by Michael Barrett

Published in Issue No. 198 ~ November, 2013

Early morning in Hanoi, Vietnam, the silence was better than I dared imagine, and the Old Quarter belonged to me. The previous night, full of celebrations for the Tet New Year, had finally brought the simmering, motorized madness to the boil, and now at last, all was exhausted. Save for ghosts and dogs the Old Quarter was empty. Tip-toeing through the vacant streets, it was peaceful, surreal; like I’d stepped back in time, or entered an abandoned film-set. I felt unable to experience it, and was locked still in the middle of Hang Bac Street, when, from out a side alley, a pale grey shape filled with color and form as it approached from the mist. It was an elderly Vietnamese lady, one of the straight-backed street sellers. She wore simple clothes and the traditional conical hat on her head. Her slim shoulders supported an aching, supple rod, with both ends weighted down by baskets holding bread and sweet smelling fruit. She stopped before me. A flame-tipped roll-up hung from her mouth. She seemed ancient. This could be a hundred years ago, I thought. I’d bought fruit from her before, I was sure, but now, in the stillness, I studied her more closely. Her face, tanned and creased like an unrolled cigar, made me guess at her story. How old is she? What tales does she have? How many times has she witnessed this New Year’s scene? Absence of the usual chaos was making me reflective, still, as her roll-up flickered, I realized her story was not mine to know; it was out of my grasp, spiraling into the sky with the thin lines from her smoke. Then I noticed her feet, tiny and cased in scuffed black canvas, and I instantly became self-conscious, and wondered what she thought of me. What she thought of my shiny, windproof, breathable rain-jacket? The Velcro strapped backpack resting easy on my shoulders? The sturdy, yet lightweight, waterproof shoes on my feet? And the inane grin on my face? I was an over kitted-out, visa-stamped, vaccine-jabbed, modern day traveler – designed for everywhere, fitting in nowhere. Only years from being freeze-dried, vacuum-packed and FedEx’d around the world, on a brand new whistle-stop, see-all-in-one-go-cheap-seat-tour. I felt inadequate – though I silently marveled at my vision of the future. The lady flashed a near toothless smile; she‘d seen my vision too. She smiled again motioning to the baskets. Oh yeah, the food. I purchased bread and pineapple pieces. Nodding sagely, she turned nameless, and shuffled off down the street – her street. Small, elegant, and strong; off to coax and magic her sleeping Old Quarter back to life. A New Year had begun, and it demanded our attention.

Later that day, when the manic parade had returned to the streets and the tide of madness engulfed all once more, I sat at the back of a local bar, closed my eyes, and tried to remember. But try as I might, I couldn’t recall the silence.

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Michael Barrett was born in North West England. He lived in Galway, Ireland for ten years, where he worked in the book-trade. He is currently living in China teaching English. In the past he has taught English in Cambodia and Vietnam.