Sunday, September 14, 2014

“What is it like in Vietnam?”

I am asked this a lot, with genuine curiosity. It’s hard to answer. There are no words that convey the exuberance of life in Saigon. So I’ve fallen back on one-word platitudes and a bright smile.

In the past six weeks, I’ve handed over one job, and started another, left one house, found and moved into another. On a Friday evening, I sent out some mails before shutting down my computer. The following Monday, I started up and sent some more – in another country, to another client and team, on another account. The farewell parties flowed into welcome ones. The stakes are bigger now, the demands greater - this is what I came for. My strides are longer, my time is shorter, and none of it is unexpected. I’m getting things done, and moving forward to the next one, making lists on my phone, in my notebook, on my whiteboard, and checking off the items. I’m too busy to indulge in sentimental wanderings. But all the time, at the back of mind, a river flows and a people wait, practical, optimistic, kind, ready to be remembered whenever I have a moment.

On my hurried way out this Friday morning, I finally remember to check my post-box. Among the mall magazines and utility bills is a surprising envelope with a Vietnam stamp. The handwriting is familiar. At 7:30 am I stand looking down at the postmark that says Saigon, balancing a banana, laptop bag, post-box keys and a phone still open at my first email of the day. For a few moments, I’m blinded by sunlight on an unruly river that breaks its bounds as often as it can. Crowded by equally unruly pavements full of people. I sit at a dining table on a patio by a pool, where lunch parties don’t break up until after dinner. I chase rainbows down picturesque alleyways, and find them. I’m disarmed by friendliness, fortified by acceptance, up to the challenge in a land that speaks a language I can never hope to grasp.

My phone buzzes, recalling the day – I stuff the envelope into my bag and get on with it. Several hours later, I look inside to see the twin babies I had assumed I would see a lot of, except they arrived late and I left early.

This weekend I go looking for a river. Now I sit on Robertson Quay, so lovely in the evening light. The accents around me are varied enough for me to relax against. It’s here, in a place that was always my favourite part of Singapore, peaceful in the mellow light, under the big trees that catch the river breeze that I finally let in the feelings for that unlikely, chaotic, magical place that smiled back at me. That’s what it’s like in Vietnam.

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