On our first night in Hanoi we kept the evening’s entertainment light since we had checked into our hotel in the Old Quarter only around 7 pm. Besides we wanted to wake up early the next morning to get in line to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body.
So a casual stroll through the streets of the Old Quarter, possibly a walk around the Hoan Kiem lake and a light dinner were the only pleasures we were after.
As we approached the streets around the lake we started noticing people on bikes waving the smart, red Vietnamese flag. (My husband and I both think it is one of the most photogenic flags we’ve ever seen.) Within minutes there were so many bikes approaching the lake that I was convinced we were about to be in the midst of a political rally.
But when we got to the lake there were only young people about giving the evening a distinct party vibe. So I asked a vendor trying to sell us flags what the commotion was about. He told us that Vietnam had just beaten Singapore 1-0 in a football match in the Suzuki cup and therefore quite by accident we were about to witness a massive street party.
To get a party started in Hanoi all you need is a flag and a bike with a piercing horn. Wave one, blow the other and drive round and round the Hoan Kiem lake to become part of the revelry. We waded bravely into the midst of the bikes but suddenly someone started throwing fire crackers into the crowd making us retreat in haste to the pavement.
Sharing our part of the wide pavement was Quan, a driver for the Italian embassy and an American tourist who worked for USAID in the Philippines. Quan was feeling thrilled at the win and explaining the reversal of fortunes of the Vietnamese team over Singapore he made the gesture of someone stepping on a cockroach.
It seemed as though everyone who owned a bike in Hanoi was there causing a traffic jam to shame Bangkok. The crowd was chanting “Việt Nam vô địch” which means “Vietnam Champions”.
We didn’t realise how long we had been standing there and by the time we decided to find some dinner and head back to the hotel it was already past 11 at night. None of the restaurants were open and we didn’t have the courage to sample any of the street food.
Luckily we found one open bakery selling a curious item called ‘Roti Mexico’. This Roti Mexico was a bun stuffed with cheese except that the bun was horribly sweet, like the old Modern bread we used to get in India. Awful stuff.
On the walk back to the hotel a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) driver was soliciting rides and I could have sworn he said “Can I have you?” which made me chuckle. But I discovered over the coming days that that’s the way the Vietnamese pronounce the word “help”.
We refused the ride but the driver continued, “Do you want opium?” We didn’t want that either and made our way back to the hotel. We tumbled into bed a little after midnight, excited to have been in the right place at the right time in Hanoi.