We were in Co To Island when I saw her post on Hanoi Buy Swap, and Sell—a Facebook group popular among expats in Hanoi. She was downsizing her wardrobe. I fancied the red dress and messaged her about it, wondering if it is free size enough for someone who ballooned over the years. We live in the same apartment building. She moved in the unit I, then Ly, and then Ivana used to live. Unit 201 seems to draw interesting women.
She is small, fragile, more than a decade younger than me and with eyes that give away her vulnerability and uneasiness. When we got back from our trip up north, there is a paper bag hanging on my door knob. It was the red dress.
I thanked her for the gesture. The following night, she invited us, Ambros and I, for a joint on the rooftop. She gushed out on how Hanoi made her feel. She felt at a loss at first. The first few tries on her teaching job was either a scam or a heartbreak. But she was now in a much better position. She loved her kids. At times, she had a bad day and a hug from her students made her feel better.
I remember the first time I met her. It was on the rooftop: the laundry area. I was in the middle of hanging clothes, and she about to load her laundry into the machine. A mere “how are you?” unbolted the dam of disappointments and sorrows within her. She was more than teary-eyed. She felt Hanoi did not love her back. She had no circle of friends when something, everything went south.
The talkative me had nothing to say. I was caught off guard. I came unprepared, with underwear in hand. I came up with some half-assed wisdom: cities like Hanoi can be unforgiving, a city of transient souls. No one will blame her if she leaves as quick as she arrives.
It did not help her when she asked if I have a circle, which I do. Three Filipinos: the ones I always meet for a laugh, food, conversations, and drinks. For someone who is considered very sociable, I keep my circle small and tight.
There is nothing conventional about S. She left home and traveled abroad at the age of 18. She does not shave. Her armpit and her legs a wilderness. She does not–if she does, it’s a rare occasion—wear sports bra. One time, she said, the teachers at the school she worked for gave her a bra. That was a foul move. She eventually quit. She is proud of her ways. She should be. What she does takes utmost courage that I myself do not have.
She contemplated of moving out in Vietnam for good and move to Australia and perhaps find a better version of herself there, perhaps happiness, her own perhaps—whatever can fill up and feed the hollow and the hunger in her. She somehow reminds me of an overly quoted Robert Holden: Beware of Destination Addiction––a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, and with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.
With a stable job in Hanoi and her own space, everything seems too comfortable, too comfortable it strangles her. She misses restlessness and discomfort. She thrives in them; therefore, she seeks them.
She somehow reminded me of my younger years: the wandering soul who pretentiously got sick if she got stuck in the city for a week straight. Movement, dominantly traveling, I decided then, to be my muse. Writers have humans, special humans, as their muse. I had movement. It sounded cool and hip and to some extent lucrative; I made sure I made an income out of it. Traveling, even budget, is never cheap.
I badly wanted to be cool when I was in my mid-20s.
I told her it is okay to be comfortable, but perhaps her young age and temperament built in chaos unique to traveling, cannot process this. I used to be like that: the very human who wrote “Dear Isa, It’s All Right Not to Travel.”
But people like me travel because we are restless. And it is not a good thing, I tell you. It means there is something missing in our life that we cannot find by staying put in one place. When others said, traveling is for the brave and the bold, that is not really the whole truth, if you ask me. For me, it is harder to grow roots and stay in one place, doing so requires more courage, therefore, braver and bolder.
Living in a wheeled backpack and packing and unpacking every three days for almost a year straight was fun at first, which eventually turned into a dread. It changed me. Traveling long-term is not for me. I love non-packing/unpacking routines. I love gardening. I love cooking. I love going back to my own bed. I cannot sleep well when I travel. I travel with my own baby pillow—the closest to home I could think of. These were the years that my longing for my own tiny wheeled house was so intense. I thought then perhaps I could marry traveling, writing, and domesticity. Living in the epilogue’s version of Howl’s Moving Castle was my ultimate dream.
The first three weeks in Hanoi after a triumphant year-long trip and a relationship that had no other exit but downward, I did not do much. I became a hermit in my own space: Unit 201. Staying still did not feel like a goal, it came out natural. I smoked nonstop in my tiny balcony. I did not know then non-stop traveling stressed me out. My diary, which used to house travel thoughts and travel details, was ironically empty. Some would suggest that’s a good sign, it means I was enjoying life. No, I decided to be a writer. A writer writes. And no matter how one romanticizes the craft, it is a duty of a writer to write. No matter how lousily, how amateur, how random. The last entry was Nepal. Almost no entry on Papua New Guinea. None on Taiwan, Malaysia, Australia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia. Myanmar. My dear Philippines.
Don’t get me wrong. Traveling was fun. But fun does not anchor me. Stories do. And often stories don’t simply show up in short stays. Perhaps it is just me, but the first three days in a new place, we are always tourists. No unique narrative will unfold; it rarely does. And if it does, it comes out too forced. Most of my travel narratives sound like that. And I’m done with it. It makes me mentally puke.
So to be comfortable, to stay still, to have a Point A, to have a place I can call home is a bliss. It allows me to slow down, relish in the tiny moments without the thought that it can be snatched away in any moment’s notice. To have a home makes me more attuned to the nuances and quirks of a place without forcing myself to. Local vendors have a certain way of cutting meat, of bundling vegetables. The Vietnamese have certain hairstyles depending on the season of the year. I know the season is about to change based on the fruits and flowers displayed on the roadside: Peach in summer. Persimmon in winter.
S already left Hanoi. I’m the one who stayed the longest in the apartment building. With my burgeoning family of plants and books, I stayed. I host monthly gathering of food. I grow my own herbs and vegetables on the rooftop. I eventually learned how to drive a scooter with Ambros’ help. I befriended some of my neighbors. The other day, I bought a fabric in Brunei, and I am excited to have it tailored in Hanoi. Two weeks of being away, I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, to a morning of home-brewed coffee.