|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.