as told by Diane Lee
The air is warm, moist, heavy. It has that distinct Asian smell: laden with spice and sweat and animals. Cigarette smoke drifts towards me in a blue-gray, heady haze; the men from whom it emanates are talking loudly, animatedly. It sounds like arguing, but it’s not because there is much laughter and back slapping. I can’t understand a word, but I’m I not bothered. I like being removed from the goings on—uninvolved and watchful—because I have work to do. And observation is a fundamental skill for a writer. I like to hone it at every opportunity, absorbing the detail.
I am in a little bar in the Old Quarter of Ha Noi, Vietnam, sipping pale beer from a long, frosty glass and waiting for my laptop to fire up. I’m in the front: windows and doors are wide open, allowing in the dust and noise and smells from the street. Outside, motor cycles whizz past laden with all manner of goods: chickens in baskets, large boxes, bags of rice, often entire families. Overhead, the fan is churning warm air, the white noise almost drowning out the tinny sound of eighties disco beats being forced from loudspeakers hanging precariously from the ceiling.
I’ve been in Vietnam a little over a month. I started in the south, in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as the locals still refer to it. I’ve been travelling up by train, savouring the beautiful, rugged landscape and welcoming my interactions with the locals, who are curious and friendly. This is my second visit to this wonderful country; the first was ten years ago when I first started travelling internationally. On my first trip, Vietnam captured my heart and held it tight like a mouse in a trap. The people, the food, the architecture, the landscape, the transport: all contributed to an urge—an almost a primal need—for greater immersion. Two weeks was not enough and I knew I wasn’t finished with Vietnam.
So, ten years later, I’m back. But it’s on my terms.
No longer am I a slave to a soul-destroying time-table that requires me to accumulate and apply for leave. I have no job. I ditched that a few years ago. I do, however, have an income and work. And it’s plentiful work that I create for myself. I write and publish. Stories, novels, articles, non-fiction pieces. The words fall out of my brain, eagerly tripping over themselves to seen and heard. They are words that articulate and vocalise my views; words that are tempered by my experiences. I am location independent. I travel where I want and for how long I want. I have the means to do so, and I am free from the drudgery of presenting at a job.
Being jobless didn’t just happen. It was a slow realisation that having a job wasn’t for me, building to a crescendo of dissatisfacion. I didn’t measure my success by how far I climbed the corporate ladder. And the truth is: the corporate world barely tolerated me; it kicked up its collective heels and popped the champagne cork and danced the rumba when I decided to call it quits. I was too Chomsky for their liking: I was an inconvenient truth who pointed my finger squarely at management and demanded the one thing they railed against: accountability. I questioned everything, and it was a quality that was strongly discouraged.
My quest for an alternative way of working was a slow burn at first. I had published my books and articles and they’d barely caused a ripple. But then, slowly, surely, I found my tribe. My tribe were people who liked their writing raw and authentic and honest; they spurned the propaganda of positive psychology that had seeped into everyday discourse; they wanted to acknowledge their reality in order to improve it, to feel emotion rather than distance themselves from it. They liked their stories erring on the side of a slightly unhappy rather than superficially upbeat. These people were my tribe and they bought my words like lovers bought flowers and chocolates and wine on Valentine’s Day. It is my tribe that has allowed me to live an emancipated life. I thank them with my heart and soul, my very being.
So I sit in that little bar in the Old Quarter of Ha Noi, with its flurry of activity and noise, and acknowledge that while I am a welcome intruder in Vietnam, I am also a quintessential part of its fabric. It’s people like me, telling our tales of nomadic life in exotic and ordinary lands alike that encourages the search for something more in others, disappointed with the life that’s been created for them by the western definition of success. Western culture, with its miserable excess and mind-numbing consumerism and its insatiable appetite for violence and war. Where illness permeates and seeps and settles unchecked in bodies maimed by sugar an processed food. Where people wonder what they’ve done with their lives that has mattered. Where people struggle to belong in a never-ending quest for happiness that is fuelled by insecurity and aspiration and debt.
I feel blessed that I have escaped this fate: and that despite the nomadic nature of my life, I feel more of a sense of community and connectedness than I ever have.
And I celebrate the fact that home, for me, is now all over the world.