The early morning is my favorite time of day in Hanoi. I wake to the swoop, swoooop sound of long palm brooms sweeping the sidewalk outside of my apartment. I see my neighbor fishing from a single board laid out into the lake. A woman rolls a large cart of vegetables down the road, hawking the morning’s bounty in song-like cries. Out on the main road, bicycles stacked high with fresh flowers for the market move alongside the morning traffic, the vibrant hues of sunflowers and lilies brightening the grey of the asphalt and concrete.

Like many places in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is full of contradictions. Life in Hanoi is at once exhilaratingly fast and painfully slow; it is beautiful and degraded; full of joy and memories of trauma. The beauty of the city is often shrouded in a grey smog. Older buildings are suddenly demolished into piles of twisted rebar and concrete, only to be built up again twenty-fold. Summer swimming holes of yesteryear are now foul-smelling pools draining the city’s streets. As I observe and reflect, I am in a constant state of awe.

My routine by now has become so normal that I forget how abnormal it felt at first. I take my motorbike around town—something I thought I would never do—and am now comfortable with the flow of left hand turns into oncoming traffic. I recognize the fruits sold on the sidewalks and am no longer shocked by pigs’ heads being chopped and sold along the alleys. I order food and make simple small talk in Vietnamese. I sit on tiny plastic stools (okay—that part is still uncomfortable for my western frame), drinking light Hanoi beer, eating boiled peanuts and throwing the shells into the existing pile already under the table.

“Nước” in Vietnamese means both water and country, which intrigues me as someone who feels incredibly tied to the mountain streams, rivers, and lakes that shape the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. I have had the incredible fortune this year to not only learn about the water in Vietnam, but also the surrounding countries throughout Asia. I am involved in projects in Vietnam, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, learning about national and regional water resources management planning, climate change adaptation policies, and infrastructure resilience. I get to use my technical engineering and policy background, while scampering up the steep learning curve of international development as it is currently playing out in Asia.

I continue to be fascinated by this incredible place and all that it has to offer: the unique landscapes, the many combinations of the five essential flavors, the tones of the language, and the warm smiles and kindness of the people I’ve met. Every day I find something new, another lens through which to see and gain a little more understanding of this city and country; a little more understanding of nước as place and country and water. As Vietnamese poet Nhã Thuyên said, “we never think of nation as some abstract idea when it comes to nước: we are in the same nước, our people: người trong một nước. Vietnam is a nước for people, as a living space, to love, to protect inside, as in a mother’s womb, not simply a nation or an institutional name.”

by Kelsey Harpham on February 17, 2019