Hanoi Bia hoi
Hanoi Travel Blog› entry 56 of 86 › view all entries
After dark we rode along busy highways from the outskirts, into Hanoi. Highways with rules that were new to us, even after 4 months in south east Asia; It appeared not to be the drivers responsibility to look behind or left (or anywhere at all!) when turning onto a new road. To do so would cause confusion. And the red light doesn't mean you must stop. It just means everybody will sound their horn and go anyway, a warning beep. If you fail to ignore the red light they'll beep angrily - a long menacing beep right into your ear until you move. And if you do well and just go without stoping or looking they'll still beep. Not as a warning or out of anger but just because they can, I think.
As we left the main roads behind and Daren guided us down an increasingly confusing grid of alleys and narrow streets, into the heart of Hanoi, the city unravelled like a surrealistic painting around us. A labyrinth with dimensions in all directions.
Battered colonial houses stood side by side with more or less strange buildings -some traditional, some soviet style and some tin roof DIY's. Most of the newer houses were only one room wide but very long and about seven or eight floors tall. Some had spires and pillars and domes sticking out here and there. With all the balconies and extra rooms above us the city seemed to shape into long, thin ladders that pushed the inhabitants and their multi-material patchwork of additions endlessly into the sky.
At the bottom, we were left in cool alley ways and here we found a family run small hotel. Moto's still pushed past us but more carefully because this was the domain of playing children and welders, who spread their jobs on the floor next to people selling vegetables and fruit salads covered in delicoius sticky condensed milk. Furthermore, these alleys were the home of the Bia Hoi sellers. Places were you can go and by a tumbler of local homebrew for about 20 pence in a glass that is so sticky it's un-dropable, and then sit on a tiny plastic chair and drink with all the other Hanoians. Here we people watched and played a stupid amount of back gammon games. When I needed to borrow the toilet I was allowed behind the shop fronts and walked along corridors and past rickety staircases, through rooms were grandparents and babies hid from the stress and along more corridors. Cupboards and coal stoves were pushed in where ever there was space and the limit between inside and outside, private and non private was unclear.
I felt Hanoi to be like a Moroccan medina. Only one, were the the tea was exchanged with bia hoi and were I was alllowed to take part. Like in the medinas the unexpected and the magic was always present. In Morocco it was the earthen colours, the wool and the carpets and the shishas -or the lizards in shoeboxes. In Hanoi it was the strange shops, the glittery fairy lights and all the flowers. In Vietnam, flowers are sold everywhere! On a small square, were autunmlike light fell through the dry leaves of tall, wiry banyan trees, we stumbled across a pocket in it's own time; Ladies in straw hats sold flowers from overloaded bikes. They stood in the traffic and they lined the side walks. Behind them flowershops in old colonial buildings decorated the cracked walls with hanging baskets and the dusty sidewalks with pink trees. Among this happy bustely mood, booksellers too, had found a niche and old and new, fake and original were sold from dark shops.
Outside in the shade, an ancient Viet Minh soldier and his chinese wife sat on small plastic chairs around a small table. Not in connection with a house or a shop, they were just there amongst the jumble of flowers and books and traffic. They beaconed us over for tea and from a box under the table produced not tea, but the strongest homebrew I ever tasted. They weren't selling anything and I am not sure what they were actually doing sitting there but several people came over, had a chat and a glass of homebrew and then hurried on through their day. Ancient guardians of pace and charm in a busy city I suppose.