Friday, November 18, 2011

Bia Hoi Anniversary

Bia Hois are cheap, but usually quite gritty; they sell their beer in deformed glasses and in an environment housing rats and a heavy urine odor.  Having said that, I love them to bits and frequent them quite often.  It’s just that when I was invited to a bia hoi’s six year anniversary party, I hadn’t expected anything so grandiose.  The chairs and tables had white sheets draped over them and dark red bows.  There were oysters, lobsters, steaks, slices of Parma ham, an abundance of wine, and some very nice Oceanic beer.  Everyone was dressed in suits or classy dresses and it was all free…it felt like a wedding.  It was invite only.
In Vietnam it is considered good luck to invite foreigners to anniversary celebrations or inaugural events because it means you’ll have good business throughout the year.  A friend of mine, and the photographer for this week’s blog Michel Anderson, goes to this particular bia hoi often.  There is a server there whose name, for reasons that will later be explained, will remain anonymous.  This server had invited Michel to the party and after talking to one of the managers told Michel to bring some friends. 
It was buffet style so in typical Vietnamese fashion there was plenty of pushing, shoving, and hoarding with regard to the expensive food items.  I kept hunting for the oysters but they were phantom-like in their ability to disappear from the buffet.  I’d usually see an angry looking middle aged woman with a large plate of them just after they were brought out.  I didn’t mind, I was party crashing anyway and contented myself to sit with my group on mats atop a bamboo bench with a bit of ham.  The table was extremely low to the ground for a large man like me so I had to stretch them out in awkward ways that nearly tripped passersby.  The man across from me found this amusing.
He was from Vung Tau, a beach town near Saigon, and was at the celebration alone.  He had a large mustache and was wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt—the kind of shirt that a girlfriend would throw out when you’re not looking.  He was drunk; he was a drunk; so am I, so we got drunk.  For me it was a good chance to practice my Vietnamese, which got me as far as finding out where he was from and that he was an engineer who worked on large building projects.  I don’t remember his name, probably due to his tendency to make me slam full glasses of red wine.  Mot tram phan tram! (One hundred percent)” he’d say clinking my glass and looking disappointed if I showed hesitation.
My red wine drinking companion had a craving to sing some karaoke and so I accompanied him to the main stage.  The thing is that it wasn’t really open karaoke; at the time there was a white suited professional on stage with long slicked back hair being given a large bouquet of flowers for his great performance.  Earlier there’d been a staged comedy team and I wasn’t surprised when they wouldn’t let my friend sing—especially given how stumbly and red faced he was at this point. 
Instead we just stood in a corner and took in the whole scene.  His big smile and giggle went cold and he seemed to be having a solemn moment.  He motioned around at all the well off people in the room with their expensive suits and seafood and said something about money.  A friend of mine from Saigon had recently told me that people from Hanoi are much showier with their money than in Saigon, so I assumed this may have been his intention.  I said Hanoi people have a lot of money, right?  He seemed to understand my Vietnamese for he shook his head and clinked my glass.
Red Wine Drinker
Soon after I think he realized that he was wasted for he said goodbye and left the building.  I decided to get another wine and meet back up with the friends I’d come with.  The man who served me the wine, the man who’d been feeding the engineer and I wine all evening, turned out to be the man who’d invited Michel to the party in the first place.  His English was impeccable; I asked him how he’d achieved this and found out that it was due to missionaries when he was growing up.  He had a secret to tell me, that in a few months he was quitting his job to go to seminary school…he was having a glass of wine when he said this.
I was later introduced to another manager of the place who was younger than I’d expected and holding a smiling baby when he talked to me.  I thanked him for inviting me, though he hadn’t really, and that I wished his business much success.  The whole thing must’ve cost a fortune.  Outside an old hunchbacked woman pushed a large wagon of rubbish for which she’d receive a pittance, and somewhere out there a mustachioed man from Saigon was probably getting sick.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Late Night Photo Mission

