steady, now

drip

At first

the faucet has a spartan – yet not beyond notice – leak.

At first.

drip

The reports begin

here

and there

News outlets making a couple extra bucks with a couple extra baits.

drip

Wuhan has shut things down. People in China can’t leave their homes.

drip

First case in Korea. First case in Iran. In Italy. In Japan.

drip drip drip drip

At some point, thanks to the wonders of biology, statistics, and human nature

Something changes.

The drip steadies

flushes

And then, a torrent

I keep my distance from the group of workers not keeping theirs, clustered nearby.

They’re engaged in a feverish conversation

I overhear

Test kit

And

Only people who have had the test.

And I find myself wondering about the impact of the first global pandemic in, well, a while.

The trickles down, the threads connected, the intricate links between industries. Between lives.

The impact on one of us.

The impact on all.

Sometimes a drip becomes a wave

We see it. We stand firm.

We wait. Because we have no choice, really

But to stand, and simply,

hold our breath

cubed

The ramen shop is perfect for these times

It’s late, or early, depending on how you look at it. And we need noodles. We step off the street and pass through a deserted lobby. A flight of red stairs and a quick bend, and we’re passing under the hanging red fabric marking the entrance.

Irrashaimasse!

The staff are heard, but not seen.

We find ourselves in a room, not more than 500 square feet. What jumps out immediately is the absence of tables. And people.

Instead, straight out of a credit union or DMV. A series of small cubicles, each wide enough for one customer, partitioned by thick wood barriers, perfectly designed for social distance. Each cube backed against a hanging curtain of bamboo, separating customer from server.

We sit at two adjacent slots. For a moment we’re not sure what to do. That’s when the curtain slides up and a faceless arm attached to a faceless torso slides over a small slip of paper.

And that’s when the fun begins.

Order sheet

Circle your preference

Dashi (seasoning stock): light, medium, strong

Richness: none, light, medium, rich, extra rich

Garlic: none, drop, medium, half clove, 1 clove

Green Onion: without, with

Original Spicy Red Sauce: none, mild, medium, spicy, 3~10x

Noodle texture: extra firm, firm, medium, soft, extra soft

There is nothing on this sheet that is not my preference.

So I stick with the chef’s recommendations, but ramp up the garlic and spice.

For immunity, natch.

I complete the order, present it to the faceless torso.

He returns minutes later. The steam bounces, Original Spicy Red Sauce lays in wait atop a bed of medium-firm noodles, green onions floating at the ready.

I pause. Mix. Inhale.

And bring the first taste of noodles to my lips.

Undaunted

the alley is impossible

Impossibly narrow, impossibly long, and impossibly home, to hundreds.

Elephant is undaunted.

His used new bike has opened all options

It offers the impossible

Shows him what could be

He pauses, sizing up, weighing possibility

Are you sure you want to go that way? It’s pretty tight

He doesn’t respond, just nods, tilts his head slightly

And hits the pedal

all i’ve got today

It’s an exhausting decision. And its been on our minds all week.

Should we stay or should we go

The warnings from the embassy pile up, each new notice layering on top, and we’re the princesses on a pea, shifting and uncomfortable

In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.

Our life here is rich, comfortable, and the Vietnamese response has been steadfast. But we still balance a multitude of factors, not least of which is mental strain, that clash.

Should we stay or should we go

But as we ponder, I pause and remember. And I am grateful.

At least we, unlike many, have the choice.

buzzard

The echo catches me as I approach the lake

At first, I’m not sure where it’s coming from or what it might be.

A massive hive of ornery bees

A power drill prepped for duty

A downed power line

A drone, preparing to buzz the tower

All seem unrealistic, or at least misguided

When I round the bend and the buzz assaults my ears, this time up close.

I see a small group of spectators leaning against the rail, looking down at the water. I follow their gaze, and finally spot the source.

It’s a toy.

