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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Opium, noodles, and a near execution: Bangkok

As we waited at the baggage carousel, I could feel the panic rising. My pulse was racing, and no amount of delicate dabbing could prevent the beads of sweat forming on my brow. I burped quietly: cabbage. I looked around furtively, but no one was paying me any attention. Even more furtively: still nothing. Maybe we’d be ok. Maybe the rumours were exaggerated. Maybe Thai customs wouldn’t find the illicit drugs I definitely wasn’t carrying and sentence me to an horrific death. I tried to keep my hands steady as I gripped my bags, but they were coated in sweat, presumably the baggage handlers’. Keeping my eyes down, I headed for the green “nothing to declare” line. My breathing was shallow and ragged; my mind was racing out of control; my hair was simply a disaster. If they noticed the panic radiating out of every pore, I knew I was a goner. But wait- there was nobody there. Not one customs officer. Not one sniffer dog. Maybe they were waiting beyond the exit doors. Not there either. Was it possible? Had I made it? Had I just passed through the most famously strict, death-penalising, border crossing in the world, carrying absolutely nothing illegal, nothing even remotely frowned-upon, without being stopped? I exhaled deeply (cabbage again). I’d made it to Bangkok.

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Brotherly love

For the last two legs of the tour, I was traveling with my younger brother- let’s call him Tim. After all, our parents did. Our last sibling adventure had been seven years previous, when we’d whole-heartedly tolerated each other through Spain and Morocco, and this felt like a much-anticipated sequel. Like Garfield 2. Tim’s a top-shelf travel buddy, with a keen eye for food, and an ear for adventure. And he’d found us a cracking hotel.

Not a hotel at all, it was a two-storey apartment above a Spanish bar in Chinatown; a traditional “shop house”, where the original shopkeeper would have lived. Our hostess Pupe and her Spanish husband Victor had discovered the place derelict for twenty years, and restored it in original style, and it was just amazing. Bare plank walls and floors, winding, almost vertical flights of stairs, sliding wooden doors, glassless windows for airflow- when we walked in it felt like stepping back in time. The only thing missing was a local girl to prepare my opium pipe. And she showed up later (apparently she’d been caught in traffic- whatever, that’s points off on Trip Advisor). And a bar downstairs which was almost never open, and which we were asked to “keep an eye on”. What more could you want.

The neighbourhood too, was just what the doctor ordered- no modern hotel chains, no western restaurants, very few tourists. We investigated other parts of town, but the best times were spent wandering Chinatown’s chaotic noisy dirty streets, smoke-belching scooters missing us by inches, two rats for every half-tailed cat, the intense heat and humidity sticking the shirts to our backs. And the incredible food absolutely everywhere. Day and night, on every corner, down every alley, a family with a rusted metal cart whipping up curry or noodles with every animal part imaginable, all served with bunches of fresh herbs and chilies to burn your face off. We’d sit on low plastic stools on the sidewalk and inhale this stuff, alternating it with slugs from giant bottles of dirt-cheap local beer, gasping and sweating from the heat and sheer intensity of flavour. It was a stimulus overload, the only respite coming when we’d retreat to our dark and mercifully air-conditioned rooms for a nap.

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Curry in a hurry

Nights were a gas too, particularly the one coinciding with young Tim’s birthday. We started with cocktails by a canal, progressed to delicious laneway food (pork maw anyone?), several hazy hours in a blues club, (where, as I remember it, the band was terrific), then a second dinner of unidentifiable roadside deliciousness. I forgot to buy Tim a birthday present, but let’s not bring that up- I don’t think either of us remembers…

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Poisoning young minds

As I was technically in town to work, next day I hied out to the university for a clinic with some eager and talented youngsters and then a gig at the very cool Black Amber Social Club. The occasion was the 5th anniversary of Sweets- a record label that also presents occasional shows by visiting musicians. The rhythm section I was assigned performed manfully, and the crowd were polite yet responsive. I don’t get the feeling Thais have heard too much jazz, but they do like a good time, and they got right into it.

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At Black Amber Social Club

Next day we said ta ta to Pupe and left for the airport before the noodle shops opened, much to Tim’s chagrin. Bangkok is a hell of a town and I reckon both of us will be back for another dip in the near distant future. Next stop: Singapore!