One Sunday morning in June last year, Nathan and I ate breakfast at Restaurant Five on Hang Be street. That restaurant went into a steep and alarming downhill decline before abruptly shutting down, but this breakfast was before then. I ate the stuffed French toast, which was like a French toast sandwich with fresh fruit inside, and crusted with slivered almonds. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
After breakfast, we ordered coffees. It would have been Nathan’s second double espresso of the morning, and I would have had a long black. I had only started drinking coffee again when we arrived in Vietnam. The local speciality of yoghurt coffee was the gateway drug which sucked me in, and soon I was drinking two or three Vietnamese coffees a day. This was no doubt one of the reasons I gained about six kilograms in the first six months here. Who knew that condensed milk was so fattening? Or maybe it was all the stuffed French toast.
As we drank our coffees, we pored over the several pages of notepaper we’d been using to map out our next step after leaving Hanoi, which we were due to do in three months’ time. I still have those pages. They contain some pretty random ideas, like hiking our way across France, or finding corporate jobs in London, or seeing how long our savings lasted us on a tropical island somewhere. Staying in Hanoi definitely wasn’t on the list. We were ready to move on.
At about the point in the discussion where we seemed set on moving to Bangkok, even though it was on fire at that time, Nathan received a phone call out of the blue from the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, telling him that the job he’d applied for, many months previously, had come good.
Before we’d even finished our coffees, the decision had been made: we’d be staying in Hanoi for another two years.
I don’t regret that decision in the slightest. In fact, it was the best decision we ever made. Nathan found a new career, which he really enjoys, and started a degree by distance education. I landed the luxurious opportunity of spending my time writing. We moved to a lovely neighbourhood, met some lifelong friends, and changed our whole outlook from one of “just passing through” Hanoi and “just taking a year out”, to considering ourselves proper residents of this town, and proper expatriates too.
Nathan and I have now been a couple in Hanoi longer than we were in Sydney. This is where the majority of our personal history has played out. And although I can’t consciously identify how, being here must have shaped and defined our relationship.
I have been thinking a lot about that momentous cup of coffee recently, because it’s time for us to scrawl out some “what next?” plans on notepaper again. If I have learnt anything from the experience, it’s that while there’s value in decision-making models, and bullet point lists of pros and cons, it’s also okay to just let the cards fall where they may.
This is pretty hard for me to accept. I take a while to get used to ideas. I remember my family once deciding to go on a completely unplanned, impromptu holiday when I was about seven. My reaction was to burst into tears, for no reason that I could understand at the time. The seven year-old in me is really struggling at the moment with not having a visual image of where I’ll be this time next year, and compulsively weighing up all the options.
So I’m running with this line: if you know how to make yourself happy, then you can make yourself happy, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
That phone call which interrupted our coffee didn’t really change the course of our lives, or come to define our relationship. If we had spent the last two years hiking through the provencal countryside, living it up in London, or lying under a palm tree, we would be just as happy as we are now.