Heart in Healing
It’s not unfamiliar for the tale of a foreign resident in Hanoi to start with some kind of trauma at home. Since the beginning of breakups (even before Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat Pray Love), brokenhearted singles have travelled to distant places to recover and rediscover themselves. One Hanoian on such a path, Susan, shares her experience of what brought her here.
“I came to Vietnam on the heels of this big, consuming relationship. It was one of those where the other person somehow gets inserted really close to your centre, your sense of who you are, where you’re going. Losing that is just terrible.”
After a few months of thinking and therapy, Susan moved halfway across the world.
“I chose Vietnam because it was totally different from the journey I started with my partner. I had this need for some adventure that was resoundingly and uncomplicatedly mine. I wanted to stand on my own.
“I heard myself meeting people during my first weeks in Hanoi and almost didn’t recognize the voice. I’d never been in such a completely new place where I felt that whatever I said was painted onto this otherwise totally blank canvas. It felt like I was meeting myself in this new life.”
While Susan has since had a few different love affairs in Hanoi, with various foods, streets and men, she describes how the city has become more than just a place to nurse old wounds.
“There is this novel relationship with myself, one that I feel like I’m constantly uncovering because there is so much space for that here.”
Hearts in Sync
While Hanoi is a place of delicious independence and solitude for some, it’s a place of equally delicious attachment for others.
Nga and Trevor met in November 2009. Thanks to Vietcupid.org and the gentle prodding of Nga’s colleagues, the two communicated for about a week before their first meeting. Two bun cha dates later, they were hooked.
“We talked for a couple hours,” Trevor recalls. “The big thing that resonated with me was being able to talk about [really difficult things in life]. The conversation flowed easily from one thing to another, nothing forced, no awkward moments, just constant. Since then we haven’t really been apart that much.”
“For the first time in my life, I felt like ‘Oh God, I don’t care what language he is speaking, I can talk with him’. I wanted to share everything I was thinking about and what I don’t know, he knows…. I can learn from him.”
Both knew what they wanted right from the beginning, though, as Nga confidently states, “I fell in love first”.
“We were both on the same page with our direction in life,” Trevor adds. “I couldn’t imagine being without her… As well as loving Nga and being attracted to her, all of a sudden I started feeling extremely comfortable in my surroundings, more informed about what was going on in my community. She opened up a whole new life for me in Vietnam.”
Six months after meeting, Trevor, a “food guy”, cooked an elaborate chicken feast for all their friends and told the room that he’d been happier in the last half a year than ever before, and he wanted a future of the same.
The couple married in May 2011. Now running a successful school, as well as a hotel, they’ve adopted one child and are awaiting the arrival of another. Through respect, honesty and a whole load of love, this pair is happily showing Hanoi how it can work.
And When it Doesn’t
Whether you slip and fall or gleefully plunge into the waters, anyone who has floated in the warm ocean of intimacy knows about the sharks. They are always there, and once bitten, it can take a lot to recover.
Van Anh, 48, has boldly ventured into love a number of times. Her first big relationship was with the father of her two children. They married at 18 and while Van Anh worked to support her family by selling cigarettes on the street, her husband wound up behind bars.
“It was true love at one moment of life, but it changed. We both changed,” she says. The pair was married for eight years before their relationship finally fell apart.
“He cheated on me and didn’t hide it. When he was away, I realised that I was better off without him and wanted to divorce. I spent a long time feeling miserable and down about my situation… I started spending more time with friends, going out to take my mind away from the stress of a failed marriage.”
Van Anh’s next love came rather unexpectedly.
“I didn’t think I could trust again,” she admits. But this man was different, someone whom she says, “changed my world and made me love more than I had before. I thought my life was going to be happy like that forever...”
Alas. Four years later, after a child with him and while pregnant with a second, Van Anh suspected another case of infidelity. After confirming her fears, she attempted to save her marriage by talking to her husband’s girlfriend and trying to warn her off.
“It didn’t work. I realised he loved her in exactly the same way as he had loved me… My heart was broken. I felt sick. I stayed in bed to try to forget about everything. For almost a year.”
Betrayal is brutal. But equally powerful is time. Though there are pains that never fully go away, after a while the rawness does and leaves room for something new — Van Anh is currently dating again, someone quite different from the others; someone 22 years younger than her.
“I always tell him to find someone his own age... So far, he’s stayed but I will never marry again — I always thought strong love would never end, but I’ve realised that nothing is forever.”
When It Is
A couple like Mr. and Mrs. Vinh, who have been married for an incredible 67 years, would suggest some things are forever.
89-year-old Mr. Vinh and his wife, 86, were married in 1945 when both were students. Their families were friends and encouraged the marriage because war was imminent.
“Our love story is made up of a few different periods, interrupted with battles in the war,” Mr. Vinh explains. “It has not always been smooth; we were separated for the first seven years of our marriage. Right after we had our first child, I was sent off by the military and did not see my wife again until an accidental reunion in 1952.”
“For seven years, I had no news of him. I didn’t even know if he was still alive,” says Mrs. Vinh, who goes on to explain the great difficulty of the times, including attempted escapes from French territory, beatings, and the death of her first child.
When they were finally reunited in 1952, Mrs. Vinh remembers how she could hardly recognise her husband, whose face had been ravaged by war and had much less hair. Their reunion was emotional, but it didn’t last long. Only two years later in 1954, they were separated again when Mr. Vinh was sent to Hanoi.
Once over, the devastating circumstances of conflict left Mr. and Mrs. Vinh with a perspective on life and love that continues to feed their present day attitudes. More than most, they realise what is important and what is not.
“We built up our happiness from the hardships we overcame. We know how to appreciate peace now, and live with no stress.”
Though we’d like to believe in some replicable secret to long lasting love, what works for some relationships, will just not work for others. With no formula, sometimes a little risk-taking and new rule-making is in order.
Eric and Christina met at 18 during their first year of university. They knew each other through a larger circle of friends for a year before the drunken/accidental/destined romance. After progressing through several phases of courtship, from the ‘let’s not tell our friends,’ to the moving in, shared travels and eventual settling down, they were married after seven years of dating.
In 2009, the couple moved to Hanoi for Christina’s job. Before leaving, both partners found themselves in the problematic position of being attracted to people outside their marriage.
“For months I was talking to my sisters and other women friends and I just felt like I should be talking to Eric about this. But it’s something that you can’t easily bring up,” says Christina.
“There is something about the expatriate culture that makes you feel a bit outside of the norms. There is more leniency here about what the rules are,” she adds.
Eric continues, “It just opens up your mind. You’ve got all these new experiences and you’re suddenly more open to change and new things”.
So as intelligent human beings who genuinely loved each other, as adults who could communicate, and in a relationship that could handle it, they proceeded down the unpaved roads of open marriage.
“We were going to have to deal with these issues either way, whether we did it alone or together,” Eric reasons.
Rather than divorce or deceit, the couple decided to share the issues with which they both were struggling. Together the two worked out a unique set of agreements for their relationship.
“The agreements were focused on real, serious honesty that didn’t exist before,” Eric shares.
“What an open marriage actually looks like depends on your needs; each person in the relationship will have different needs, different desires, different boundaries, different tolerances. It was a process of sorting out and negotiating those things. We’re lucky that we have a relationship where we trust each other enough and are compatible enough to make something like this work. And it’s still an experiment.”
From solitary and matrimonial bliss, to the blisters of loss and the well-earned scars of survival, Hanoi is home to love of all kinds. Happy Valentine’s Day.