Near the end of September, I went on a drive around West Lake, the biggest lake in Hanoi, for the first time in as long as I could remember. Sitting in the passenger seat, my mind started to drift through a sea of thoughts – like how I was 20 without a driver’s license, or how despite living half an hour from the lake, I never got around to seeing it as frequently as I would like. I realized I barely knew my city. For the past five years, between high school and college abroad, I have spent only the three summer months at home, missing out on the other nine.
Having been abroad for the majority of my formative years, I feel a profound sense of disconnection from Hanoi and from my Vietnamese identity every time I return. Home for me lies solely within my family. I don’t have many friends in Hanoi anymore – I’ve lost contact with some and most have also gone abroad. My Vietnamese lacks the accuracy and nuances of a native speaker (and so does my English — the woes of being bilingual!). I feel like a tourist in the city where I was born and raised.
Vietnam has been COVID-free for a couple of months (knock on wood); so despite a closed campus, online classes and a global pandemic, I am living an oddly normal life back home. I see it as a chance for me to make amends with my sense of disconnection with home. So, like Amy and Molly in Booksmart, I planned to cram five years of exploration and spiritual fulfillment into roughly three months.
I made plans to visit points of interest in the city by myself, and when possible, not to turn down any offer to go out. I took every opportunity to just be out of the house. I now regularly bike around West Lake with my mom. For her, it is a great opportunity to exercise and to enjoy the fresh morning air, when traffic has yet to swarm the streets. It also serves as a great bonding experience. For me, it is a clear detachment from my past self, who was so apathetic to the little joys in life around him.
Another trademark of fall in Hanoi that I had been missing out on is the sweet fragrance of hoa sữa (milk flower, literally). The white, clustered flowers bloom around the middle of September, filling the street with the scent of honey-like sweetness. In the right amount, milk flower trees lend Hanoi a distinct freshness - too few of them and the scent will be drowned out by life in the city, too much and it will overwhelm your senses. Catching traces of the smell at dusk is refreshing and reminiscent of childhood innocence and of a time before marathon Zoom calls.
Despite my busy schedule this fall, I’ve made the conscious decision to prioritize my personal health, well-being and enjoyment over academic commitments, especially if that means I can spend more time with my family. One of my favorite experiences so far has been a road trip with my cousins to the Tà Xùa mountains northwest of Hanoi. On the way, I got to hear stories of my family’s history through the tumultuous time of the 20th century. And, once we arrived, the breathtaking beauty of lush mountains amongst a sea of clouds greeted us after a half-an-hour hike.
Still, underlying these moments and my enjoyment is a constant sense of guilt. I feel guilty for leading a nonchalant life not just amidst the pandemic, but also amidst local natural disasters and international social unrest. I feel guilty for not working as hard as I can, for being behind on my readings and lectures. From conversations with friends, I know I’m not alone in thinking this. With everything going on, it feels inappropriate to remove yourself from the stream of news and events. It feels like you are being willfully ignorant.
It will take time to bring myself out of that mindset, but I think it is a healthy and worthwhile journey to start. So, I will start small. I will start by appreciating the little sights and sounds around me. I will start by appreciating the empty in-betweens of classes. Then, I can start with reclaiming my experience at home.