You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore when you step off the plane at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport. The city and its surrounding environs is a study in contrasts that includes skyscrapers and fading French colonial architecture, pagodas, rice paddies, crashed American bombers and karaoke bars. Add to the melange myths of magic giant turtles and realities like a massive mausoleum featuring a mummified Great Leader, and you have one potent cultural cocktail. Welcome to Hanoi, capital city of a unified Vietnam since the “American War” (their term) ended in 1975, and now hurtling at hyper-speed into the 21st Century.
Part of the new landscape here today is an emerging nightlife scene. Rio or Amsterdam it’s not, but they don’t have 20-cent beer either. And considering the city was being carpet-bombed a generation ago, it’s a pretty promising blend of old and new diversions served up in characteristically quixotic Vietnamese fashion.
Serene West Lake is the most upmarket neighborhood in Hanoi, the city’s equivalent of Central Park West or Beverly Hills. Set between an ancient pagoda and the blingy estates of newly-minted Vietnamese high rollers, you’ll find the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake hotel. Opened last year, the InterContinental is considered one of Hanoi’s poshest properties, thanks in large part to its coveted perch on the lakeshore. One of its best assets is the hotel’s aptly named Sunset Bar, situated on a man-made islet reached via a torch-lit walkway which snakes over West Lake’s opaque waters. This is the new favorite spot of expats, business people and well-heeled locals to take in a sunset and usher in the evening. Whether you’re lucky enough to be a guest or not, make your way here for a sunset mojito (throw in a Cuban cigar while you’re at it), get cozy on one of the lake-side lounge beds and start your night with polished panache.
Grab a cab (the chaos of Hanoi traffic makes driving oneself a fool’s errand) and head to the Old Quarter and get ready to really mix it up with the locals. Nothing says “set ‘em up Trang” in Vietnam like going to a traditional beer pub, or bia hoi bar. Here, locals gather and gossip on those tiny plastic chairs meant for Western pre-schoolers and suck down freshly made draft beer in astonishingly large quantities for crazy low prices; around 2,000 dong, or about 15 cents per glass, is common. Popular munchies to nibble while imbibing include peanuts and leathery muc kho or dried squid, which is admittedly an acquired taste. One thing you will immediately get a taste for, however, is the ease with which you can connect and chat with locals, especially if you learn the popular drinking chant Tram Phan Tram! (basically “Bottoms Up”).
The Night Cap
If Martin Sheen’s character in “Apocalypse Now” decided to open a bar, surely it would be 17 Saloon. A bright, shining, neon-lit example of the bizarre cultural polyglot one can find sprouting in present-day Vietnam, it would be understandable if for a moment you thought you had landed in a Tucson mall-bar. First, ponder for a moment that this was a country the US tried to bomb into the Stone Age a generation ago, then gawk at the “howdy partner” décor of wagon wheels, eagle statues and an oversized, hand-painted stage backdrop of Western types at a barn dance. Don’t ask why, just order a Jack and Coke and take in the local rockers flailing their tresses and belting out tunes from artists like Poison and Prince with oddly-accented accuracy. Sitting at the bar and peering down from a second-level VIP section, hipster locals and expats illuminated by laser lights sip premium spirits and make song requests until things roll-up around midnight. We suggest requesting “I Love The Nightlife.”
[simpleflickr set= “72157616438541036” /]