The winter in Hanoi can be surprisingly brutal. In December it’s usually quite nice, 40 – 68F with mostly clear skies; quite cold for a tropical city. The Christmas trees of December give way to the citrus trees of Tet, and for this year – the city looked particularly beautiful for both holidays. However, either in January or February, a layer of thick cloud rolls in and locks the city in its damp cold grip for months. The streets are moistened with either a light drizzle or a thick mist that mixes with the soot which settles out of the air. This is just enough moisture to form a film of grey slime – making driving very hazardous by bike. I haven’t seen the sun for weeks; in fact it seems almost a distant memory.
Hanoi? Why am I talking about Hanoi when I was just living in Da Nang just a few months ago? In the autumn of 2013 I was living in Da Nang – five minutes to drive to the beach, fifteen minutes to drive to a mountain rainforest. I had a three-bedroom house which I shared with a lap-warming cat in a quiet neighborhood. I had friends and work colleagues which admired me, what would cause me to leave this place and put my weary feet once more onto the path to Hanoi?
Regardless of the wonderful lifestyle I enjoyed in the most beautiful city in Vietnam (Da Nang), all was not perfect in paradise. Although the cost of living is very cheap, there’s a reason for that – there isn’t much money to go around. For me this meant there weren’t very many good paying jobs; I found myself working six days a week, only a few hours a day. Sure, I could pay for rent and food, but I really couldn’t save up much and the schedule meant I didn’t have time to take even the shortest trip out of town. Although work was easy enough, I realized this was precisely the problem: I wasn’t challenging myself nor improving myself professionally. In short, Da Nang is a great place to hang out and lay low for a while; but not a good place to advance one’s career. It’s a place more appropriate for a retiree than a young professional of any sort.
So with much regret and resignation, I began looking for another job. A job in a city I knew would pay more and have more room for growth. That city had to be, naturally. . . Hanoi. So in late November, I saddled up my cruiser and took the Ho Chi Minh Road away from my “Palm-Lined City by the Sea”; back to Hanoi. There is no beach to relax on, the roads are narrow and rough, the air is dirty, and I live in a studio apartment: no cat either. Yet, I’ve been able to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Best of all, the job is challenging, pays 60% more, and I work only four days a week. How sweet is that? I’ve decided that this next year in Hanoi will be my “Year of Decision”: either I will commit myself to living in Vietnam long-term, or I will move to another country. Who knows, maybe I will end up in India as originally planned, four years later than expected.
Whatever happens, I’ll always be glad to have lived in Da Nang. It’s such a beautiful place – so it was worth trying to “make a go” of it. But the most important reason was family history. In 1972 my father was stationed in Da Nang for several months with the Marines, so from the early age of five – my first memories about Vietnam were stories from Da Nang. In 2004, I decided to see some of the places my father had seen in his youth while in the Corps; so I took a short trip to Chiang Mai Thailand. It wasn’t the little sleepy town from Dad’s description anymore; but the city wall was still there. After that city I decided, “When I get the chance, I’m going to see the other place where Dad hung his helmet – Da Nang.” Nine years later, I not only visited the city Pop had seen forty years prior – I was also able to live there. Fortunately, I was able to be there not in a time of war and destruction, but in a time of peace and in a vocation that I believe helped improve people’s lives.