Sitting six inches off the ground on a tiny plastic school, the busy streets of Hanoi send my senses into an overload: the never-ending sea of chattering people; women carrying oversize baskets of savory fried donuts; restaurant owners shouting at each other across the roads; the unending honking of motorbikes that whiz in and out of all the chaos. It’s a smorgasbord of sights, sounds, and smells.
I’ve parked it on a blue toddler sized stool under a pop-up tent near the crossroads of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến. This is a bia hoi joint. A famous Vietnamese drinking spot that dishes out fresh beer and cheap food in a loud and crowded setting. It’s more than the food and beer that keep the tiny seats of Bia Hoi Joints full. It’s the experience. The lively atmosphere. The unique array of people.
My post at this joint in the Old Quarter, is in the thick of the action.
The packed street emanates more than just stifling heat. It radiates with an electric energy, leaving me buzzing and exhilarated. The sea of people and motorbikes move like a current. Street vendors flutter from table to table as they make their way down the street; stopping at anyone who dares to make eye contact. Restaurant owners pass their babies back and forth as they work on enticing in any potential customer. Grown adults sit hunched over, knees to armpits, engaged in conversation and laughter. Motorbikes zoom around the foot traffic that takes up the majority of the street.
It’s warm. Really warm. Even at this hour of night, the hot air is thick with moisture, permeating every pore and suffocating my skin. My little stool and cold beer provide a nice respite from the heat and chaos.
My beer glass, sweating almost as much as I am, gets refilled the second I take my last gulp. At 5,000 dong ($0.25) a glass and 4% alcohol, there is no reason to even think twice about ordering another and another…and another.
I try and make myself comfortable at this odd sized table. My knees jut into my armpits and rub against the people sitting on either side of me. Empty peanut shells crunch under my flip flops as I attempt to unstick my thigh from the man on my left. Though moving my legs toward the right just means sticking myself to a different person. People of all sizes, shapes, colors and nationalities sit sweaty thigh to sweaty thigh. No room to even think about being shy.
Our tablemates, now our new friends, have broken the ice by presenting us with a bag of bread purchased from a roving street vendor. Yes, we literally broke bread. Conversation happens with hand motions and broken English. When neither party knows what the other is saying, a glass gets held up and we let out a loud, “Mot, Hai, Bai, Yo”, clink glasses and down the beer.
The street is like a rotating stage. Despite the throngs of people and motorbikes, when someone wants attention, they get it. A vendor and restaurant owner scream at each other, voices escalating over the honking. A Michael Jackson-impersonating-magician blasts music from a portable speaker, and spins around the crowd. A parade of Despicable Me balloons flows through the middle of it all.
The streets of Hanoi teem with life. The people, the food, the cars, the noise. It’s stimulating and overwhelming and exciting to be a part of.