This morning my Malay friend Elena, whom I met in Hanoi, called me while I was waiting for my ramen to cool at the Lucky Plaza food court. It was an interesting coincidence, because I was hours away from flying back to Hanoi. It still amazes me that I can go Vietnam for a weekend, on a $100 plane ticket, spend $13 on a beautiful hotel room, and find myself surrounded by a completely different culture.
No matter how much I fly, I never tire of taking off, rising above skyscrapers and farms, trees and sea. Lately, as summer is approaching Singapore, the hazy sky has become a murky purple-gray. Through some optical trickery, the turquoise sea becomes the same colour at the horizon, so one flows seamlessly into the other. Boats and ships emerge from this uniform backdrop like a fleet of comets – dots and dashes of colour leaving trails of white foam.
I prefer cloudless skies. I like observing life from the angel’s eye view, and the equalising effect it has. Scattered chaos and discord on the ground are invisible at 35,000 feet, and the variety of human activity appears to flow together like the orchestral synchrony of a super-organism.
But clouds are beautiful too, and come in an endless variety. Sometimes you float above a layer of them so dense and blindingly sunlit from above that you could swear you’re looking down on the icy surface of Antarctica. Sometimes the clouds form a thin and heavenly gauze between you and the earth, and you wonder if you’ve drifted into a dream. Cloud formations in the distance, from an airplane window, can look like castles and cities – architecture of fantasy – and an expansive scattering of small white puffs can look like an epic flock of sheep.
So I’ve found myself back in Hanoi, in the Old Quarter, beside the beautiful lake where the teenagers hold hands and exchange small kisses. My soundtrack is once again the steady drone of motorbikes, punctuated by horns. At dinner with my colleagues Andy and Karen, I chatted with a waitress I recognized from my last trip, and when I walked into this very Internet café I was enthusiastically met by Van, a young student whom I spoke with just once, more than three months ago. In another bit of coincidence, there’s an email from her in my inbox at this very moment – sent earlier today.
She’s one of the many beautiful people I met in Vietnam, which is exactly why I decided to make this encore trip.