The Late Night Market
It’s a strange thing to stay up all night in Hanoi when sober; you start to get this feeling that you’re up to no good.  When I set off at 2:30am with the photographer for this blog, Sebastiano, we felt like thieves.  The alley was silent, so much so that we dared not break it with the revving of his Minsk motorbike.  Instead we rolled it down the long maze that is our alleyway with no memorable sounds save the incessant dripping of water and a few dogs that also had the impression we were criminals.  We weren’t…aren’t…in fact our mission was quite innocent.
My friend Sebastiano (a.k.a. Seb) mentioned during a drinking session that he wanted to be more challenged for his photography assignments.  It was during this session that we hatched the idea for this late night mission.  If you’re a follower of this blog then you might remember an earlier entry about staying up past curfew and a certain disgusting club called Phuc Tan.  It would have been easy enough to go in there drunk and take a few shots with a point and shoot camera, but Seb insisted that those photos always turn out horribly; that they failed to capture the true disgusting nature of all the drunkenness, debauchery, sweat, and bad dancing.  He said it had to do with an improper flash.
So, armed with a new and, I’m assured, fancy flash we drove out to the Red River and Phuc Tan.  In the city, even downtown, there weren’t many people up.  We saw the odd security guard asleep on his feet, working girls in the midst of their nights work, the odd jogger (at 2:30?!), and a few old men playing chess.  Even the rabbit warren of alleyways that make up the Old Quarter were completely devoid of their usual traffic.  It was a bit like a zombie film.
Due to the disturbing calm of the night, we were quite surprised when we came upon the night market.  It was the market that fed other markets, the teat on which all of Hanoi suckles.  There were stacks of pineapples as tall as a man and whole gutted pigs stacked in threes on the back of motorbikes.  It was like a small village of farmers and distributers busy at their industry.  It woke me up.
Neither of us remembered exactly how to get to Phuc Tan, which is likely the case with most that go there.  Eventually, when we got close enough, we just followed the trail of stumbling foreigners wearing the remnants of what were formerly Halloween costumes.  Timing is everything with good photography; at least that’s my opinion…the opinion of a non-photographer.  The whole point of our going out sober in the middle of the night was to catch Phuc Tan with its pants down, which quite literally is what happened. 
It was some expensive equipment we were toting around so we pushed our way through the mass of bodies to the least inhabited part of the club:  the third floor consisting of two make-out couches in full swing, poor lighting, and one couple with their pants down.  I may be exaggerating, but I did feel quite badly when they lowered their heads, adjusted their pants, and left the spot on the stairs where they’d been “dirty dancing” (as ambiguous a term as the situation).  From up on the third floor we could look down onto the dance floor through strewn bits of toilet paper and other half assed attempts at Halloween decoration.  We smoked a few cigarettes and planned our route through the place marking certain strange characters, by costume or behavior, for photos.
Phuc Tan Halloween
After setting up his camera to the proper functions we pushed our way through the crowd, I in the lead making a hole just like a front lineman for a running back (I guess High School Football taught real life skills after all).  Our major concerns were not pissing anyone off, causing them to break the camera, or being too showy with it, causing someone to steal the camera.  When you’re sober, it’s strange how volatile drunks seem.  Surrounded by skeletons, pirates, and sexy bunnies, I was reminded of the college frat parties that everyone makes fun of.  Yet here were adults—backpackers and professionals—doing the same thing.  A middle aged sea captain had his white cap stolen by a sexy young thing without a costume.  I was just behind him so he tried reaching around near my hands unsuccessfully searching for it.  Eventually he realized it was the girl.  She was smiling at him engagingly, but he merely gave her a fatherly look of disappointment and took it back. 
We exited through the sea of laser lights and decided, being quite awake, to take another tour of the giant market.  It was about four at this time and we saw yet a different crowd of Vietnamese workers setting out to start their day.  In a dark alleyway, as we approached the market, there was a troop of about ten women with conical hats and long wooden polls slung over their shoulders like muskets.  At the end of the polls were collections of plastic bags and we assumed that these ladies were going to buy produce to sell at one of the smaller markets.  They marched in step like soldiers…do they meet up every day at four and do this; every day at four while two hundred meters away somebody is buying an overpriced drink for what would be a good day’s profit?
The Spring Onion Man
These are the thoughts that went through my mind as we strolled through the giant market taking photos of people at work or sleeping by their stands.  Most were happy to have their photo taken, some even posed like the spring onion man whose picture is featured here.  It was so much friendlier than the other city markets that often seem disenchanted by tourists.  I guess at that time in the morning two sober westerners wandering the market was more of a novelty.  Some even patted our heads, pinched our cheeks, and called us beautiful.
To celebrate our picture taking success we enjoyed a beer and the sunrise at Puku next to some incredibly drunk Irish who were loudly singing away at five thirty.  Strange.  Strange to have experienced a drunken night-out sober.  Strange to see things through a different perspective.  Strange to see the juxtaposition of the market and the club so close to each other.  Strange always to see the sun come up.  It’s all about the flash.

