Soap Bubbles in Hanoi
By Siyun Su
"Ohmygod bubbles… We NEED bubbles."
We were wandering along Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake in that fog of unreality you get when you arrive at a new place you've only ever seen on a screen, having landed just a few hours earlier. Daisy's thick hipster eye-frames were fixed on some small children, one in a loud banana-print shirt, another inexplicably in child-sized heels, frolicking manically amid a swarm of greasy rainbow bubbles shooting silkily from a bubble gun.
I was trying to say yes to more things, so I said yes to making soap bubbles again for the first time since I was eight. We bought a bubble sword from a little stall nearby.
"Here, you play. I'll take pictures." I handed the sword to her. I wanted to play too, but I was 40 and needed to work up to public displays of silliness. Daisy was 30, but looked younger. She was wearing a straw fedora and a little dress with cute stompy boots. She wielded the sword and made huge bubbles the size of our heads. People smiled and children tried to catch them. I took photos and was glad I asked her along for the trip.
I didn't really know Daisy that well. It had taken a year and a lot of hassle to sell my apartment in Singapore – the very last vestige of my pre-divorce life – and I wanted a vacation to celebrate my newfound freedom. The problem with being so unencumbered – husbandless, childless, jobless, now homeless – was that nobody else was. Daisy and I belonged to the same writers' group in Singapore. All I knew about her at that point was that she came from New Zealand, wrote stories about foul-mouthed fauns, and was a happy drunk. When I heard she'd lost her job, I asked if she wanted to come with me to Vietnam. I would cover the cost of the hotel and the cruise, which was only a little more for a double. She'd just have to pay for her flight. A week later, we were on a plane to Hanoi.
There were rose petals scattered across the king-sized bed in the honeymoon suite (I had booked the best room in a modest hotel). We scooped them up and took turns to shower them on each other. You'd expect rose petals to drift softly in a cloud of fragrance but they were actually quite heavy and went plap!plap!plap! when they hit your face. Well now we knew.
Hanoi had a frantic, chaotic energy. I loved the narrow streets with the crowded houses in clashing colours jostling each other out of the way, the peeling shutters and the rusting grilles, the mad criss-cross of cables stretched overhead like webs, the nonchalant incongruity of pompous, potbellied balustrades on tiny balconies holding back racks of overflowing laundry. The city felt intimate, lived-in, like stumbling into a busy family home before anyone had the chance to tidy up and make things presentable.
Post-bubbles, Daisy and I retired to a roadside cafe for some frothy egg coffee. We marvelled at the scooters tooting past, some with entire families balanced on them, others piled dangerously high with bananas, oversized furniture, and once, three large blocks of bricks. The boy serving us tried to ask if we were lesbians.
I outlined my plans and suggestions to her – I never travelled without extensive research – and she went, "Yeah, sure, sounds good." I was a little stumped by the lack of resistance, having spent the last 17 years trotting the globe with someone who was in a constant tantrum with reality. Yes, even crappy hotels in New York/Tokyo/Venice cost that much in peak season. No, for fuck's sake, you cannot fit both the Louvre and Musée D'Orsay in a single day. I was finally free to make decisions; my judgement would be deferred to by a younger, less experienced traveller who was my guest.
I watched a scooter zip by with a toddler on the driver's lap and another child clinging behind. Huh. I guessed I was the boss now. The thought frightened me a little.
During the trip, I did all the "manly" stuff usually handled by the ex, like map-reading, conferring with the concierge, and tipping. I tipped everywhere, probably a little too liberally. I was overcompensating. Once, in Cambodia, my then-husband and I had to walk back to the hotel at midnight along an unlit, unpaved road because the tuk-tuk driver had the audacity to ask for US$0.75. My husband – by then well-compensated by a tech giant – had decided that US$0.50 was the correct price and refused to pay a cent more to a driver from a war-torn country who was trying to make a living ferrying fat, drunk tourists late into the night. Now, I tipped and tipped well.
We went back to Hoan Kiem Lake one evening because someone had told us the lights would be pretty. The lights were indeed pretty, but the carnival we found there was even better. It turned out the roads around the lake were closed to traffic on the weekends, turning the tarmac into a huge bazaar and community space. The lake was heaving the night we went; it felt like all of Hanoi was there. Apart from the usual food stalls, buskers and sponsored performances, there were pockets of different activities along the lake, with gawkers encircling each. One huge circle had older couples ballroom-dancing, another had both adults and kids engaged in some very serious rope-skipping. Farther down, teenagers sang along to a guitar. In the next circle, two groups of youngsters were having an intense dance-off. Here and there, a Jenga-like game was being played – anyone could join in. It was febrile, wholesome fun, and it happened every weekend. The carnival atmosphere made us lightheaded as we weaved through the crowd. A man in an inflatable T-Rex suit ambled past, mobbed by little children who kicked and punched his squishy dinosaur parts and his not-so-squishy human ones. We saw some men dressed as furniture to advertise a store and stopped to take pictures. The coffee table caught our eye and started showing off his moves to the pulsating music. We giggled and danced back. The sideboard saw this and joined in with even bigger moves, but the sofa just stood to one side and sulked the entire time.
