Saying good-bye to a city is harder than breaking up with a lover. The grief and regret are more piercing because they are more complex and unmixed, changing from corner to corner, with each passing vista, each shift of the light. Breaking up with a city is unclouded by the suspicions that after the affair ends, you’ll learn something about the beloved you wished you never knew. The city is as it will remain: gorgeous, unattainable, going on without you as if you’d never existed. What pain and longing the lover feels as he bids farewell to a tendril of ivy, a flower stall, the local butcher. The charming café where he meant to have coffee but never did.
– From Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
For the last month, every time I have set forth into the busy streets of Saigon, I have felt the keen pangs of grief. The pains are sharpest and most acute when I’m on the back of our motorcycle and we zip through the swirling snarls of traffic; it’s when I feel most alive and I think the city responds in kind. As we whip down its claustrophobic narrow alleyways and emerge onto expansive boulevards, I feel it opening up like a flower greeting the dawn, and my heart clenches with longing. I’m a time traveler—forever flitting between past and future (though rarely am I present)—and it is this proclivity to race ahead and meet our impending departure from here, a city that has so swiftly come to feel like home, that causes me such sorrow. I know the end is nigh and so every ride through the city gives me one more chance to encode the feel of it into my memory, to say good bye to another moment of life here and privately mourn the loss that is to come.
It’s almost impossible for me to believe that we have burned through our three months here in Ho Chi Minh City. Cliché though it may be, it seems like just yesterday that we moved into our little room and gratefully disemboweled our bags… all of a sudden, it seems, the time has come to pack them back up again, to dust off our passports, and begin anew.
When we first arrived here, I worried that I would get bored and feel stifled. I worried that we would never make it to the end of three months before my restlessness took over. I didn’t know if I could be still for so long, if I could truly feel at home anywhere. Whenever we spend prolonged periods in a country (and never for so long as this), no matter how much I have enjoyed our visit, our final week is always characterized by impatient desire to move on to somewhere new. The unknown is always calling to me and I can’t seem to resist it… my heart and my eyes wander, and I can never seem to remain faithful to any one place for very long before I stray and move on.
Maybe Ho Chi Minh City has made an honest woman out of me, because the longer we have stayed here, the more enchanted and enamored with it I have become. This time, as the deadline for our departure has approached, all I’ve wanted is for time to stop or slow down so I could have just a little more time here. I can’t pretend that there’s not more to the world that I want to explore, but in the face of what we already have right here in Saigon, none of it honestly appeals all that much. We never imagined we’d find a place that would make us want to settle down and stop our traveling, and yet that’s kind of what happened. Saigon taught me that there are places in this world where I can be content to just be, where living even something of a mundane existence can still be a joy.
Part of our happiness here has surely come from the fact that we have been throwing ourselves fully at making our design business work, and even though this often means working well beyond the amount we used to, we take legitimate enjoyment in the work and what we are doing and don’t begrudge the (many) hours spent on each project. But beyond simply doing what we love, we’ve also been in a place that just felt right. If not for our non-negotiable return to North America this summer (abut which I promise to write more in a future post), we would probably have extended our visas for another three months, and maybe another three after that.
Would we want to live here forever? Maybe not. All I know is that the three months we had here were filled with a deep sense of satisfaction that came from knowing we were exactly where we were supposed to be. Sometimes we don’t know the places or things that will touch something deep within us and make us come alive, but Vietnam and this city have definitely struck a chord deep within the two of us. I worried that three months here would be too much time, but as these things have a habit of going, they turned out to be not even close to enough.
Sometimes I wonder if this period in our lives will be one where we look back with something verging on incredulity and say, “Remember that time we lived in Vietnam for 3 months?” It’s hard to think that our life now might some day be distilled into brief snippets of interesting small talk at, say, a wine & cheese party, but I suppose you never know where life will take you and what the future has in store. I can’t believe that all this will soon fade into what once was, a finished chapter, rather than an ongoing one about what currently is, but that is indeed exactly what will happen. It’s time to turn the page and start a new story, and right now all I can hope is that this one gets a sequel some day. Our time here isn’t ending on a cliffhanger, though there is an element of the unresolved about it—even with three months, much of Ho Chi Minh City remains a mystery to us even if we did carve out a tiny pocket of it that felt just like home.
I’m sure some of my sadness in leaving this city—in leaving Vietnam—is tied to my knowledge that soon we will be on a plane that takes us away from Asia, back towards a place we technically call home that actually feels anything but. I’ve spoken candidly about how returning to North America and wrapping up this adventure is not what either Tony or I want, but those are the cards we have been dealt and we’ll play them the best we can. It’s strange to think that we honestly have no idea when we might come back to Vietnam, given how much I feel we belong here, but right now all I can hope is that when we do come back, it won’t have changed too much and will be mostly as we are leaving it.
We ride through the city and I whisper to it “Don’t ever change.” All this time I have thought I have been saying goodbye, but the truth is my words are more like fervent prayers and solemn incantations sent out to the universe. I can’t take Saigon with me, but I know I’ve left little parts of my heart scattered all throughout its streets and districts. They are in the smile of our favorite sandwich lady, the laughter of the schoolchildren whose games we joined while at the park, the crack of our knees as we teetered on wobbly red stools while slurping bowls of soup (oh, the food!), the thick plumes of redolent incense that roll from temple offerings. I don’t know which of these I will miss the most, but I hope that just like fabled breadcrumbs, these bits will lead me back here some day and I’ll know I’ve found home once more.
Shakespeare’s star-crossed Juliet opined that parting is such sweet sorrow. I feel the weight of those words today, though I admit I am still waiting for the sweetness. Our next stop is Laos, our first new country of 2014, and with it a whole new set of adventures await. To venture into the unknown, we must leave the familiar behind; as travelers, this is what we do and I accept that trade-off.
So, to Saigon, I say: Our time here wasn’t half so long as I would have liked, and I hope it won’t be nearly so long until we meet again. Our love affair is far from over, but for now, so long.
Tell us: Have you ever fallen in love with a city and found yourself having to move on before you were ready to? Which country do you hope you get the chance to re-visit one day?