Betsy the Keg

Mario and Luigi feeling quite proud of their keg
Bia Hoi’s are famous in Hanoi.  No, that’s not just coming from the mouth of a heavy drinker, they really are.  Just google Bia Hoi and see how many hits you get.  They’re great places of all shapes and sizes that have a great variety of dishes and fresh beer out of a keg.  I appreciate a good beer and I wouldn’t waste my breath trying to argue Bia Hoi being amazing beer; it’s cold and it’s about thirty cents a glass…and it’s okay.
I’ve just moved house and last weekend we’d decided to have a housewarming, Halloween, and birthday party (it was Tali’s, my wife’s, birthday).  Originally we told people to bring their own drinks and we were going to make some sort of fancy sandwiches…then we thought we’d better buy a slab of beer just in case…then we built a bar and bought a fridge for the terrace to store this beer…then we put together that there must be a way to just get a keg from a Bia Hoi.  Funny how the sandwiches never happened.
When I was living in Japan I couldn’t help but notice that they still sell cigarettes in vending machines.  To keep the kids away, you cannot utilize these machines without first swiping a card that proves you’re of age.  I wanted one of these cards.  I had to fill the thing out in Hiragana and Katakana; I had to send forms proving my age, and take passport photos.  When the card came I felt so proud; I was the only one in our group who had gone through the trouble of getting it.  You  see, it wasn’t merely the cigarette access…it was an act that made me feel more like a citizen and less like a traveler.  I was part of the society, of age, and a smoker.  I should have access to the vending machines.  The card was quite a hot item when I left.
The keg was a very similar thing.  I was told that people had them delivered to their houses and, despite my low level of Vietnamese (which I’m working on [yes that’s guilt speaking]) should be something that a person living in the country could organize.  My housemate and I on our first foray into the Vietnamese keg buying world stopped at a strange little Bia Hoi in an alleyway.  We’d been shopping for fruit and veg in the market and it was around nine in the morning.  There were four people in the establishment drinking.  I asked the man who I assumed to be the proprietor about the cost of a keg.  He told me twenty million (about one thousand dollars) and then went on to say that they didn’t do take away.  This first failure only fueled the desire to make it happen.
So after many strange dealings in a different Bia Hoi in a different alleyway we eventually got Betsy.  Betsy’s original name was Beatrice like in Dante’s Vita Nuova, but we thought that seemed a bit much for a keg.  It was quite a difficult task in the end.  I went to said Bia Hoi four times: once to enquire, twice to try and arrange things, and once for pick up.  When arranging things I came armed with a calendar and a few choice phrases I’d memorized (keg, happy new house, Saturday, deposit, etc.).  I shook the man’s hand, he brought me a beer, he gave me a smoke and I assumed it was a done deal.  When I went there the day of the party they seemed confused…later on though, it was there and on ice.  Betsy was a thing to behold.
It took four of us, two Bia Hoi servers and my friend and I, to shimmy the thing up the ladder that leads to our terrace.  When we finally got her to start spouting out beer it was hard to believe we’d done it.  I haven’t had a keg at my house since university days; very exciting.  We just stared at it quietly for awhile, occasionally asking her nicely for more beer.  She was very obliging.
The party got messy.  It was bound to.  People started shouting off our balcony to passersby and people who didn’t understand gravity feeds had Betsy spraying every which way.  I eventually came to stand guard by the keg and help people with their beers.  When we finally succeeded in getting our kind guests out of the house the whole terrace seemed covered in a thin layer of beer.  I told my housemates we had to stay up and finish Betsy…we soon found that she only contained half a beer more. 
It was just as well I suppose for it was at that time that it seemed like a good idea to strip down to my underwear and clean up after the whole party.  Drunkenly I put my arm around my housemates’ shoulders and told them to look at the giant mess for it wouldn’t be there in the morning.  After about an hour, sticky and smelling like a bar rag, I decided to give up.  In bed though, I smiled wide thinking of sweet Beatrice who’d worked so hard. She was still sitting up there, completely spent, only drunkards to carry on her name.  It was a fine keg.

