Trails and trials of the writer who walks
Two barrels are stacked vertically with the top one tapped and wedged at an angle, suggesting it’s nearly empty. They are sitting on the edge of a pavement so that every glass pulled is marinated liberally in exhaust fumes from the chaos of scooters and taxis passing within inches of beer and customers alike. I’m sitting there too, perched on a small blue plastic stool. (I have one just like it at home, in green. Many years ago it lived next to the toilet so that my small sons could aim their wee into the bowl instead of up the wall). A super-sized Australian arrives. The tiny Vietnamese barmaid rushes to him with four stools, in two stacks of two, one for each buttock.
This is Hanoi, and I am drinking ‘bia hoi’, or ‘fresh beer’, at 5000 Vietnamese dong per glass, but you get a lot of dong to the pound, so I’m actually paying less than 15p. It’s said to be of low ABV, not more than 2.5%, but it’s refreshing and crisp, very much like an American pale ale, and my empty glass is quickly refilled. The barrels arrive at dawn, to be consumed the same day, from one of three Hanoi breweries – by scooter of course. Two full barrels of beer must look like child’s play to the man I witness carrying 15 Epson printers on his pillion. Or the builder taking 30 foot scaffolding poles to work, four on each side protruding from his bike front and back equally. I imagine him executing a 360 degree turn and sweeping all the other players off the board.
There seems no limit to the supply of nursery stools, they begin to spread like a blue rash, filling all the pavement space. If the beer runs out, I’ll be forced to cross the road to the bar opposite. This will mean throwing myself in front of thirty motor bikes speeding in two directions, on no particular side of the road, but I’ve learned my Hanoi Green Cross Code: walk slowly in one direction to give the drivers a chance to weave round you. Don’t stop and don’t EVER step backwards. My system is to wait until an elderly Vietnamese lady begins to cross and then I use her like a human shield. After all, if she’s survived this long, she must know what she’s doing.
Each bar has a speciality menu, although most customers are just here for the beer, and this one seems to favour frogs and snails, no doubt the French colonial influence, although I never saw ‘fried snail with banana and soya curd’ anywhere in France. The ‘kitchen’ is a small space on the concrete-floored interior, also open to the street, where food is prepared in large metal bowls hung over a portable gas stove. There doesn’t seem to be a sink – the washing-up takes place in bowls in the gutter. No sink in the toilet either. In fact there isn’t really a toilet, just a hole in the ground and a plastic barrel of water containing a ladle, for a ‘do-it-yourself’ flush. And no door. Hopefully I won’t need it.
Suddenly there’s a flurry of activity. In the bars opposite customers are standing up and the blue stools are being whisked from under them. The Mexican wave of squat-to-upright reaches my patch so I grab my beer and stand up too. Then we all retreat from the pavement edge like an incoming tide. Moments later, a police jeep arrives at the cross-roads towing a cage on a trailer. It reminds me of the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I learn afterwards that bar-owners are not allowed to have more than one row of seats on the pavement. Any others are simply taken away. (Presumably to be sold on eBay by the police). Once the all-clear’s given, the stools go back out.
Near my hotel is a corner bar with proper seats where the toilet has a door, so this becomes my ‘local’ where I meet up with new friends or just watch the crazy traffic. Here I can enjoy a draught pint of Bieres LaRue (Tiger beer). It’s a little pricier, at almost 60p, but also stronger (4.5%).
Street peddlers stop at the bar every few minutes with mangoes or dragonfruit piled high on panniers that swing from either end of a bamboo pole. I watch one manoeuvre her double load between parked and moving scooters, between taxis and laden bicycles. Her conical hat floats effortlessly above the criss-crossing traffic until she reaches the opposite corner, and it occurs to me that Hanoi is a no place for a pub crawl: if you get drunk, you won’t survive the walk home.