I was driving to dinner last week, past the Mausoleum and got to the large roundabout and my bike puttered out. Died. Right in front of all these government buildings with no repair or garage in sight. Just me and security guards. I called my dinner companion to say I'd be late and they immediately offered to come find me. Then my phone died. so I was stuck, phoneless, bikeless and not knowing if I'd be able to connect with my friend. To make matters worse the security guards kept shouting at me that I had to move. I refused on the grounds that I was stuck and waiting for someone. Something I couldn't accurately communicate. This went on for about half an hour.I sat on the sidewalk dejected and feeling sorry for myself until I heard, "Hey...Alice? Bad night?" It was a new friend, someone I'd only recently met, on his way home from a barbecue and who just happened to stumble upon me. That's the beauty of Hanoi, you can't go somewhere without seeing someone you know. And the people you know are generally kind and helpful and genuine. This guy not only sat with me until my other friend came but took it upon himself to flag down a Vietnamese motorbike repair man and had my bike fixed on the spot. Despite not knowing me well, or having no obligation at all, he stayed for the additional half an hour/forty-five minutes that this took. Because he's a nice guy. Because that's how people are here.
I have often compared to expat life in Hanoi to being at university. The expat community is small, if you don't know someone, it's almost guaranteed that someone you know does. You can't get away with much here, any scandal and gossip will make its way through the community at lightening speed. I have a theory about this...we are transplants, we all have in common that we are expats. We are forced, to a certain degree to be integrated in each others lives. Because most expats I know don't speak good Vietnamese, we are relegated to associate with other expats or English speaking Vietnamese, so our network has little room for expansion. There is little to do other than go to work, engage in the occasional hobby and meet with friends and talk. About each other.
I went to the kind of university that thrived on gossip. Despite boasting approximately 9,000 undergraduates (and a few thousand in grad school) somehow everyone knew everyone's business and the rumor mill was rampant, sometimes accurate and sometimes not. My friends and I were sometimes the topic of conversation and part of me considered it to be a compliment (if you're spoken about you're relevant) but also was sick and tired of having to defend untrue allegations. I found the mentality ridiculous and was excited when I moved to NYC to escape all of that, to a degree. (It turns out NYC is not as big as you think, the circles are close knit and small. But the difference is, while people will talk, they care a lot less. They move on and don't dwell.)
Despite my penchant for blogging and tweeting, I do have a weirdly penetralian side. I appear open but I do hold some cards close to my chest. I let people know what I want them to know but I like to keep certain things to myself, to guard my privacy. I don't want the spotlight focused on my life. I like to be social, and knowing people, I just find it unnecessary to be the subject of gossip and speculation. Hanoi is a difficult city to maintain this and at times I am frustrated that I can't seem to do anything without everyone knowing about it.
Then there are the times, like last week, where I am reminded of why I am eternally grateful for the small town that this major city is.