
“I love it, and they make me travel a lot. I never thought I’d see Berlin or Paris, but there I was, standing by the Tour Eiffel, just like in your pictures.”
“Aaww I’m so happy for you! Now you have to make them send you to Italy, so you can come visit me!”
“OMG it would be a dream!” she says while she grabs a bunch of noodles with her chopsticks and dips them into the bowl full of broth and chunks of grilled pork “Do you think you’ll see your french expat guy while you are here, what was his name, Julian?”
“Oh shit, Julian! I don’t know, I didn’t even tell him I was coming…”
“Oh babe, you really got your heart broken!”
We chit-chat for hours until the 35 degrees and the jet lag start hitting me. I don’t want to go back to the hotel though, it’s still early and I don’t want to waste my first day here sleeping. I look at Loan suddenly enlightened by a stroke of genius:
“Loan, is your friend Chung free today?”
“Seriously?!” she stares at me while I smile like a brat and nod my head.
“…Ok you are serious, hold on, let me see.” she puts her phone to her ear and speaks in Vietnamese “He has a slot ’till 6”
“Awesome, let’s go!”
I get back to the hotel with two new tattoos on my body: a Ganesh—the Hindu elephant god, remover of obstacles—on my calf, and a mini noodle bowl with a script that says “to Tony”—a tribute to the mentor I never met but who changed my life more than anyone—on my hip.
I throw myself on the bed, i close my eyes and i think back to this last year, to the last time I was here, to how much I’ve changed since, to how fast things change, to how everything ends sooner or later, to how many of my dreams faded in a phone call 3 months ago.
I feel something moving inside and shortly after I feel something brushing on my knee. I open my eyes and I see a massive cockroach—as big as the palm of my hand—walking on me, throwing me out of my nagging thoughts.
So fucking gross!
Scorpions, spiders, snakes, I got used to them by now but cockroaches never stop repulsing me. I inspect the room to make sure there aren’t any more 6 legged friends around and I get back to bed. Better get some sleep, I need to be in shape, the girls get here tomorrow, i will bring them around Vietnam for 10 days, to show them my Vietnam, the Vietnam I fell in love with, and I hope they’ll fall in love with it too.
While I fall asleep a message arrives on whatsapp:
“I saw your stories. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? How long are you staying?
If you have some time I would really like to see you again .
April 20th, Hanoi
I bring the girls to see a neighborhood crossed by railroad tracks where the train passes through the houses a few times a day. I stumbled across it randomly during my first trip to Vietnam, I was walking—with no purpose—around Hanoi and I found myself in the middle of it. it felt like stepping into a timeless world: there were old ladies cooking on the tracks, men playing backgammon outside their doors, children running and playing around, chickens everywhere. The following year I came back and took one of my usual dreamy pics for instagram, without giving it too much thought. But the weight of that innocent picture crushed me at the sight of what this once magical place has now become: there are no more old ladies and children on the tracks, not even a single chicken, just rows of bars and souvenir shops and a bunch of half-drunk tourists taking one selfie after the other with UNZ-UNZ music blasted in the background. This is not the Vietnam I wanted them to see.
I feel myself sink into a deep dark fetid hole, my heart drowns in it for hours.
I recover at night, while we’re out for dinner with Loan in one of the restaurants that serves the best pho of Hanoi, where locals and tourists slurp steaming bowls with happy faces.I’m learning—with difficulty—to not lose myself in my existential crisis, and to focus on the small things in life instead, on tiny daily pleasures, like this bowl of pho in front of me, the beers that just arrived at our table and the company I have around.
I swallow my bitterness along with the rice noodles and I enjoy the evening.
April 29th, Hoi An
It’s midnight, the warm breeze scented of jasmine and frangipani brushes on my shoulders, there’s silent all around, the girls are in their rooms, Kiet and his wife Lien are clearing the table, the children are asleep and I’m sitting poolside trying to write. The trip is almost over, the girls get back to Italy tomorrow and I’ll spend a few more days in Hanoi.
I’m exhausted from the few hours of sleep and the constant movement. We’ve been to many places I’d been before but I’ve seen them with new eyes this time. Over the whole trip beside my usual “what the fuck am I doing?” question I’ve asked myself many times “Do you still love this country?”, without being able to give myself an answer. Because Vietnam is changing, yes. In Halong Bay now there are more cruise boats than fish, the pollution is less and less sustainable, the families of fishermen who live on floating houses scattered all across the bay are beginning to be moved to shore by the government: there their kids can go to school more easily but the parents often find themselves having to learn to make a living in completely different ways, and they not always succeed. In Ninh Binh now instead of paying the boat ride to the ladies that paddle with their legs you have to pay a ticket to an office and then tip the ladies, cause I’m not sure how much of the 200K dong paid for the ticket is actually given to them. Even at the pagoda in Hang Mua it’s all different now, the first time I went there there was nothing but a trumble-down road that lead to the 500 steps trail, and once on the top there wasn’t a single soul on sight, just silence and the breathtaking landscape. Now it looks like a theme-park and on the top there are lines of people waiting to take the usual instagram picture.
