I’m nearly two years into my departure from Hanoi, and it’s odd how regular Son La feels, especially given the extraordinary bareness of the city.
There is no supermarket here. It’s all mom-and-pop shops, markets, and a central grocery store that tries its best, but by all measures looks like a mix between a convenience store and a garage sale.
To stay sane, I order weekly shipments of ingredients from the foreigner-friendly delis in Hanoi. I don’t need to do this as often as I do. It’s a distraction from our savings, and we’re more than capable of growing most of what we consume or buying it from a neighbor.
City cinemas don’t exist, so my wife and I watch Netflix religiously. I let her pick the shows and only demand that no horror series enter our room.
Events and culture, in the shallowest sense of the concept, are few and far between. The occasional concert comes to town, but I’m past my mid-thirties now and comfortably set in my musical ways. Spotify helps. So do the Vietnamese festivals that invade our neighborhood at whatever times they please, because they can.
I have no friends in this city. None.
Outside of my wife, my mother-in-law, and the children we teach English to, social interactions that fulfill me are had through iMessage, FaceTime, Slack, Basecamp, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp, Zalo, LINE, Viber, LinkedIn, GitHub, and email. I suspect that if I didn’t have this technology available to me, I’d still find ways to laugh, but the technology helps so much.
Exercise is a word I don’t use enough anymore. When I do, I walk. The street slopes here are quite steep, and mountains are forever in view. I know Trang wants us to walk more, both for my health and for our relationship. When we do get out together, we’re either wearing couple shirts or couple shoes because we’re like that. I pretend to hate it, but I’m into it; it reminds me of a mall-walking old couple I used to admire during my teen years in Longview.
I love her. I got lucky. Unfairly lucky.
We bicker over small, rarely big. When we fight over big, it’s usually diffused within a week, and life progresses. Nothing ever feels severe enough to go longer. The same issues pop up over and over again—she’s a hoarder, I’m a control freak, she’s unreasonably emotional, I’m irrationally cold—and in the big picture, they resemble blemishes that make us into us. Perfect is fake. I don’t need complete. I need genuine. I have that with her.
Our home is both a house and a karaoke cafe. We open at 8 AM and close at midnight, so there’s continuous noise. It’s hard to put into words how noisy it is around here. Imagine a low, deep rumble throughout the day that never ends; the sound of rickety vehicles passing by every few minutes; farm animals whose languages are noisy by default; and inebriated customers who can’t hear themselves yell. It’s like that until midnight.
My favorite days are when Mommy’s made enough money and closes shop early. During my first visit to Son La, she was deeply skeptical of me. She thought I would steal her daughter. She didn’t understand why I let my beard grow out or why I wore short exercise bottoms outside. She didn’t get me, and I didn’t care to appease her.
Slowly, very slowly, she’s turned into a different person. She laughs more. She dances. She jokes, sometimes better than I do. She loves me and cares for me when I’m tired. She’s given her daughter to me, and I’ve given myself as a son to her. When we have friction it’s because of the karaoke shop being too loud or me being annoyed because I hate boiled chicken—small things all obscured by our larger respect for each other.
Star, our cat, is the boss who runs the show. She’s a diva. We spoil her. We can’t help it. Star has a particular way of breaking you down with her whimpers.
This vast chasm of unremarkable living is precisely what I need right now.
I’ve had the lowest anxiety of my life here, and panic attacks are almost non-existent. Money problems aren’t problems like they used to be. We have a home, land, and plan on building our own, separate house next door soon. Cost of living in Son La is low enough that when business is slow, we’re still able to breathe.
A baby will come but the pressure to make it happen sooner than the stars will it into happening is gone; we’re past worrying about it, and our relationship without a child for this many years has only strengthened us. Babysitting and English teaching have been good practice for looking after children, but boy does it feel good to have a little alone time with my wife before our child comes into play.
I don’t miss Texas the way I used to because I’m already home.
I do miss family.
Things are as they should be right now. I want for nothing but the health and happiness of my family and an occasional moment of quiet. Outside of that I dare not ask for more.