More Bia Hoi in Hanoi
Sleuthing for beer and old friends in Vietnam’s capital
By Dave Fox
There are moments in travel when your mood turns sour – when living out of a backpack, bouncing from place to place, feeling disconnected from people who know you, people who get you, eclipses the thrill of being foreign.
On my first trip to Hanoi three years ago, I was having one of those moments. The Old Quarter traffic was overwhelming. The street touts were getting on my nerves. The so-called “Hanoi Hilton”—the Hỏa Lò Prison, which at various points in history housed Vietnamese and American POWs – had depressed me. (Travel tip: When having a bad day, visiting an alleged torture chamber will not cheer you up.)
I’d had enough of these bad-mood moments in previous travels that I knew what to do. I needed to ride out the feeling and give it time. Being around always calms me, so I headed toward a a big lake.
But along the way, I found a distraction that cured my morose attitude faster than expected. In a random alleyway where tourists don’t go, I found unlikely friends – five guys in a hole-in-the-wall bia hoi joint, who invited me into their world, even though we shared no common language — I suppose because they thought it would be goofy to see if I’d actually sit down with them.
(“Bia hoi” is Vietnamese draft beer, tapped daily at local breweries and transported to neighborhood gathering points around the city.)
I don’t think they expected me to accept their invitation. They laughed when I did. We ended up hanging out for a couple of hours, finding ways to communicate that transcended spoken language. By late afternoon, they had shaken me out of my bad mood.
Now, three years later, I was back in Hanoi. I wanted to find my old friends. I wanted to show them the article I wrote about them, give them the photos I took. I wondered if they’d remember me, and if they’d understand why I was back. My problem was, I couldn’t remember for sure where this place was.
I have a horrid sense of direction. If I stumble onto a place once, there’s no guarantee I’ll find it again. I remembered a walk down an alley, a turn up a second alley. I remembered a lake, but Hanoi has about 63-trillion lakes. And to be honest, while my original article mentioned a lake in a park, I had written that story nearly two years after the event. I wasn’t certain the lake in my article was actually the correct one.
But it was all I had to go by, so, armed with a copy of my original tale, I set off in search of my pals, trying to convince Kattina we were headed for an adventure.
As we approached the park I had written about, vague memories percolated of dilapidated amusement park rides. We came upon a rusted, mini Ferris Wheel, and an empty, kiddie roller coaster. They fit my memory in theory, but there was no “aha” moment of familiarity.
We wandered through the park, then found an alley that sort of resembled the one in my memory.
“I think these train tracks,” I said, pointing to a photo in my story, “are those train tracks there.”
“But the windows on that building are different,” Kattina said.
She was right, though in Vietnam, buildings are knocked down and rebuilt at the speed kids destroy and rebuild Lego houses.
As we walked, the alley seemed too wide, too open, not hectic enough to be the one I’d found before. “If we walk to the end, then turn right, the bar should be at the end of the next block,” I said.
When we reached the end, there was no obvious bar. Several businesses were shuttered closed.
“Maybe they’re not open yet,” Kattina said. It was 1 p.m. Maybe the beer didn’t flow till later.
That night, in our hotel, I scrutinized my photos. I studied a Hanoi map. The railroad tracks were my best clue. “There’s nowhere else on the map where they intersect that kind of street. That must have been the place.”
We returned late the next afternoon. In my photo of the train tracks, the building had changed, but ivy still cascaded down the wall. The tracks themselves seemed to confirm we were in the right spot. Patterns in the pavement matched the point where the train line intersected the road.
And then, I spotted another clue: A building in my original photo had a wide, triangular pattern near the top of its façade. The triangle pointed to a round light mounted in an overhang. This was like a living version of a photographic puzzle game I’d played as a child. But again, I wasn’t certain this was the same place. Architecture tends to repeat itself.
I studied my article as we kept wandering. A plastic sign frame held a different sign, but was the same shape as one in my photo. We turned the corner and passed another bia hoi place, one I didn’t think had been there before. A couple of guys, several beers into their afternoon, shrieked jovial hellos as we shuffled past. We said hi back and kept going.
We reached the next corner, where I was pretty sure my bia hoi spot had been. There was no beer. I peeked inside the one-room businesses until some faux-wood paneling in a noodle shop caught my attention. It matched my photo.
“Is this the same place as this?” I asked the woman inside, pointing my article, then the ground. She nodded and shrugged. I wasn’t sure if she understood me. I asked if I could take a photo. She shrugged again.
“This is where it was,” I said to Kattina. “I’m sure of it.”
But what had happened to it?
“Let’s go back to that other beer place,” Kattina said. “One of those guys must know something.”
The four guys at outdoor plastic tables who had greeted us minutes earlier smiled when they saw us returning. We tried to take seats at an empty table. They insisted we sit with them instead.
“Bia?” one of them asked and ordered us beers.
Like my surrogate drinking buddies three years earlier, none of these guys shared a common language with me. I showed them my article and pointed down the road.
They scrunched their brows and studied my photos. They had a discussion I couldn’t understand. They called the owner of the new place to come out.
He squinted at a photo of the guys I had hung out with three years prior. A look of recognition washed across his face. He seemed to be gesturing that yes, further down the alley, that was the spot.
He pulled out his phone. He started looking for a phone number.
I was both excited and nervous. How would this go down? What would he say?
“Dude, there’s some foreign guy with your photo asking to talk to you. No, he doesn’t speak a word of Vietnamese. I think you’d better get down here.”
Would the guy from the old place remember me? How would I explain when he arrived why I was looking for him? Was I interrupting his day?
But then, without dialing, the man put his phone away.
Beers arrived at our table, along with a plastic water bottle, which I knew did not contain water. A porcelain rice wine cup was filled and handed to me. A toast was shouted in Vietnamese, and I had no choice but to swig.
They poured me another shot, which I somehow managed to hand off to one of the other guys. After a couple of rounds, and whispered discussions between me and Kattina as to how we might extract ourselves from a gathering that could potentially last too many hours, Pierre arrived.
Pierre wasn’t his real name. His real name was Hiệp, which he explained was too hard for us to pronounce, so we could call him Pierre. Never mind that with my American accent, I also tend to mispronounce “Pierre.” Pierre was in his 20s. He owned a clothing shop down the road. He had lived in Australia. He spoke good English.
I explained to Pierre why we were prowling in this tucked-away alley. He in turn told our new drinking buddies why we were there. Then he translated for Kattina and me as the owner of this new place explained what had become of the earlier business. It had gone bankrupt a year or two ago. The couple that ran it were no longer in the neighborhood. He had thought he might have their phone number, but he didn’t.
We hung out with our new posse for the next hour as fresh mugs of bia hoi kept magically appearing. (Luckily, the beer has a forgivingly low alcohol content.) The rice wine bottle continued circulating. We communicated to the best of our abilities. We taught each other to count in our prospective languages. When comprehension broke down, we drank more toasts.
When it was time for Kattina and me to go, the ringleader who had invited us to his table insisted on picking up our tab, which I agreed to only if he agreed that next time, the beers would be on me. He smiled and made me promise to return someday.
I promised I would. And I meant it – just as I meant it when I made the same promise three years earlier.
Will the bar be there next time? Who knows? But I know how to find the alleyway now. And beer or no beer, I have no doubt it will contain new adventures.