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