The grey clouds seemed to break for the first time in what felt like weeks. How long have I been here? I thought as the grey fell over Hà Nôi like a blanket, but without the warmth. The damp sixty-degree weather felt like winter to me — apparently having become too accustomed to the Tanzanian climate. The sky mulled overhead, reminding me of coming snow. Strangely, I felt more on vacation in that melancholic city than I had the week before while I floated, mai-thai drunk in the Andaman Sea.
I liked to think that over sunflower seeds there was some sort of shared humanity.
When Anna and I arrived in Hà Nôi, the skies felt familiar and the slightly dirty streets made me feel at home. Everywhere I looked, no matter the time of day people were hunched over on tiny stools busily eating sunflower seeds — at the cafes in the morning or the beer corner at night, the ground was littered with the shells of seeds. There was a social aspect to this, I suppose. Women, men, young people, old people sat around for hours on end eating sunflower seeds, drinking green tea, and chatting about their days. Or at least I assumed that’s what they were doing. I liked to think that over sunflower seeds there was some sort of shared humanity.
One afternoon, I sat at the Công Cà Phê, on the third floor overlooking the city square. Saint Joseph’s Cathedral loomed overhead, its architecture echoing that of Notre Dame. Hà Nôi was a bustling and metropolitan city. On every corner sat a café where people drank espresso, egg and coconut coffees, and smoked cigarettes. The air was filled with the sound of spoons clinking cups and people laughing in many languages. The streets smelled hazy with the scent of petrol from the thousands of motorbikes and smoky from people sitting along the alleyways smoking thuoc lao from pipes.
The Công Cà Phê pitched itself as “communist-chic,” which was a style I had never heard of but sitting in that café I totally got it. The walls were painted a military green. The waiters wore uniforms that resemble military fatigues. The wallpaper looked weathered and torn. The lightbulbs, hanging bare, looked ancient and cast a dim light throughout the space. The walls were decorated with wartime photos, propaganda posters, and antiques. Books by Lenin and Marx were easy to come by on the bookshelves. The air smelled like cigars, coffee beans, and parchment paper. The fact that smoking was still widely accepted indoors in Vietnam, added to the ambiance as clouds of smoke filled the air. The café seemed to recall the days of communist youth brigades and state ownership, which apparently got the owners in a bit of hot water when they first opened their doors. The atheistic was provocative and alluring. The juxtaposition of communist-atheistic and modern-day self-indulgence was hard to miss as I sat watching a group of young Vietnamese women meeting for a midday coffee. They received their coffees and positioned them perfectly on the table, next to the dusty pink roses. They took a number of selfies, stopping to readjust their hair or reposition the coconut coffee to show off the five-pointed star that served as communist-themed latte art.
Later that night, Anna and I found ourselves packing our bags once again. Half-drunk and ready for dinner, we danced around our tiny bedroom. It seemed we were leaving a part of ourselves in every place we passed through; releasing some heaviness and shedding layers from our packs. From seasides to shivering cities, we told a story of what it meant to leave a place. I found reverence in leaving things behind. My cheap watch, I left under the bed in a hostel somewhere in Thailand — as had I peeled it off, I noticed the way it had imprinted itself on my pale skin; warm tan lines and grime. There was a sadness in leaving it behind. In Hà Nôi, Anna left her jeans and a pair of underwear she’d been wearing for a year.
“Should I leave these?” she asked, holding up a pair of strangely sun-bleached granny panties.
“Do you even need me to answer?” I laughed and nodded towards the trash bin.
Perhaps, she did though. She needed me to say “yes,” because leaving even that unfortunate pair of underwear, meant leaving a little part of herself from Tanzania. I felt this when I left the strange greyish-blue t-shirt I’d been wearing for years. I had loved that shirt, with its holes and faded colors; no shirt had ever been so soft. After our beach days were over, I had left behind the tiger lily swimsuit that no longer seemed to hold the fine lines of my body. We were doing our best to learn how to let go. Before I left Tanzania, I bought a bar of cheap milk chocolate — the kind I’d eaten for over a year, desperately craving overpriced American dark chocolate. I proceeded to carry the chocolate bar with me throughout Southeast Asia, and I don’t really know why. I think perhaps it felt like something tethering me back — back towards the life I was so unwilling to let go of.
Past midnight that night, we took off from the airport heading for Ho Chi Minh City. I leaned my head against the window, watching the flashing lights of the runway. Every country looks the same from the runway, I thought as I watched yet another place disappearing below me.