Specifically, a toy boat. running at the speed of sound. Unleashing a wake five times its size. Blowing by the hushed watchers, it spins, dips, dives along the calm waters of Tay Ho. Putting on a show, and making a fuss, on a day when surely any distraction is welcomed.

The lake is quiet today, few people are about

But because this is Hanoi, there’s still a buzz.

canned

Four perfect, round, stainless, large silver cylinders

invite wonder

Hollow cans offer a peek through, if you find the proper angle. Randomly scattered against a rapidly oxidizing fence, snaking the perimeter of the lake, they grab my eye, here and there.

I notice one can.

Then, meters later, another.

And then, a few paces forward, yet another.

I am left to consider

What

and

Why

On the fourth can we pass I look closer, and note the silky, near-transparent line snaking from can lip into murky waters, and realize

they’re fishing

It’s then that I see the two fishermen.

One slides off his hat and tweaks his head. He’s spotted a sudden movement back down the walk. He barks orders at the other, who sprints toward one of the cans. He arrives quickly, takes his net down from an adjacent tree, and reaches into the water.

A couple small splashes, then a couple bigger ones. He massages, winds, and eventually pulls out a second green net that is at once a maelstrom of violent flipping and scaly goodness.

It’s a good haul

Of four perfect, round, stainless, large silver cylinders

Hai

We don’t push too hard

Making our way around the 17k loop, endless coffee shops, conical hatted flower sellers, the mist-shrouded lake always on our right

On a clear day, we can see straight across. Today, the mist encompasses all. But, even today,

there is so much to see here

We pause at the ornate, timeless temple. Wooden carved archways invite travelers and monks alike. But today, this month, it is shuttered.

We’re on the lookout for a ride, on this ride, for Rhino. It’s been too long and a teenager needs a bike.

I’ll never buy one new, partly out of concern for the planet, partly for the pocketbook.

We pass a couple tiny bike shops and pop in. My buddy knows a bit about bikes, he spent a few weeks on the lookout before he grabbed his. He knows where to stop.

The first features what appear to be second-hand bikes. Neatly organized, hanging grapes on a vine. A workstation with tools, arrayed in kind. Clean. In retrospect probably too clean.

Do you have used bikes?

He’s not particularly friendly. A curt nod, he motions and grunts, towel in hand, to the back of the store. A light green ten speed catches my eye.

Looks like a good fit

I think, until I see the price and do some mental math.

That can’t be right for a used bike

I look again at the tag, double check my thinking on my phone

and realize I have completely misjudged this shop.

We bid goodbye to curt, it’s not the shop for me.

Nice bikes though

Continue the loop. Endless bends. Today, with its damp breeze and mist on the wind, is perfect for a spin. By my count we pass five more shops. Some fitted for the aspiring peloton, others more my speed.

Like Mr. Hai’s shop.

A modest, tiny opening in the endless wall of brick. Two men idly smoking, a motley collection of used bikes tightly wound in front. The shop is messy, but purposefully so. One of the men has a wire brush and is diligently cleaning a cog and a derailleur.

He knows his stuff, or at the least, cares enough to do his work well.

We wheel our bikes around and step off to inspect.

There are a couple possibilities – a black 5-speed, single cog in front catches my eye.

Bao nhieu?

4 million

Now, he’s speaking my language.

I call home, ask J to put Rhino in a cab, send him my way.

And prep him that we’ve found his ride home.

no

The stout man swaggers down the impossibly narrow lane

Black hair, cropped short, white mask, tied tight.

He is unconcerned

With me, with the stray dog meandering by, with a task that demands little – but receives all – of his attention. An indifference to anything else. With precise intent, he drops the blue plastic bag lined with food scraps, containers, kleenex, just outside what must be his gate.

