There is a foreigners’ street in Hanoi –

by Dwight Z.

There is a foreigners’ street in Hanoi

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Foreign visitors to Hanoi, after touring the capital’s tourist sites, usually seek out a place to sit, drink tea, coffee or beer, and chat. Ta Hien street in the Old Quarter has been the preferred spot for a long time.

Like other old streets in Hanoi, during the daytime Ta Hien is packed with heavy traffic and crowds of people, including foreigners, who sit in street bars, enjoying meals and drinks and watching passers-by.

After dark, the street puts on another face whose features are particularly intriguing to visitors from around the world, including travellers called Tay ba lo or backpackers.

At night, Ta Hien becomes noisier with local people and foreign visitors drinking draught beer and chatting at sidewalk brasseries which seem to mushroom on both sides of the street. It becomes a street for pedestrians, except for a few motorbikes and taxis passing through to pick up or drop off passengers.

Brasseries here are very small and furnished only with a number of tiny plastic stools arranged in neat rows. When customers arrive, they grab a stool and order beer and food at very reasonable prices.

Today faded into a warm spring evening. Suddenly, a gentle rain began to fall, rendering the atmosphere still more romantic and charming. It was nearly 10 o’clock. Ta Hien began to get noisy while other streets became quiet. The brasseries became packed with customers coming and going, ordering glasses of beer and bowls of food, chatting and drinking toasts.

I felt isolated among the foreign crowd at Hai Loan brasserie. Though I did not understand what they were saying, I could guess where they came from through their complexion, accent, hair and clothing. They boasted of video clips they had shot while travelling around Hanoi and Vietnam.

Foreigners here are very friendly no matter where they come from or what they do, Hai Loan – the brasserie owner – told me.

I noticed that despite the crowd and the noise, they still found a quiet place for themselves. Many sat there, sipping beer, eating something and thinking pensively or just watching passers-by as a distraction from daily pressure or respite from a day of hard work.

“Foreigners normally come here when it gets dark,” Hai Loan said. “Brasseries become crowded from 21.00-24.00, and after midnight, customers continue chatting and drinking inside the brasseries.”

“Because brasseries offer beer and food at such low prices, we have to purchase more barrels of beer to keep up with customer demand.”

Even though he has been in the business for a long time, Hai Loan could not explain why foreigners like to come to drink and chat. He also admitted that if he were a foreigner, he would not be crazy enough to travel a long distance just to drink cheap beer.

I wanted to start a conversation with the foreigners, but couldn’t because of my poor command of English. By chance I made the acquaintance of an experienced tour guide named Thanh who often comes and helps out the brasserie owners.

“The brasserie attracts foreigners from different countries who are businessmen or footballers living and working in Hanoi or nearby provinces, but most of them are backpack tourists,” Thanh said. “They come here by word of mouth or through the Internet, and once they come, they like it immediately.”

Our conversation was constantly being interrupted as Thanh had to serve beer to customers and greet newcomers.

A tall African guy with braided hair entered the brasserie, wearing a hat typical of sea pirates. Thanh said Hello and introduced him to me.

“This is Albert, one of my friends. He is a football player. He speaks Vietnamese very well.”

Albert came across, shook my hands and spoke in Vietnamese, “My name is Chien. I can’t speak Vietnamese, except for English.”

His keen sense of humour made us burst out laughing.

“I come from Ghana and I’ve been here in Vietnam for one year and 9 months,” Chien said. “I’m playing for Vinakansai Ninh Binh Football Club. I’ll miss matches for the next five months due to recent injuries.”

He said he knew this brasserie through his friends, and he comes almost every night to meet people and relieve his homesickness. With a good command of Vietnamese, Chien said, he made friends there with an Australian volunteer who is now his girlfriend.

Ricky is lighting up the bamboo pipe

Another guy came into the brasserie, capturing the beer connoisseurs’ attention by his meticulously trimmed moustache and the big bamboo pipe he had just borrowed from the brasserie owner. Loan said he is a regular customer. He is called Ricky, an American guy who has come to Vietnam for 9 months and is currently teaching at the Apollo Language Centre in Hanoi.

Speaking in both English and Vietnamese, Ricky confided that he loves the Vietnamese culture, street food and draught beer sold on the pavement. He said American beer is much stronger and more expensive than Vietnamese beer and that he never gets pissed even when he has a few too many.

He said he has known this bar for 6 months and he often comes to make new friends, especially when he feels homesick or sad.

“Just over a month ago, I came here to ring in the New Year with other revellers. I was very happy. …. I like walking and observing the Old Quarter at night and find that Hanoi is so tranquil and romantic at that time.”

Ricky lit up the pipe and released smoke as if he was a professional pipe smoker.

“It’s marvellous. I am so addicted to pipe smoking that I can’t live without it,” he said, adding that he learned to smoke a pipe from a tea vendor. At first he found it difficult to use the pipe, but he gradually got used to it.

The wall clock struck 11, but nobody appeared to leave the bar. The owner even refused some newcomers, because there were no more chairs available.

The beer connoisseurs continued drinking, cheering, shaking hands and even whistling which is what makes Ta Hien popular with foreigners when they come to Hanoi.




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