From the bustle of Hanoi, we travelled a few hours east for a three-day cruise in Halong Bay. It was the kind of cruise that honeymooning couples went on, so a crew member was stationed on the deck above the ship's entrance to rain rose petals and romance down on the passengers as they boarded.
Halong Bay was magnificent, dreamlike. Thousands of islets with steep, chiselled cliff-faces rose high above jade-green water, the ones in the misty distance fading into rugged, grey silhouettes. The bay was often crowded with cruise ships, but during a lull, an elegant wooden junk glided into my view with its distinctive sails unfurled like a dragon's wings against the lush, fantastical seascape. For a heart-stopping moment, the composition was so perfect that I huffed a laugh, astounded by the beauty and the dumb luck that brought me here to witness it.
"Look!" Daisy was staring in the other direction from our cabin balcony, mouth agape.
Across the water, a ship was lit ablaze by the evening sun.
Bright gold rails on three decks wreathed its blocky golden form. On the bow of the ship, two gigantic gilded dragons were perched on either side like epaulettes, gold teeth bared, gold mane streaming behind gold heads. Fat gold letters spelled out, repeatedly and redundantly, "Golden Cruise", all along its top row of rails. This was dictator-chic, cruise edition.
It was bombastic, tacky, fake, an insult to good tas…
"Donald Trump!" I gasped. "That's the Donald Trump of cruise ships."
"Oh. My. God. You're right."
We contemplated Nautical Trump in awed silence.
"I'd bet my life savings they have gold taps," I whispered. (They do.)
"I wonder if they have gold toilets?" Daisy whispered back. (They don't.)
The ship's bridge – a small cabin on top of its heavyset body – even had a little gold visor that jutted forward, just like Trump's hair.
Daisy and I lifted our phones to snap pictures.
When I was planning the cruise, I had envisioned hours whiled away lounging on the deck, sipping cocktails. The cruise company disagreed. It packed the itinerary with expeditions and activities, sending us out on a smaller boat so that the ship could go back to the mainland to pick up more passengers and increase its occupancy rate. I was an indoor person, but I was saying yes to things, so at Titov Island, while Daisy was relaxing on the beach, I climbed 450 steps to the top, wheezing, sweating and clinging to the hand rails, while neatly-dressed Korean grandmothers advanced steadily past me without glancing back. The view was spectacular, but that was almost beside the point. We were then taken to a beautiful spot for kayaking. Daisy opted to stay on the boat to read, while I put on a life jacket and braced myself for more physical exertion. Most of the other passengers went out in tandem kayaks. I was one of the few going solo. The crew offered to put me in a tandem with another stray, but I declined. I couldn't imagine anything more awkward than being trapped on a floating piece of plastic with a sweaty stranger, condemned to failed synchronised paddling. With the help of a strong arm, I plopped onto my seat, barely adjusting to the unnatural position of having legs stretched out in front of me before someone gave my kayak a push and I had to start paddling.
The green water was completely opaque, fathomless. Above me, the craggy cliff faces of the islets loomed. The farther I paddled away from the boat, the more I became aware of how alone and small I was.
The only other time I had kayaked was with my then-husband in Monterey Bay several years before. I had just moved to California then, and was eager to try local things. I was seated in front, my husband at the back. We were moving through a kelp forest, and I was paddling hard, because I had jokingly asked our guide about sharks in the area and she had replied, "Oh, not here, but last month a great white was spotted a few miles down the coast." A few miles? That's nothing to a great white shark! So I gripped my paddle tightly, pushing the water back left then right, propelled by the mental image of powerful jaws crunching our little kayak like a potato chip. I wasn't fit, and the kelp forest made paddling even harder. Later that night, my arms and palms would cramp so badly I couldn't sleep, but at the time, I was just focused on getting us to shore. At some point, I glanced back at my husband. He was looking down into the kelp forest, eyes wide with wonder, paddle resting on his lap. I knew immediately that he hadn't been paddling for a while. The man who had promised to love and cherish me, who was substantially heavier than me and played sports regularly, was content to let me carry his weight while he indulged his curiosity. I used to love this about him – his curiosity about the world and the way things worked, his child-like wonder. It took me years to understand, and then accept, that he was also a child, with a child's self-absorption.
In my little corner of Halong Bay, all was quiet. The other kayakers had gone ahead, I was the only one bobbing on the water, drifting, not paddling.
I was grieving still, and might grieve for a while yet. It had been a year and a half since I left him, less than a year since the divorce became official. In that time, I had moved back to Singapore, reconnected with old friends, found new ones, started doing the things I loved again. One day, I would have as many new memories as old ones.
"Are you okay?" A crew member from the boat had paddled up to check on me.
"I'm fine," I smiled. "Just taking a break."QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020