I don’t like taking those pics anymore, i don’t see the point of it. I want to keep seeing the world and its people and show it and tell it to who’s on the other side of the screen, but at the same time the guilt I feel sometime—when I understand that my pics don’t always do good—it’s strong, and I’m starting to ask myself if it’s time to find new ways to tell my stories.
Eternal ethical torments.
Kiet brings me a beer and sits next to me. I haven’t seen him much over the last few days. Two years ago I lived at their house for a month, we spent a lot of time together, drinking Vietnamese coffee, talking about life, art, ideas and dreams. Their villa-homestay is located on the riverside, in a quiet countryside area outside the iper-touristy and iper-crowded center of Hoi An. It was one of the most carefree month of my life, there had been many bike rides at dawn in the rice fields, lunches at the market, walks on the beach under the moonshine, Julian—whose messages I keep ignoring—everything was lighter. I was still a blond little droplet who didn’t ask herself too many questions.
“You look tired Kiet” I tell him at the sight of his eye bags getting deeper every year.
“6 busy months, very very busy” he tells me in broken-english.
“But business is good no? you’re always booked!”
“Yes, yes very good. Lot’s of business. But always less time.”
“The other side of the medal ha?!”
“I don’t want to miss my children’s life Sara, they grow up so fast, i’d like to slow down a bit. But you look tired too, and so skinny, last summer you were stronger, more energy, always running!”
“I know. I went through a few shitty months. I’m learning to slow down a bit too Kiet. Like someone told me a while ago, it doesn’t always have to be a fight”
“To time!” he smiles lifting up his beer, touching mine.
May 5th, Hanoi
Another last night, another coffee, another goodbye.
Loan just strolled away on her white scooter disappearing into the night. The rain falls on the streets of Hanoi, the lights of the scooters reflected in the puddles, the chattering of the ladies cooking on the sidewalk, the smell of coffee and the stench of durian fill the air. I soak it all in, until it lasts, until I’m still here.
I sit in a cafè and I order a cà phê sữa, Vietnamese iced coffe with sweet condensed milk. I’m meeting Julian in a few hours, i gave up in the end, more for exhaustion than will.
We have history, me and him, we crossed paths and missed each other for a mere second many times throughout the years, a bit like in the movies. But i’m not the girl looking for strong emotions he met on a boat in Halong bay a long time ago, everything is different now, and tonight there’s a ghost—whose memory is becoming more and more faded—that hovers over me; I thought i got rid of it but this trip brought him back into my thoughts, because while i was showing this country to the girls I couldn’t help but thinking that I would have really liked to show it to him, my Vietnam.
I sip on my cà phê sữa shoowing away that thought and I start writing on a notebook recapping the trip like every last night of every adventure.
Disconnected thoughts fill up the page.
It has been a trip full of ups and downs, a trip through mixed emotions. I wasn’t able to give 100% of me to the girls i brought here, I’m still getting used to my new body a bit more frail, I’m still stitching together a broken heart that now though knows how to beat, I’m still learning that is not up to me to think about the faith of the world. Vietnam is changing fast, my life too. Sometime I wish I could stop time, ask him a moment more, make it go back; but life goes on anyway, it doesn’t wait for anyone, and i’m starting to understand that change is the only thing that never ever changes.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath and think back to these last few weeks. I see the crowds of tourists, the denaturalized places, the cruise boats. I take another breath and I see the face of Loan, Kiet’s eye-bags, the smile of the old lady that gifted me a Buddha’s head, the hands of the ladies that paddle with their legs that—sitting on the ground under a tree during their lunch break—offer me bowls of food and touch my tattoos…and I remember why I started traveling.
I feel chaos inside me, i close my notebook, leave some dongs on the table and I start walking under the rain.
I walk through the market, through the alleys behind St.Joseph’s Cathedral, all the way up to Hoan Kiem lake. I think about all the shit I went through in my life. I think about the years lived in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas, in London, in New York. I think about the years spent on the road, about instagram. I think about when I left the fashion industry and that soon I’ll have to leave the tourism one. I think about that phone call that took away my dreams and about the one I wasn’t able to make in my dream on the plane. I think about how shitty were the last few months, about the 12Kg I lost, about who told me I was depressed when instead I simply fell in love, for the first time, at 30. I think about who I was before that and I think about who I am now, who I never wanna be again, who I want to become.
I take out my phone and I send a message:
“Julian, I’m sorry, I can’t make it tonight.”
Going back towards the hotel I feel in peace. Calm in my existential chaos. .
I sit on the steps outside the hotel and I smoke one last cigarette. Hanoi in front of me, like the screen of a movie theater.
Red and yellow flags hang outside the houses, a woman walks in the middle of the street with a bunch of colorful floating balloons, a whole family—mom, dad and two kids—passes by on a scooter, an old lady lits up a fire under a pot on the sidewalk, a girl pushes a bike full of fruits, a mother and her son wearing matching pijamas exchange kisses on the door, a street vendor wearing an old green military hat shouts vietnamese chants, boys and girls of all ages laugh and chat sitting on the low plastic stools on the side of the street sipping coffe.
Everything changes, everything stay the same.
The Vietnam I love, is still here!