Southeast Asia: now this is a familiar sight! It is my first night in Vietnam. This is the Asia that I remember from my first trip a few years ago. It’s a chaotic mess of crowded streets, road-runner sounding horns beeping everywhere, motorbikes with three people on them, and something strange in every direction you can look. Everything is questionable in Southeast Asia, from the food you’re eating to the shotty construction methods of the buildings. So you learn to question everything and question nothing at the same time.
My hostel in Hanoi emailed me after I booked with them. They outlined the instructions for getting a taxi to the hostel from the Hanoi airport. They told me to look for an official taxi driver, most likely wearing a uniform. They said to take a picture of the driver AND the taxi number. Tell the driver that I had just talked with my hostel on the phone, and they were expecting me within the next 90 minutes. Then tell the driver I was emailing his information to them… and pretend to send the info with my service-less phone. This way the driver couldn’t take me to the sticks and rob or murder me. Then when the taxi driver arrived at the hostel, I was to get the receptionist to come out to the car and help me pay him. This was to insure that he didn’t overcharge me.
When I read this email, I wasn’t phased. None of this surprised me, and actually I was relieved that they had done some preparation for me. I was in no way afraid for my safety, I knew this was just to avoid any money scamming. Besides, the email said, “This is a precaution. The taxi drivers are not dangerous. In Hanoi you are always protected by our police and our government.” But none the less, I actually went through with a few of these steps and made it there safely, with minimal shouting from my driver as I made him wait for the receptionist.
I was greeted by a couple of Chicago girls at the hostel who didn’t have to twist my arm to get me to join them for a drink. I grabbed a single 10,000 dong bill. They said that was about $5 USD and plenty for dinner and drinks. We walked through the mass crowds of people on motorbikes, in cars, and walkers all moving in herds through the jammed streets. The stalls on the sides were selling everything from home gangnam style balloons and glasses to bia hoi. Bia hoi is this type of draught beer that is brewed in Vietnam and brought around like a milk man service to participating establishments. It’s only 3% alcohol, but also only costs about 30 cents USD for a glass. It kind of smells like a college bar does, but in a glass. I didn’t really care for the pissy keystone like taste, but I still drank a couple. I was unaware at the time of consumption that there is no health agency overseeing the brewing process, but with 3% it can’t be too harmful.
After wandering through crowded streets, almost getting ran over about 6 times, the girls found a group of European guys that they had drank with the night before. They were sitting at a little bia hoi restaurant stand on the side of the road. The table they were sitting at was a sky blue plastic Dollar General children’s play table that sit about 20” off the ground. And the chairs were little red and blue backless plastic stools that were a little shorter. We looked at all the crowded tables set up all down the street. At the table next to the Europeans was a Vietnamese group of men. One Vietnamese man had a toddler on his lap. He was holding a bottle of beer up to the toddler’s mouth and letting him grab a few swigs. The toddler didn’t fuss, but he didn’t look happy. I wasn’t sure what to think, so I just chose to look away.
There was absolutely no room for us! Oh wait… everyone got up. This Vietnamese woman, who was about 50 and looked pregnant, came out. She had a scar down the side of her face and I couldn’t help but wonder if A. She was indeed pregnant, it was a beer gut, or she had a stomach tumor. B. Was she a whore and that scar was her way of being marked? She wasn’t particularly friendly, but she handed us all our own playhouse stool from a pile she had sitting next to a tree. Then everyone made room for us around the fisher price table.
The stools reminded me of the ones I sat on in the Japanese onsen, except the onsen stools had a slit to let the butt water drain. If these had a slit, I probably would have poured my bia hoi down it, so I didn’t have to drink it all. We laughed, drank a few pissy beers, and exchanged cultural references under the bright florescent tube lights that beamed from the lean-to restaurant. The Vietnamese woman and her equally pregnant daughter sat in the doorway and watched us converse with disgusted looks on their faces, but I think they were just tired. The Chicago girls took group trips to the bathroom, going down the street to buy toilet paper, and then coming back. We stayed there for about three hours having rambunctious American chatter, until the police swept through the streets at 11:30 with nightsticks. They made us pay and leave, since we were past curfew. The streets were deserted now. We walked back and I looked around at the dirty busy architecture. All I could see were dark streets hidden behind the jumbled up power lines. ‘What was this, what was that? I remember this from my last trip to Thailand, but that’s new!’ I had a thousand questions, and yet nothing good to ask. Southeast Asia, I have arrived!