When I first stopped by Cong Caphe one morning before work, I thought I had stumbled on one of Hanoi’ s special places. When later I discovered that this store next to Truc Bach Lake is one of six Cong Caphe’s, the hipster in me was more than a little disappointed. However, once my inner hipster was subdued, I realized that Caphe Cong is still a pretty great little cafe and I tend to swing by every day before work for a Nau Da, Vietnamese style iced coffee with condensed milk.
The interior design of Cong Caphe is communist themed and uses many trinkets, photos, and propaganda material from the Vietnam-American War era. The furniture is old, rickety, and unembellished, which lends to the quaint atmosphere of the place. Additionally, and this is a big one for me, the music played at the Truc Bach store, while not always necessarily good, is at least always inspired, which is a great relief from six years of incessant K-pop.
But, perhaps most important is the menu. Cong Caphe offers several unique drinks from traditional Vietnamese coffees, to fruit juices and smoothies, and many other drink combinations. Among my favorites is the Bac Xiu, which is coffee with coconut and condensed milk. It’s truly a an awesome thing.
I’m not sure exactly where the other Cong Caphe stores are (there is one somewhere in the Old Quarter), but if you’re making a trip through Hanoi, I highly advise you to find one. It’s a stop you won’t regret.
So it’s been a month and couple days since I arrived. It wasn’t planned or expected. It just sort of occurred. And now I’m here and I love it. It happened like this:
One night in Dublin I was having trouble sleeping so I started wasting time on the internet. I ended up on Craigslist looking at job advertisements in Vietnam but not planning to apply for any. And then I saw a position advertising “above industry pay” for an experienced SAT teacher. SAT is my forte, so I sent my resume, not expecting to take a job, believing “above industry pay” would be quite below the above industry pay I was making in Korea. The company got in touch with me to schedule a Skype interview, but I was in transit. And then for several days I didn’t hear back from them and ended up at my family’s summer cottage near the Canadian border with Maine where we had no internet service. So when the company got in touch with me again, I was a week late in replying, so I assumed the opportunity was missed when another several days passed before I heard back again. Oh well. I didn’t expect to take the job anyway. But then we finally interviewed and the “above industry pay” was well above my Korean above industry pay as well. I told them I’d think about it, but I didn’t really need to. My mind was made up. Money talks, after all.
That night I sent a message to my Mrs. with whom I had split for a few months with no expectation or hope to reconcile. I told her I was taking a job in Hanoi and told her to come. Her response was waiting for me when I woke up in the morning. It said, “okay.” That was that. And five days later I was in Hanoi and putting down a deposit on an apartment located on an “island” of sorts on West Lake.
The job has been excellent. The monthly salary is stupid, plus I earn bonuses based on student achievement, an extra $300 in my first month. Pimp. My apartment is beautiful and every morning when I walk out of my bedroom I am greeted by a gorgeous view of the lake from my veranda. And twice a week a maid comes to clean the apartment and do my laundry. When I come home on those days I feel like life is nearly perfect and I smile and laugh about it and then drink a beer or coffee outside and count my blessings.
I haven’t done anything of note here yet in terms of sight seeing or food tasting. I’m waiting for my Mrs. to arrive in October so we can experience all the newness together. But I have enjoyed some drinks at a bar next to my house that makes a plate of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls for $3 and serves draft beer for $1.50. Sitting outside next to the lake under lights hung from trees, I realize that if there is no such thing as God’s providence, then fate or coincidence or whatever, has been incredibly and unfairly gracious to me in recent years.
And all of this makes me incredibly happy, especially considering that when I arrived I had a message waiting from my parents saying the the U.S. State Department and called to inform me that I messed up the paperwork for FBI background check, so I wouldn’t have been able to get my visa to return to Korea anyway. But the best thing of all is that my Mrs. will arrive in five weeks and we’ve decided to put the past several months of difficulties behind us. We’ve chosen five years of love over the past months of separation. I think there is nothing more I could ask for. Life is good and I am lucky.
So I’m in Maine now, my home state, a place I’ve only visited four times in the past ten years. I’ve been here about ten days now and it’s been emotional. It’s strange returning “home” after so much time away. It has changed some, but just cosmetically. It remains the same way I remember it. The people are charmingly simple and kind, though not necessarily friendly. Family is family. We might not be overly close any more, but the emotions that come with seeing them are pretty simple and expected: good and comforting to see mom and dad; nostalgic and reminiscent to see grandparents; emotional seeing my sister and nephew again.
Last night I was talking to my parents about the future, about my plans for fall, which apparently will now involve moving to Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s clear talking to them that they wish for me to move back, if not to Maine specifically, at least to the U.S. where I’d be more present. And for the first time I said the words I had never wanted to say to family: I don’t want to live in the U.S. They were hard words to say, but I’ve finally said them and now I’m emotionally preparing to leave already.
It’s often said home is where the heart is, but I think such a statement is far too reductively simplified. Maine feels like home in certain ways and my heart is here. It is with family and the familiarity of the regional culture and the endless pine forests and hundreds of rivers and lakes and the coast. But Maine isn’t home; my life isn’t here. And then there is Korea. My life is in Korea and my heart is with everything it has taught me over the past six years and all the personal growth I’ve undergone there. It is the place I became a man. But I don’t want to go back. So where is home then?
Home isn’t always a simple thing. The heart is often torn and frayed and splayed in too many directions for home to simply be where the heart is. And now as I prepare to head back to Korea in a few weeks for just enough time to pack up all my stuff and move it to Hanoi, I am forced to wonder what exactly everything means. Where is home? Where is my heart? To whom do I belong and to whom am I obligated?
People often say that you can never go home again, which might be true, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to even find it again once it’s lost. Regardless of the answers or non-answers to such questions, I’m looking forward to Hanoi. I like change and I like new opportunities. If it’s not home that’s fine with me. I’m currently writing this at Cafe Nomad in Norway, Maine, a fitting place to write for a semi-nomad like myself.
One thing about Maine that must be noted, boasted about, and enjoyed is lobster. Last week for dinner we bought four 1.5 pound lobsters for only $36 and steamed them at home for dinner. Most places in the world charge exorbitant prices for lobster, but in Maine the price is, if I can create a new word, “in-orbitant.” Delicious.
Dublin Castle isn’t exactly a castle in the sense that we typically think of the word. In fact, it is more a collection of 18th century administrative buildings. But, regardless of its traditional castle-hood or lack there of, it is quite a lovely spot to visit off Dame Street in Dublin.
Dublin is also home to some great churches, including these beauties (in order) Christ Church Cathedral, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint John The Baptist, and Saint Augustine Church.