Since the beginning of our relationship, Andrew and I have traded travel stories. Traffic in Hanoi, winding roads Italy, street food in Kuala Lumpur, chips cheese and curry in Glasgow. Listening to his story would remind me of one, and we’d go back and forth, comparing experiences. It’s great. But I’m digressing. This practice continues, and sitting around a table with my dad a few days ago, he suggested that these little random travel memories be added to the blog…making it not just a collection of stories from the current adventure, but also an accumulation of memories of adventures that came before…
Bars in Hanoi close at midnight. Metal gates descend (by remote control in nicer establishments, by the strength of a few bartenders in the more dilapidated), covering up the big windows, old doors and colorful signs. At 11:30, the gates are lowered halfway, not inhibiting exiting but discouraging entry. Some bars shoo out any straggling patrons at the appointed time, turn off lights and TVs and close up shop. If you want to continue (or start) drinking at this time, however, there are places you can go. Places that close the gates and turn off the signs and outdoor lights, but keep the bar open. The key is to get in before the gate closes, so these places tend to fill up just before midnight, reflecting the migration from those bars that have decided to follow the rules. There are big fines for a bar that breaks curfew, and with police patrolling the city, departure at 12:30 or 2am is done with stealth, a bar-back checking the street before pulling the gate up just high enough for you to get out.
We sat on low stools at one of these establishments, surrounded by Chinese lamps giving off a dim red light. With seven of us around a table meant for four, our group made up a small portion of this packed bar, and the bartender (a small Vietnamese woman in her forties who laughed loudly and teased the regulars) directed her various assistants as they refilled beers, picked up glasses and continuously served microwave pizzas. Because it was a Saturday, the plan was to stay there for a while before relocating to a club.
The banging on the gate and angry Vietnamese voices produced an immediate silence, a collective holding of breath. More gate rattling, more yelling…I hear “cong an”, realizing it’s the police, as the bartender takes charge and quietly begins shooing people through to the kitchen. Confused, those of us at the front huddle there like cattle until a cook nods at a set of spiral stairs in the corner, and we tentatively file up into darkness. This is someone’s apartment. The bartender’s? The bar owner’s? A random family’s? I’m not sure. We file silently past two children asleep on cots and a grandma watching a Vietnamese soap opera into another room, a line of Swedes, Americans, Irish, German and Viet Kieu (Vietnamese from abroad) following the silent directives of one of the bar assistants. I feel both uncomfortable with our invasion of this private space and fascinated that this seems to be the protocol. The back room has a fire escape which we creep down into an alley a street east of the bartender explaining to the patrolmen that she’d just had music on while she was cleaning.
The 30 or so patrons disperse into the night, our group heading for the river where a few barges have been converted into clubs, evading the city curfew with their location on the river. Four hours of dancing and black-lights are followed by breakfast as the sun rises, sitting on plastic stools eating savory noodles and veggies in a delicious hot broth…then followed by retreating to our various apartments as the city wakes up around us.