Big cities — I’m rarely a fan. Hanoi boasted nine million souls and about half as many motor scooters. Having arrived late at night, we took a taxi from the airport to the Happy Moon Guesthouse. Traffic was chaotic even at that late hour. Watching out of the taxi window made me cringe as motor scooters darted anywhere they pleased and cars, trucks, and buses barreled through the mayhem honking horns continuously.
As our driver expertly avoided collisions, I noticed small groups of people gathered on the sidewalks perched upon little plastic stools around kiddie-sized tables. A pot bubbled or a grill smoked nearby. They were eating, drinking, talking, and laughing — perhaps maniacally. It looked dark and dangerous. Hanoi seemed to be Luang Prabang’s evil twin. Thankfully we only planned to spend a couple of nights there… We’d probably be ok.
At Second Glance
The next morning we met up with sailing friends with whom we’d be spending the next two weeks exploring Vietnam. The four of us walked around Hanoi’s old quarter and took in a couple of the sights. When our bellies alerted us that lunchtime had arrived, we started looking for a spot to eat. The restaurants were ready for the lunch rush, and tiny stools and plastic kiddie tables, the likes of which we’d seen the night before, cluttered the sidewalks and spilled into the streets. It didn’t look at all sinister in the daylight, so we picked a well-patronized establishment, plopped our butts down — way, way, down — and ordered by pointing at pictures.
I still don’t know what the dish was called, but it was scrumptious. It consisted of a plate of rice noodles, three fried spring rolls, a cup of light vinegar sauce, and a plate of greens. We watched the locals and learned to dip the noodles and spring rolls into the sauce then eat them. Yum!
After lunch, we walked around the old quarter a bit more to enjoy a park surrounding a lake but mostly we were in search of ice cream. After a little ambling, we saw a crowd in front of a tiny storefront all holding ice cream cones. While the others got cones, I found a place out of the way to sit and people watch. There were mothers with children, decked-out teenagers on scooters, and women in business dress. Out of nowhere a woman rolled a cart up and parked it on the sidewalk next to me. Within minutes she was steaming snails and serving her first customers seated on, you guessed it, little squatty stools.
Cold Beer and Free Entertainment
Our friends had been in Hanoi the night before us and were recommended to try the fresh beer, bia hơi. They told us that it was just what was needed to wash down the ice cream, so we took our lives into our hands and crossed many streets teeming with scooters to get to a bia hơi place. Having arrived unscathed, we found an empty knee-high table with four squatty stools. The waiter came over and asked, “Four beers?” It actually sounded more like a command, so we all nodded obediently. Like magic, beers in mugs instantly appeared on our little table. The first beers didn’t last long and the cops had just arrived, so we ordered another round.
The cops and waiters were having an animated discussion about some apparent infraction. After many stern looks and pleas, the waiters booted people off of their squatty stools and moved them around the corner. We seemed free to stay put. After a few more relocations we surmised that no squatty stools or kiddie tables were allowed on the street. Fortunately, all of our stools were on the sidewalk.
With the entertainment concluded, it was time to find another bia hơi place which meant crossing a lot more streets. It was a frightening prospect but the first crossing was a lot less intimidating. Maybe the beers helped or maybe it just started to make sense. Traffic flowed like water and parted around obstructions — including pedestrians. It was best to move slowly but steadily, to dash or suddenly stop or change direction was certain death. I felt like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix when time slowed and bullets were simple to dodge.
Quickly, we came to love the little restaurants and beer places. We’d sit around the kiddie tables on the squatty stools with our friends, eating, drinking and laughing well into the night. The scene had a soothing pulse to it and the atmosphere was warm and inviting. I’m not sure what I saw out of the taxi window on our way into Hanoi that made me think otherwise. In retrospect, I wish we had a few more nights to spend in Hanoi perched upon the stools.
Hike Drink Live Laugh
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