Out and About in Hanoi

Johannesburg, South Africa – While the trips and the cultural experiences were all great, my roommates and I still found many opportunities to get out of the house and experience Hanoi in our little way. Between the restaurants, bars, markets, and other similar venues and events, we had plenty of potions to choose from and plenty of shenanigans to get into.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Several of us were excited about going to a youth street festival and seeing a different side of Hanoi and Vietnamese culture. There were supposed to be bands, break dancing, skate boarding, and other youth centered events. However, by the time we got there the festival was winding down, and there were only a bunch of old guys playing badminton, some young hipsters playing a combination badminton/hacky sack game, while the skateboarders were still skateboarding. There was a band warming up that sounded promising until the lead singer opened his mouth and started belting out death metal. For some reason, they and the band after them only had 15 minutes to perform, yet they treated the experience like a sound check. So, we heard the first 45 seconds of one song from each band about 10 times in their 15 minute block. By the time the third band was setting up, we were out of there.
  • Like most Asian countries, karaoke is kind of a big deal in Vietnam. We went for a volunteer in another house’s last night and had quite the interesting experience:
    • We had our own room, with everyone sitting on a U-shaped couch and a TV flashing lyrics and strange 80′s videos for each song at the open end. Unfortunately, the set-up prevented anyone from really getting up and performing to the crowd since you couldn’t look at the crowd and the lyrics at the same time (then again, maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing).
    • The most memorable performance of the night was definitely the rendition of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On sung by one of the girls – I think it brought tears to everyone’s eyes, but not necessarily tears of joy. Not that my roommate and I handled a Backstreet Boys song any better, but the intense chest beat the girl had going on definitely won the crowd over.
    • As I mentioned previously, this was supposed to be someone’s going away party. Only, he never showed up. He was using someone else’s cell phone, and he didn’t receive the texts on where we were until the next day. So, he stayed in his hotel while the rest of us celebrated his last night. We did like the guy, I swear.
  • One of my favorite nights happened on a weeknight of all nights. Tired of Vietnamese food, I convinced my roommate to go into the Old Quarter with me after work to grab Western food. We ran into another housemate, and, after making a stop for dinner, we proceeded to grab a couple beers each from a mini mart and sat by the lake just drinking and chilling. There was also a Vietnamese guy playing Jingle Bells on the ukulele.
  • We frequented many restaurants, but the following two really stuck out:
    • Sumo BBQ – Thinking this was another KFC knock off, we decided to stop for lunch one afternoon. Within about two seconds of walking in the door, you could tell this was no fast food place. After going through a couple waitresses until we found one that spoke at least broken English, we surmised that we were in a Japanese/Korean steakhouse (staring at the other people seated near us as they ate also gave some good visual clues), and we simply needed to point at what we wanted on the menu since it was a buffet. I ended up with the menu, so I just started pointing at stuff and then pointing at some more stuff until everyone told me to stop. And that’s when food barrage occurred – there were salads, plates upon plates of meat stacked all over the place, sushi, some weird deep fried vegetable dish, and kimchi and other assorted pickled vegetables. It was a feast to behold, and it was all grilled to perfection at our table. Best meal I had while in Vietnam, and by far the most expensive.
    • Luna Cafe – Unable to think of anywhere else to go on one of those lazy early Saturday afternoons when everyone is hungover, tired and in need of coffee we decided to walk down the street to this little restaurant. I ordered spaghetti with meat sauce, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that spaghetti and meat sauce was actually spaghetti with meat gravy. I became even more disappointed when I found a giant, thick strand of black hair in my food (followed by at least two other people finding a hair in their food). I was hungry, so I ate as much as I could, but I never went back.
  • Likewise, there were many bars and clubs visited, but here are the most memorable ones:
    • Don’s Bistro – The one time we went here there was an ex-pat (ie. Mainly foreign business people and diplomats) meet and greet event going on which two housemates were attending and the rest of crashed the party later in the evening. A little more of an upscale event than we were used to, I managed to fit right in with the island styled business casual outfit I was wearing (which was picked out by one of the housemates – having girl roommates has its advantages), and I was finally able to smoke a cigar. Even if it was Hanoi, it was nice being back in somewhat familiar surroundings.
    • Bia Hoi – Bia hoi isn’t really a bar as much as it is an experience, a very local experience. You sit on stools or chairs along the side of the road and drink cheap, local draft beer (as in, roughly $0.25 per beer) until they run out of the stuff.
    • Phuc Tan - Affectionately known as Fuck Town due to its unfortunate likeness in pronunciation, as well as some of the extra curricular activities that may or may not happen in the bushes out back (and that I may or may not have peed on). The place is small, dirty, and dingy but it’s the only place in Hanoi open until the wee hours of the morning and they play good music. And, as long as you show up drunk you won’t really notice all the other stuff. On the night we went they were having a water gun party, with everyone running around with super soakers spraying everyone in sight. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, I kept getting nailed in the face and head all night (didn’t help that my roommate was using me as a human shield either – at least until I got smart and ducked every time he came up to me). It was a blast until you realized they guns were being filled with tap water, beer, and anything else that could be sprayed out of a water gun (I quickly covered the mouth of my beer when I found out).
