Buffalo, Bia, and a Smelly Punch in the Face: Hanoi pt 1

At some point during my short flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi (ok it was immediately after take-off), I decided a cooling beverage was in order, so I cleared my throat pointedly in the direction of a passing attendant and inquired about the possibility of procuring a cold beer. Seconds later I was presented with a can of warm lager and a cup of ice. “Pardon me”, I ventured politely, “but what the fuck is this?” Fortunately by this time she was well down the plane, attending to another poor sucker- possibly providing him with a bag of wine and a spoon- and missed my impertinence. I closed my eyes, downed my beer on the rocks, and accepted that things were different here.

In his fine book, Down Under, Bill Bryson reflects that after flying as far as Australia from the US, he expects to find at least people on camels and swarthy men puffing on hookahs, when in fact he lands to find Sydney comfortable, clean and familiar. Arriving in Vietnam is quite the opposite, and one of the reasons I love visiting SE Asia: it’s really different. Within five minutes of leaving the airport I was passing fields being ploughed by water buffalo, shirtless rickshaw drivers leering toothlessly around their cigarettes, old men riding even older scooters while balancing impossible piles of building materials on their shoulders; all accompanied by my cab driver’s taste in Vietnamese trance. This joint is nothing like home.

It was only the most cursory glance at some travel websites that made me settle on Hanoi, and even less research to choose my neighbourhood, but boy did I do good. Half an hour from the airport, things started to get crowded and noisy; streets narrowing to a single lane, the noise of gunning motorbikes and shouting shopkeepers penetrating the disco daze. We slowed to a crawl as we got deeper into the Old Quarter, the streets thick with scooters and stall owners wheeling trolleys. And right in the middle of this was the Oriental Suites hotel. Brilliant.

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I saw this, but I borrowed this excellent photo from https://restlessabandon.com

Once checked in, I showered and set off for a look around. Pushing the hotel doors open and passing from my hushed air-conditioned haven back out into the outrageous cacophony of the old quarter took some real adjustment. In fact this happened every time I left the hotel- the sudden onslaught of intense humanity was like a punch in the face. The noise, the colours, the smells (fish sauce, gasoline, dog shit), the stifling humidity– it’s quite intimidating. But the only way to do it is confidently, otherwise you’ll be crushed. Probably by a Honda.

I’d been told about a northern Viet tradition called Bia Hoi (the discovery that the word for beer is “bia” immediately doubled my vocabulary), and that I needed to check it out. On street corners throughout the Old Quarter, low plastic stools are set out on the street, and (almost exclusively) men sit around and get plastered on cheap local beer. This stuff is brewed in the morning, delivered in the afternoon, and whatever’s left at closing time is dumped. In the corner of every Bia Hoi joint, an old bloke sits with his thumb over the end of a length of garden hose attached to a keg, and fills glasses all night. As soon as you park yourself, a beer magically appears in front of you, and they keep coming until you say stop, or fall over.

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Old bloke in training. Via http://yolotrautz.blogspot.com

I realised that the spot I’d picked was really just a drinking room: the keg was in the bar across the street. And one young fellow’s job all night was to carry armfuls of beer from one place to the other, weaving and dodging his way through an endless phalanx of kamikaze motorcyclists. It was better than TV. And the price? 40 cents a beer. It’s not the best beer I’ve ever drunk, but it was cold, the weather was stinking hot, and at that moment it was ambrosia. They also serve food at these joints- snacks to help with the drinking, really- but often very good. I gave my usual performance of gesturing helplessly at plates on neighbouring tables, and ended up with some kind of fish cakes which were salty and spicy and bloody delicious. Bia Hoi is a great way to start your evening: a little appetiser and a dozen beers, and you’re all set for a good night.

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Fish cakes, bia, and the ubiquitous fish sauce/lime/chilli combo

 

In Part 2: Ghost turtles and the murder of Glenn Miller

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Marinated Intestines and an Offering to the Gods of Smooth Jazz: Hong Kong

I was supposed to write this weeks ago. I was just back from an amazing time in Asia- 10 days of pop stardom in Hong Kong, followed by three days of gallivanting anonymously around Hanoi- and I thought you needed to read some more of my garbled disorganised travel stories. And then Bourdain went and died, and that really put me on the back foot. I’m not going to gush about him- people have been doing that ever since, and way better than I could. But I will say that the big guy was an important presence in my life- his attitudes to food and travel, the way he experienced other cultures, definitely informed my own approach. And he was never on my mind more than when traveling in Asia. So after two weeks of him peeking over my shoulder, silently judging my restaurant choices, the news of his death was a nasty jolt. I guess it would have been anyway. Fortunately his ideas are not going anywhere, and I’ll continue to heed his words when hitting the road. But enough of that- let’s get bonkers in Honkers.