He pauses, arches his back just so, and his gaze reaches and lingers, just long enough, at the sky, as if to say

Not today

A trio of octogenarians. Abreast down the lane, framed neatly by the hanging ivy, green and blazing overhead. A slight limp slows the first, her left leg bending awkwardly. But they keep a steady pace. They are kin, somehow. Self-assured and resolute in their belief, together

Not today

A peek in the rearview. A wisp of a man emerges from a slotted metal gate. Tank top, short shorts. His striking eyebrows invite scrutiny. But he’s upstaged by his dogs. A tiny one, and then, somehow, a tinier one. Pugs, I think, waddling, just as one would expect tiny pugs to waddle down an impossible alley. He whistles after them as they trot ahead, purposeful ducklings, tracking mama. And, like their owner, they too, know what’s what

Not today

This city, like many in the world, has drawn in, backed off. Shuttered. Shut down.

But life, as it will, goes on.

Hanoi and its people know crisis. They’ve beaten back marauders, from near, and from far, for hundreds of years. Withstood them all. Replete, resplendent, resolute.

Not today

They said.

And here, yet again, now, an adversary knocks. A bully, here to cajole, to maraud, to threaten. And possibly to invade.

And here, yet again, now, these resilient and remarkable humans assert, with calm, assured confidence

Not today

gone quiet

The faded pink horse and yellow butterfly are deserted

Suspended just above the ground on the rusty swing set, they creak with promise in the breeze

But not a kid in sight

We take a chance that the narrow pathway is a short cut, not a dead end. And, this time, we are lucky. We emerge into Bia Hoi, an outdoor beer garden both destined and designed to be packed with revelers on a typical lazy Sunday

But today is not typical

there is no soul in sight

Apart from the dark-haired, willowy gentleman, bravely sitting watch.

We glide by on our bicycles, pretending this is normal, as he stares at his phone.

Xin chao

We greet him, to no response.

Xin chao

We try again.

Ah! Xin chao! Xin chao!

He snaps out of his reverie.

Closed today?

Closed! Closed!

He responds with a shrug and a smile.

In a neighborhood typically jammed with people decked in Sunday best and casual worst, bouncing between market stalls, the market stalls.

And he is the only one we see.

Often when a combat submarine is attempting to evade enemy radar, it goes quiet. To avoid detection, it shuts down non-essential systems and operates with as little sound as possible. To allies, tracking the sub via radar, this sudden silence presents as two options:

One. The sub has gone quiet

Trust the captain

Two. The sub, has gone

Davy Jones’ locker calling

As we pedal gently, I consider which of these options this sleepy corner presents to us today. Has the neighborhood simply gone quiet

Or has it simply gone

And our casual jaunt by bicycle has taken a sudden turn

to dystopia

After Burner

I slide out of the steady stream of motorbikes and ease my scooter onto the tiled sidewalk. I halt, and peek.

The hotel where we landed so gently months ago on the left. The low plastic chairs, stainless tables, steaming giant metal pot where we had our first true pho, dead ahead.

This is a bustling street. Restaurants, shops, impossible alleyways all beckon. Kerfuffle, sound, fury.

I’m taking it all in, when I spot the slender dark-haired woman, with fire in her hand.

She’s gently pinching a white piece of lined paper, handwritten notes in blue ink defining the red lines. At first I can’t tell why it holds my gaze, but then I see.

A whisk of flame, nibbling the corner, dancing, threatening to gasp and whimper away

but a breeze brings the fuel it needs.

The paper catches and, with a satisfied look, she leaves it on the concrete to burn.

As the tiny wisps of smoke climb across the street,

I have questions.

Is this an attempt to lure lucky spirits?

Meant to whisk away bad omens?

A note from a lover, spurned?

Soon-to-be deleted evidence of wrongdoing?

Her way of recycling?

This seems like the best spot for this

she must be thinking.

Unflappable, unfazed, she retreats down the stairwell into her nail salon below the striking blue sign

SPA

Leaving only the paper and me, this tiny spectacle. I can only stare as the flame builds then fades in a matter of seconds.

Soon, only ash, the fire out.

I’m still so puzzled.

And then, she returns, this time with a broom. She coaxes the ashes into her pan and retreats yet again.

And, now,

There is a charcoal stain on the sidewalk

and on my brain.