  • It can be hard to find a good time to go running in Hanoi, but I chose 6 AM because it was generally cooler, quieter and you could see the city wake up and begin its day. Although the best part was the people watching at the nearby lake where the Vietnamese went for their morning exercise. There were:
    • Mobs of women doing aerobics to loud obnoxious dance music. Only, it was more half hearted dance moves than actual aerobics,.
    • Women with their curlers still in doing all sorts of “exercises”, and old men in wife beaters just sitting on benches taking it all in.
    • Women forming a massage line where they kind of karate chopped either up and down the back until they were smacking each other’s butts.
    • Men trying to join in with the aerobics groups and failing miserably, but providing a good laugh in the process.
  • One night I went out to buy some beer for the house, and I told one of the girls in the house I would get her some Diet Coke while I was at the store. Four mini marts and lots of confusion later, I finally found what I was looking for. Most people probably would have given up long before, especially when it started to rain, but after being offered regular Coke, yogurt, and milk as substitutes and talking to an old guy wearing black socks, boxers, and a wife beater I saw it as a challenge. Well, challenge accepted.
  • Our fun wasn’t limited to that of our own making. Our volunteer organization brought everyone together from all three volunteer houses in an attempt to foster a night of fellowship and cultural exchange. To help with the exchange, we were encouraged to either bring food that represents our home country or make a brief presentation about the volunteer project we were working on. The North Americans in the group decided to bring pizza (I mean really, how can you have a party without pizza), and it was gone within about 10 seconds (I may or may not have had a few slices beforehand in anticipation of this happening). There were all kinds of other food that I can’t remember anymore, except for the chocolate mousse we had to scoop out with our fingers (chopsticks weren’t very effective for this activity).
  • My last night out in Hanoi happened to coincide with my birthday and another roommate’s last night in the house before leaving for home. The night started with drinks on the terrace (the choices were Scotch, local alcohol/moonshine, or Vodka) and ended as my most epic night in Hanoi (and that’s saying a lot).
    • After drinks on the terrace, we proceeded to a local karaoke bar. It seemed shady when we walked in, but they met all our requirements – there was alcohol, they were open until 1 AM and they had English songs. To request the English songs though, my roommate and I took turns in the control room pointing at anything that looked remotely modern or popular. While there was also definitely alcohol present, there was only beer. Since some of the girls don’t drink beer I went off in search of Vodka to make mixed drinks. After some negotiating on price (I know when I’m being ripped off, even after a few adult beverages have been consumed), I came back with two bottles. Only, instead of making mixed drinks the bottles disappeared in a flurry of shots. Shortly thereafter, the cops showed up because the bar had broken curfew and we were sent scurrying out the back exit.
    • After karaoke we headed back to Phuc Tan. It wasn’t as much fun as the first time we went, but there were still drinks, dancing, and good music – plus no worries about contracting some horrible disease from a water gun fight.
    • And then, there was the cab ride home. We had to split into two taxis, and my group of 4 (three of the girls plus me) thought we had picked one of the good taxis. So, three of us fell asleep on the way home, leaving the drunkest one to direct the cabbie (mistake number one). As I was waking up, it felt like we were pulling a U-turn, and then chaos erupted as the guy crashed onto a concrete barrier. Not really knowing what was going on, we piled out of the cab and wandered off in search of a new ride (without paying the guy who just crashed). As we were walking off I realized we were in the area where I worked and if the cabbie was making a U-turn he must have been driving around running up the meter, so I felt better about not paying him. We found our new cab a short distance away, but before he could drive off the old cabbie and two other people appeared – they weren’t very happy either. The new cabbie pushed me out of the cab and sped off. I’m still not certain what happened next, I just know there was a lot of angry yelling in Vietnamese and English, somehow the cabbie got hold of one girl’s cell phone (he gave it back when I threatened him), and then he grabbed the same girl’s purse and wouldn’t let go forcing me to rip his hand off the strap (a look of fear spread across the guy’s face as he realized I was much bigger, much stronger, extremely pissed off, and ready to go a few rounds). It was at this point that I told the girl’s to run in case things got ugly. As they were running away, I yelled a few more nasty things in English at the cabbie and started walking away. Fortunately, no one followed me. We ended up at a bus stop across a traffic circle, where the cabbie drove up. One of the girls just gave the guy some money (it was more than the meter, but he didn’t seem too inclined to make change) to make him go away. We caught another cab and got home in time to go to bed as the sun was rising. Now that’s how you close out your time in Vietnam.

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