Up Past Curfew

Phuc Tan at 4am

There is a twelve o’ clock curfew in Hanoi, or so I’m told.  True, most respectable places of business do close their doors well before this time and the streets are almost devoid of people.  As for those places that do stay open, and for those people who do wander past curfew, I hold a bit of suspicion.  I don’t really know the penalty for operating past curfew; all I’ve seen in regards to this phenomenon are laughable scenes of bars having patrons walk around the block, drinks in hand, until the police have left; that, or restaurants, alerted minutes before the arrival of the police, quickly taking away everything on your table to make it appear as if they’re closing up.  My suspicion arises from the fact that these places and people, you know who you are, obviously have no problem breaking the law, albeit a small one; who knows what other liberties they’re willing to take.

I’ve only been in Hanoi for a month now, so those seasoned souls who have been here for years will probably laugh at the naivety of my perceptions regarding the dangers of living beyond curfew.  Having said that, there do seem to be lurking dangers that had never occurred to me when living in Saigon… namely gang rape.  A friend of mine, let’s call her Sheila was out with another friend, we’ll call her Jane.  It was past curfew and they were clubbing.  Jane got so drunk she could barely stand, so Sheila, with the help of a Vietnamese guy loaded her into a taxi.  Sheila was having a hard time giving the driver directions to Jane’s house so the good Samaritan, who helped load her in the car and claimed to be a police officer, got in and said he’d help get them home.  The Good Samaritan instead directed the man to a dark alleyway where a group of men were making rude gestures.  The men proceeded to grope Jane and try and pull her out of the car whilst Sheila screamed for help.  Apparently one of the men had a moment of conscious and started yelling at the others.  The cab took off and brought Sheila and her friend to her house.  The cab driver then tried to overcharge them.

So you see what I mean about these den’s that stay open late and the spiders that abide in them.  The other night I went to one.  Hanoi Rock City was closing for the evening having hosted a few bands playing decent covers.  I’d been drinking for the better part of the day and saw no reason to stop just because the bar had closed.  It was suggested that we go to Phuc Tan, which apparently never closes.  I was pretty much out of money but figured that would work itself out somehow.  Phuc Tan is a meat factory: full of sweaty scantily clad young bodies looking to hook up.  I don’t know why but the upstairs area we eventually shoved our way up to gave me the impression of a boat.  Something about the mouldy windows, musty scent, and the way everything seemed to be swaying.  This last part, I presume, was from the alcohol.

Phuc Tan again
After a series of nineties classics one of my female friends said that this club was situated right next to the Red River and that there’s a path that leads there.  I told her we must do this!  She then warned me that one of her male friends had been “molested” and that there’d been some weird naked guy shouting at her last time she’d taken the path.  I put the quotes on molested because I don’t really know what she meant and since she was smiling when she said it; it probably wasn’t all that bad.  We must do this, I reiterated and proceeded to convince the rest of our group to join us on our adventure...they all said yes.

