The last journey to Viet Nam was to another world.
By late afternoon (4-5pm) it is already closing time for offices, and a million motorcycles crawl homewards. It is Rush Hour. A little later, the eating places start filling up. These could be little corner places with a few low tables and stools, an old lady with a cauldron of soup and fried rice, her daughter serving the customers. Of course, there are the bigger places. The Vietnamese eat out in big groups and so, the restaurants have long, big tables.
Then there are the Chinese (beef in oyster sauce), Korean (bibimbab) and the Japanese restaurants – both street-side and up-market, and the European (many Italian). For a curry you have four Indian (three butter chicken and one masala dosa joints) and a good Pakistani restaurant, too. Top of the line are the speciality restaurants at the five-stars, and the few like “Bobby Chinn”, that serves post-modern fusion food, complete with a post-dinner “shisha” that lists, I believe, in the top-50 in the world. The French restaurant at the Metropole is the most expensive in town, and usually has a 3-4 star French Chef in attendance. Here an evening for two – wine, starter, entrée, cheese, desert and coffee is at about 100 USD. Round the corner, a burpy fill of pho (noodle soup), bun cha (noodles and meat) or fried rice would have been three bucks.
Note: Both Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene stayed at the Metropole, then the only hotel in town. Later in the communist years it fell into disuse, resurrected now as one of the finest hotels in the orient.
Later in the evening you move to the pubs and the bars.
Loud psychedelic places have recently caught the fancy of the noveau-riche, and you find them in hordes at places like the Apocalypse Now, Seventeen Saloon and Century Twenty One. The last one introduced the pole dance in the country, which was hurriedly discontinued, and now serves as a normal discotheque, but provides you dancing companions. Till you had the strippers, the place had a cover charge, but now (that the girls are covered), there isn’t one. You can have a wonderful 3-4 hours for two for 10, maybe 15 US dollars.
Around ten-eleven in the night, the streets still have the multitudes on their motorcycles, plying to and from these places, somewhat boisterous, but disciplined. The cops are everywhere, and penalties harsh.
Still later (after midnight) when these places close down by law, you move to the by-lanes, to places within walking distance, so you don’t worry about transport. Of course, there are taxis all night, and the ubiquitous single-seated moto-bike taxi – if you are three, you take three of them.
Among the pubs are special ones. A fine example is a place run by an Algerian – been there ten, maybe fifteen years, has done some wonderful photographs of Viet Nam, and some of his best ones adorn the walls. Visiting nation-heads drop by to have a look. Another is the Minh’s Jazz Bar, where the world’s jazz players come from far-away places and perform – and yes, that includes Bill Clinton. Then there are the usual ones with pool and darts. If you are a learner, there is always the owner’s daughter to teach you the games – even at two am.
The few shops that remain open till late include (world famous, I believe) the Victory CD shop – that boasts of having, in its piles, a cheap (1-2 US) Chinese DVD of every movie ever made, and so for the music. Just browsing at the Victory is an experience.
Somewhere around 2 or 3am, the streets are quiet, and then, the seasoned retreat to their favourite all-night spots. There is the Titanic, a junk ship moored in the middle of the Red River. There are plenty of loos – but the men wee overboard at this time of the night. There is something about this.
And then there is the Inside Bar – open through the night, where, as the sun rises, you wash the stale breath of cigarette, beer, vodka and rum with a hot noodle soup and then straggle home or hotel-wards – the two beautiful sister-owners welcome you and kiss you goodbye, have warm conversations, yet keep the last awake in the city at a good arms length.
On the way, you circumscribe the city-centre down-town Hoan Kim Lake. At dawn, hundreds of locals are already there, exercising to music. You make your way through these groups, unshaven and unsteady bringing your “yesterday” to a close, while these, young and old in their track-suits, already, energetically into their “today”.
You re-collect the scenes from late in the night.
The shops are closed, except for the odd drinking place. The streets are like the Indian “galees”, narrow, untidy, half-drain, half-rubble, lighted by the odd tube or sodium light casting odd shadows, sometimes on the blink. You walk down them and sure enough, a few moments later, from the shadows, they emerge, on their motorcycles. They are resplendent in their stockings, skirts, hair flying back. They stop by you, close enough for you to see the mascara and eye-shadow, and land their stiletto-heals close to where you would have stepped next. You break into a run, and the women chase you, urging you in a mix of Vietnamese, English and French, down to the end of the street. The more experienced among us, price them by their bikes, as we huff and puff out of their reach.
Then there are the Karoake Bars – the final night stop for the Koreans and Japanese. The singing is incidental. You drink yourself to a stupor in the arms of a lovely woman – my only time, I saw Scotch whisky in cases of two and four litre bottles being polished off, the last peg standing, poured over your head. The Fortuna is the best among them, and the chauffeurs of the rich and the powerful, know perfectly well, how to carry their masters and their guests back home to their beds.
On the deck of the Titanic, the breeze is gentle. On the port and starboard sides, the lights of the houses on the banks are enveloped in a haze. Ahead, at some distance, are two bridges that span the river, the traffic is sparse at this time of the late-night. You sit on the little benches on the deck, in the arms of a woman, or discuss world-affairs, other people and places, or other times. Inside, some play pool, and a few couples dance, for a change, to soft and gentle music. The sky is hazy too, and you do not see the stars.
In such places, you become friends with some strangers, and learn to leave others alone. At the Inside Bar, at one end of the bar counter, sits, almost every night, the chief of a large French company that is modernizing the Viet Nam Railways. He is happy to talk gauges, couplings, inter-locks and diesel-electric locomotives through the night, and little else. As he re-fills yet again, and embarks on a sad emotional description of a bogie, in walks a well-dressed European, somewhat out of place in a suit and scarf. He is a leading Barcelona poet, who has translated TS Eliot. We make him recite “In the room, the women come and go, talking to Michelangelo” in his native Catalan, just to hear how the assonances sound in another language. On a table nearby, sits a tall Scandinavian lady, all alone, no one ever disturbs her, and she finally leaves, straddling a motorcycle, holding on to the tiny Vietnamese driver with one massive hand, and the fashionable hat on her head, with the other, in the middle of the night.
Also on the bar counter, sits a strangely beautiful woman (probably of mixed European – Asian parents). She asks you for a light, and lightly brushes against your side, and then resumes her solitary drink.
Some of these scenes could have been taken from the most memorable movies of our times, but here they happen for real. Coincidentally, the Hanoi Cinematheque screens old classics every week, and so I saw my first Orsen Welles (Touch of Evil) in Hanoi.
On the last night, I want to do everything one last time. But by the time, we reach the Titanic, strangely it was closed, and as we swerve sharply on the dirt stretch leading to the place, we hit a rock and tumble out of our mo-bike onto the rubble, our elbows and knees bleeding in the dust, and we – laughing, wondering, and coming back to our senses – where would we go from here, now …?
People don’t expect all this to last. Already, many of these streets are being torn down to make way for ultra-modern city malls and office blocks, invested by the overseas Vietnamese. The authorities too are worried, but like elsewhere, many of these places are owned by the ministers’ relatives. Both, the last American and Australian ambassadors, after completing their tenures, have resigned and stayed back.
So thus it comes to an end, but unlike the ambassadors, I do not have the choice, and have to move on – in just a few hours, the flight to Bangkok and then onwards, back to another life.
© Sanjay Dharwadker, 2006