Nights in Hanoi aren’t for the sparkling clubber or clean-cut man in business-casual; they should be in Saigon. There is no vanity to Hanoi, and so this city without a mirror lets you into its Vietnamese soul.
Nights out begin at a harshly-lit street restaurant with moldy plastic stools that buckle and food like stir-fried noodles doused in hot sauce and an entire tree branch of limes. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Beer must be bought next door, seventy-five cents.
Afterwards you’ll find yourself in some sort of dark space with dim bulbs that emanate a pointless light – perhaps live music is playing, maybe radio jazz, or just the quiet whispers of people getting to know each other. No matter the venue, though, the tables are small and unbalanced, and you hear the switch and hiss of a beloved lighter being put to use. Dingy couches invite you to sit, the small stage pulls you in to sing like you’ve never sung before. There is an unassuming air here, a strict come-one-come-all policy, a gift without the wrapping paper. A gin & tonic in a plastic cup is still a gin & tonic.
Before midnight, restaurant staff hides the motorbikes, moving them from the sidewalk to some enclosed space – a nearby garage or entrance hallway or even the bar in question so that people can mingle and drink among their transport. The state curfew forbids anyone being out after midnight, so hiding the bikes and locking the doors and closing the shutters is a way to doop the cops. The cops aren’t dooped, though, just well paid, just puppets of the mafia. We go through this dance anyway, the one of cutting the music, putting out what remains of the lights, and being very quiet for a few minutes as we look toward the windows and a pair of high beam rays grazes the bar like a protruding scanner.
No, Hanoi isn’t for the sparkling clubber with heels that loudly click. Hanoi is for fugitives, ready to run.∗