From the Department of Barely Documented Personal Histories of English-Speaking Expats in Early 21st Century Hanoi
Sometimes I revisit the halcyon days of early 21st century Hanoi in my mind. How about you, me auld mucker? No, I’m not talking about the dizzying highs like when I fell in love fourteen times in the space of an afternoon, while driving around aimlessly on my motorbike, or when you won 17 games of pool in a row in Apocalypse Now (yes, I’m quite sure it’s a record), or when Vietnam hosted the SEA Games (I still have to pinch myself when I think that that really happened in our lifetime, I know, right?!). And I’m not talking about the terrifying lows (mostly involving motorbike crashes, bouts of diarrhoea and conversations with strange and/ or terrible whisky-addled men after the hour of three a.m.).
I’m not even talking about the creamy middles — more the humdrum in-between stuff, the insignificant ways that you and I (and others of our ilk) passed the bulk of our time. Like: all the hours we spent sitting in a crappy internet café listening to the sound of an erratic dial up connection, which may or may not eventually offer us access to the world-wide-web; sitting in Moka Café (I swear it was the best brunch café in all of Indochina back in the day) or the Kangaroo Café (no frills egg brekkie, mate) debating with friends whether its time to scrap Hotmail and sign up for Yahoo; or whether you or I, or someone we knew, should stop renting a (highly dependable) Honda Wave (with a monthly service thrown into the bargain) and purchase a two-stroke motorbike that will break down repeatedly (leaving you or I, or someone we knew, on the side of every road in town and most provincial highways across the breadth of northern Vietnam, wishing, hoping, praying someone will take pity on you or I, or someone we knew, and help). I’m thinking about the days when nobody would even raise an eyebrow when a restaurant advertising an English breakfast served you a canned frankfurter in lieu of a sausage. I’m harking back to a time when one of the most regular post-lunch activities for many of us was to sift through boxes and catalogues of bootlegged CDs in those pokey little shops on Bao Khanh Street and buy every single Tom Waits album ever recorded, or Café Del Mar volumes I to VII, or three Ali “Farka” Touré albums that would never get played, not once. I’m recalling how we’d sit in a bar — pick a bar, any bar, doesn’t matter which bar — drinking a bottle of Halida/ Tiger/ Carlsberg while listening to Californication/ Pretty Fly for White Guy/ I’m the King of Bongo for the fifth time that night. Or how about those quiet nights when we decided to stay in (one of us must have been sick or just sick of being hung-over) and enhance our understanding of Vietnam by ordering pizza from Luna D’autunno and watching films (made by overseas Vietnamese directors) like Scent of Green Papaya, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, Cyclo, Three Seasons (or if we weren’t in the mood for any of that arty crap, we’d watch something like Dude — Where’s My Car?) on a contraption known as a “VCD machine” which always opened up with a disconcerting picture of a grimacing, hairless man — do you remember? Or can you recall how we could drive home before midnight on a Sunday and not see a single car and hardly any motorbikes (if you crashed, you’d only have yourself to blame)? Or how we didn’t have to buy packs of cigarettes, as the café would sell us a single cigarette, so we’d sit there, nowhere really to be, sipping on our iced coffees, smoking our single Vinataba or ‘ba số’, staring at the traffic, or the girl who served us the coffee…
I’d like to think that there was a part of us that knew that we would one day look back and say, those were the fucking salad days, my friend — and even though we weren’t doing anything, other than killing time between drinking sessions and sleeps, I think those days still deserve their little place in history (but I might leave out the bit about Café Del Mar volumes I to VII—nobody needs to know about that).