The man at the bar next to me has one very long finger nail. He’s going in. That woman across the street, squatting over a chicken, plucking it with slender fingers in bloodied water: she’s going in. The smell of pork rotting in the heat, the honk of horns, the wires twisting like grapevines around a trellis: they’re all going in.
But then I remember. I’m supposed to be writing a post-modern examination of the value of French existentialism when super-imposed upon the vast Australian outback, seen through the eyes of two Russian orphans. What’s the good of this Vietnamese stuff? Why am I here again?
I’m in Hanoi to write. A novel, to be specific, but not something that actually requires living in Hanoi. What it does require, though, is distance — distance from the subject matter, distance from a real job, distance from credit cards, high rent, expensive mangoes, distance from shitty, weak coffee. After a few years here, working with varying degrees of success on the same novel, I’ve encountered many others in the same situation. Writers, of sorts, though they, like me, mostly teach English. We might not all achieve our glorious goals, but at least we know what relative clauses are, which could prove handy. And I know a poet who now writes only in the phonetic alphabet.
And there are others. I spoke with Shauna McCoole — an Irish expat and author of the play Impermanence, which was recently staged with great success at Hanoi’s BBQ Garden. She also teaches kindergarten.
“Working with children has made me less self-conscious, more free to explore certain themes in my writing,” she said. And those themes? Themes of transience, of ‘impermanence’. “Life in Hanoi moves very fast. People come and go. The friendships you make are ever-changing.” While her play was staged in Hanoi, it was mostly set in India.
And then there is Hannah Rubenstein, an expat from the States, who has recently moved here from Nairobi. She’s working full-time on a piece of literary non-fiction on the topic of forced marriage. Forced marriage in Hanoi? I wondered. No, forced marriage in Kenya, India and England.
“So why Hanoi?”
“I find the environment very conducive to writing,” she explained. “As the weather has been getting hotter, I’ve been escaping to nearby coffee shops with more reliable AC and a steady supply of coffee.” She said she does find bits of Hanoi “seeping into her writing”, but went on to admit they’re mostly related to the weather.
There is, I realise, as a shoe-shine man catches my eye, something terribly favourable to creative entrepreneurship in Hanoi. It’s not just writers: there are story slams and open mic nights, improv sessions and themed parties, plays, fire shows and shoe-shiners. No one makes any money, of course (I whisk the shoe shiner away with a violent shake of the head), but that’s hardly the point.
The point is distance. We’re all from somewhere else. “An integral part of storytelling is negotiating distance and intimacy,” Hannah said. “By reconsidering and reexamining my preconceptions about how the world works, by living outside of my comfort zone, I can grow as a person — and hopefully my writing will too.”
Shauna also sees the value of a certain separation between project and place. “Distance gives you a wider perspective. You learn to write for a wider audience. Sometimes you need to go away from your subject matter in order to fully understand it.”
That Old Little Issue... Money
So is that what we are? Creative refugees fleeing the tyranny of home? I am fairly sure the shoe shiner isn’t, but perhaps he’s shining into our shoes memories of some provincial sunset, each dab of shine a touch of Lao Cai?
But then, as the shoe-shiner knows, there’s always the matter of money. We like to ignore it, us writers, but it’s always an issue. At least at home it is. Hannah pointed out: “I have the freedom and opportunity here to spend my days writing, something I wouldn’t have back in the US.”
There are common threads that seem to unite all writers here, other than a pre-occupation with iced coffee and India. Affordability, distance and the chance to avoid full-time work seem the most prominent. With that in mind, I order a double gin and tonic and get back to my own novel.
The sporadic, insomniac cries of a rooster pierce through Hang Be; at Truc Bach an old woman stands knee deep in water, scattering pages from an unknown book into the lake’s inky shallows; on the back road to Noi Bai, lines of whole thit cho lie baking in the sun; from Long Bien Bridge the city rises like a half-formed, pastel diorama, banana trees swaying below. I could write about that.
Instead I go back inside Le Pub. Back to my Russian orphans pondering Sartre 300 clicks north of Perth. I turn up the air-con. Order a coffee. I have a class in an hour.