It was a dark path on slippery wooden planks hovering over a lotus pond.  The railings, when they were there, were rickety things that offered very little stabilization.  It was a horrible idea.  I thought this many times on the way as the planks gave way to a muddy path I twice did a cartoon style wobble.  The kind of wobble that feels as if your legs are whirring beneath you circular fashion keeping you from falling.  There was lush vegetation to the left and right but again, very little visibility.  I stomped in the muck beneath me having once heard that you’re supposed to let snakes know your coming and they’ll probably get out of your path.

Our destination was full of mosquitoes but quite picturesque with the lit bridge in the background and the Red River beneath.  No naked danger at all really except that of falling.  When I was bringing my wife, who was having a hard time staying awake on the dance floor, home I was extremely aware of the possible dangers.  In my mind were the aforementioned gang rape story and other tales of people being stripped of their possessions and beaten.   Instead, I got a very good deal on a cab ride home.  In Saigon I never thought twice about my personal safety and regularly wandered about until it possible that these dangerous tales I’ve heard have been exaggerated?  Does curfew create a haven for deviants?  Is it just a matter of time before I too get into trouble?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Gatekeepers

Most of us past our mid twenties will remember that famous scene from Ghostbusters where Sigourney Weaver, wearing that tawdry red dress charred from the apartment fire, asks Rick Moranis, “Are you the Key master?”
In reply he asks, “Are you the Gate Keeper?”
They embrace and begin making love in a half destroyed apartment complex while horrible scenes of slimy ghosts wreaking havoc take place below them.  After a few weeks of staying at my friend’s house here in Hanoi, I too have found the Gate Keeper.  Not in any sexual sense, good God I hope not, for my Gatekeeper seems to be about ninety years old.  Okay, maybe a conservative eighty, but I still don’t think he’d be any competition for Sigourney even with his own red dress.  Maybe I have a thing for Sigourney Weaver...I do really like the Alien series...especially when she’s clad in underwear shooting the Alien out of the airlock.
I digress.  My gatekeeper is an old Vietnamese man who is, not surprisingly, married to an old Vietnamese woman.  They’re an odd pair and really don’t seem to have much else to do all day than check on the gate.  Let me paint a picture of the alleyway: it’s off of Kim Ma, a major road, and there is a narrow passageway with peoples flats to the left and right; at the end of the passageway is a gate the opens to three or four other houses including our own. At night the gate is kept securely closed with a padlock; during the day it is merely a large metal peg that can be unhooked, via a small swinging opening, from either side.  The old couple, day and night, have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the gate is always shut. 
Periodically throughout the day the old man or woman will potter down to the gate, jiggle the metal peg, look out at the busy street through the bars, usually look disapprovingly at our house, and then potter on back home.  Even if the gate is left unfastened for only a minute, they are well aware.  Once I walked to the end of the road to throw out our trash, a thirty second journey, and on my return was met with a look of death from the old woman.  She gave me a good talking to and there was little confusion, despite the language barrier, what she was upset about. 
I can’t help but feel there is a little partiality to yelling at us rather than the other residents in the alley.  I’ve seen others leave the gate wide open and drive off without giving the old couple a thought.  When this happens I’m always worried that I’ll be blamed for the transgression; in fact, I sometimes close the gate for others fearing chastisement by my wrinkly neighbours.  Again, I don’t see them yelling at the others, just us.  Is it because we are the only people that allow this kind of treatment, is it just racism, are they in some way trying to be nice by showing how much they care about our safety?  If so, why do they also insist on looking through our rubbish?
 I think about this and I also think how I’ve never seen them outside of the gate.  I think of their age and wonder if they are more frightened of the world coming in, or that they might be forced out into the world.  The city’s changed rapidly over the past few decades, so much so they might not even recognize it.  I imagine that, in a way, it has changed to such a degree that they are actually living in a land foreign to them.  The only comfortable place is home, or rather that small area behind the gate; the gate through which they watch the world change.  The only contact they have with that changing world is probably us: the foreigners, no less strange than Slimer, who need to be told how life is lived behind the gate.