The nice thing about this trip was that, after a half dozen visits to Hong Kong, I’ve seen a lot already. I didn’t feel that panic to get out and do, see, and eat, everything. I know where to go to get my roast goose fix; I’ve eaten my own weight in dumplings and noodles at the places the foodie websites told me about; I kinda feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the joint. And this time I had the parental unit in town for a few days, so I got to play the expert.

This was my fourth tour of duty with the Bianca Wu band (or the New York Jazz Cats as we’re officially titled- please don’t tell anyone). Bianca is a renowned pop singer in Hong Kong, and likes nothing better than to come to New York, record an album, then fly the whole 9-piece band down for a gig or two. Musically, it’s pretty far from what I usually do, and I can’t say I listen to much Cantonese pop in my downtime, but the band is ace, Bianca and her crew are lovely, and it’s fun to be a part of a big pop show playing to thousands of people.

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This was the biggest show to date, with dancers, light shows, giant video screens, a moving stage– lots of intricate parts to be connected, requiring an enormous amount of precision work done by a large group of very talented people. Fortunately none of this involved me. For real, sometimes it’s sweet being the sax guy. Honk my way through the half of the show with horn parts, rip out an occasional 8-bar smooth jazz solo, then take a seat and watch the dancers. My mates Art and Dan (piano and drums) carry most of the show while I sit back and try to look cool for the cameras. Life just ain’t fair.

IMG_7889Before the first show, the entire outfit converged on the parking lot for a good luck ceremony. This involved our star Bianca and various associated bigwigs performing a complicated series of manoeuvres around some large smouldering incense sticks and sheets of burning paper. Nobody seemed able, or inclined, to explain to me what was going on, but I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention anyway, being occupied as I was in staring lasciviously at the ceremonial centrepiece: a glistening whole suckling pig. I dutifully did my bit- held some burning sticks, said some words I didn’t understand, all the while elbowing my way artfully through a group of people all considerably smaller than me, to be first in line for the blessed pork. A master carver hacked his way deftly through the porcine offering and handed me my dripping pile of ears, skin, and tongue. I scurried over to a corner and scoffed the lot, calm in the knowledge that least I didn’t have to worry about playing well: the fate of my performance was no longer in my own greasy hands, but in those of some Chinese deity. That night’s insipid smooth-jazz licks were positively divine.

At midnight one night after a particularly long, late rehearsal (Mum: haven’t you got it right yet??), Dan and I got back to the hotel starving. The helpful hotel staff suggested that the only things open would be around the train station. I’m not sure about you, but experience tells me food gets worse the closer it gets to public transport. But with little choice, we set off. And sure enough, once we crossed the tracks, we entered a magical make-believe world of kickass 24-hour restaurants. We walked along a winding, bustling street with noodle joints, dumpling spots, roast meat emporia, each more tempting that the last, and all open and overflowing with happy, partying locals. Of course we decided food could wait and headed for a bar.

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The Hong Kongers don’t really go in for bars the way I know them. They like to drink beer in restaurants, or cocktails in uber-fancy dens hidden inside office buildings. So when you find a good old fashioned dive, you make the most of it. This joint was packed with smiley locals, getting hammered and playing indecipherable bar games. Shortly after we took our seats at the bar, an unconscious patron was dragged past us. My kind of place. We chatted with some friendly folk and downed a few aperitifs, before stumbling back out to find the restaurant on which we’d settled. A big bowl of steaming spicy broth, with some noodles, meat, and veggies, slurped down in an over-lit, crowded, humid, family-run joint, with nothing but open doors and giant fans to combat the intense heat, may be one of my favourite experiences ever; and throughout Asia you can replicate it over and over. This place had marinated pig intestines in at least half their menu items, so I figured that was the way to go. Bloody good it was too.

After Cantopopping our way through the last show, most of the band headed back to NY, but Dan and I decided to hang out for a couple of days. I really needed to unwind after the several notes I’d played that week. We stayed in a part of town which I believe is called Dried Seafood Street, or if it’s not, should be. I spent the days gaping at displays of desiccated denizens of the deep, and nights drowning in noodles and beer. It was a brilliant way to tie off another visit to one of my favourite towns, before hopping it over to Vietnam. About which I’ll tell you next time. Righto.