In Vietnam, beer is cheaper than water. A half pint of the local brew, bia hoi, will set you back the princely sum of 4000dong, that’s about 20cents. It’s no wonder that as the sun sets I invariably think to myself ‘maybe I’ll have a beer’.
Tonight is no exception. I’m wandering the streets of Hanoi’s old town, absorbing the atmosphere and building up a thirst. I spot a bia hoi cafe and, dodging the traffic, make my way over.
Bia hoi cafes are always roadside affairs. This one sits at the intersection of four streets in Hanoi’s old quarter, with chairs and tables that spill from the pavement right onto the busy streets. Customers are a mix of local men (and here in cosmopolitan Hanoi a few local women too) and westerners. As I approach everyone squeezes over a few centimetres and the proprietor, a plump grandmother, puts down another tiny chair for me.
It’s not that easy to get comfortable. The chairs are baby sized jelly red plastic and sit by a baby sized table (the chairs are maybe 20cm off the ground and no more than 30cm wide, the table is some 15cm or so high). This may work for local customers with their tiny baby sized butts but for a European sized girl like me it can be a bit of a challenge.
I squat down and squeeze in and start chatting to the guy on my left, an engineer from Canada called Tim who’s been living and working in the city for three months. When I arrive he is having a shoe polish. I look down at his feet, notice he’s wearing flip flops and laugh. He laughs too. ‘I thought I’d be safe wearing flip flops but as soon as they spot that they’re made of leather I’m a goner,’ he says. The first beer – the local brew is a light, refreshing pilsner that was originally introduced from the Czech Republic – is quickly gone and I order another.
A few minutes later a cobbler walks by and offers to re-sole my flip flops, which to be fair are on their last legs. I accept his offer and it’s Tim’s turn to laugh. The cobbler squats in front of us, fixing on new soles, filing the edges neat and sewing in the toe hold extra tight. It costs me $2.50; probably about the same as a new pair of flip flops but as I’ve developed a particular fondness for this pair I’m happy with the result.
Feet comfily encased in new flip flops, I order another beer. Three French guys wander by and decide to stop for a drink. They’re tall and one in particular is carrying some excess weight. I watch the arms of the plastic chair widen to embrace him and wonder at its strength as he lowers himself in. We chat and fend of hawkers of books, sunglasses, fans and donuts till their wives come by and collect them for dinner.
A crowd is gathering at the opposite corner. I can’t see what’s happening but within a few moments we hear sirens. Two fire engines roar into the intersection and scream to a halt. Firemen leap into action and disappear down the alley. The power to the square is suddenly cut. I sit in the soft half dark and order another beer.
An Australian family I met in Hoian last week wander by and pull up a stool for a chat. The landlady takes one look at the children, a six year old boy and four year old girl, both with big brown eyes and wavy dark hair and her maternal instincts kick in. We are unceremoniously moved out of the reach of the cooling fan. Two more chairs appear and she insists the children move off the road and under the fan. She teaches them the Vietnamese word for Grandma and is wreathed in smiles. She ignores her other customers, sometimes grumpily condescending to fill a glass with beer, until the kids and their parents move on.
I find myself talking with Tim about religion. It’s deep but not very meaningful and I quickly calculate how many beers I’ve had. Four? Five? Six? Time to eat. After all those beers I crave a curry and before we part company Tim gives me a lift on the back of his scooter to an Indian restaurant he knows nearby. I scoff a delicious biryani and then wander back to the hotel, floating along on my newly soled flip flops filled with beer and food and good cheer.