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Hanoi after dark

Fans of cosmopolitan bars will have a field day in Hanoi. After dark, the Old Quarter of the Vietnamese capital comes to life with a vengeance, and it’s almost impossible to resist the lure of the trendy watering holes peppering the western edge of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Fresh into the city with a couple of new-found friends, I loped into ‘The Polite Pub’ without provocation. Appropriately named, the pub oozed Englishness, its difficult-to-reach bar propped up by a chorus line of boozers. Seats were scarce; it seemed to be the kind of place where you had little choice but to stand, drink and chat, forcing revellers to multi-task whilst upholding their vanity. The tiny pub was crammed, and its dark interior motivated me to grab a beer of the thirst-quenching ‘Halida’ variety before immediately heading for the door with a view to standing outside. I reasoned that the gutter wouldn’t complain.
By day, the intimidating nature of Hanoi’s coming-at-ya traffic is enough to send you sprinting for the cool, calm water of Hoan Kiem Lake. However, the roads do quieten down once darkness descends, especially away from the main thoroughfares which splice the city into compact sectors.
Heaving with Vietnamese and westerners alike, the only distinguishing feature of ‘The Polite Pub’ was the ratio of men to women. Males outnumbered females by roughly ten to one. Little did I realise that I’d unwittingly stumbled upon a gay bar. From the outside, it certainly wasn’t obvious that the pub-cum-bar catered almost exclusively to well-groomed men on the pull. The party atmosphere was irresistible, but I aspired to find somewhere in the midst of Hanoi that was a little more ‘up my street’. Luckily, a snuff-blagging Singaporean man hanging around outside the pub offered to take us to a bar which was alleged to be far more hip and trendy. Even better, it was supposed to be the ‘in’ place to frequent after dark in the city if young, free and single travellers of our ilk were on the casual prowl for women.

Follow me. You will see,’ he promised.

Trusting that he would remain good to his word, I drained what remained of my bottle. My mates followed in my wake, determined not to miss out on the impending action which was hopefully set to greet us at ‘The Funky Buddha.’

The following shard of advice should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s not always a wise idea to trust strangers in unfamiliar cities after dark. However genuine their helpfulness might seem on the surface, affairs can turn nasty in an instant. As we ducked and dived past blindingly colourful market stalls and busy ‘Pho’ joints, I recalled a night in Istanbul when I’d naively fallen prey to a man who persuaded me to hit a rock club with him in the affluent Taksim area of the city. Armed with a couple of mates, we hopped into a taxi and found the venue in no time. A prominently positioned TV tuned to a Hard Rock channel had greeted us with deafening aplomb. We’d barely touched base with the bar before the man had ordered a round of cocktails, waving away our attempts to pay our dues. He urged us to down them in one. Shocked by the bitterness of the mystery concoction, I let the side down, only managing to knock back half of my drink. Even so, I felt the effects of its contents immediately. Fortunately, I remained sober enough to cotton on to the fact that our drinks had purposefully been spiked. My friends necked their respective drinks within seconds. Both of them looked decidedly worse for wear in the aftermath. I surmised that the man who’d brought us to the club had hoped we would end up so strung out on what we’d been served that we’d fall to our knees, effectively inviting him to step forward, mug each of us in turn, and inconsequentially bolt before we became reacquainted with our stumped senses.

In Hanoi, we pressed on. I refused to allow the memories of that night of Turkish Delight-lacking fright to come between me and a rare opportunity to witness what happens behind closed doors in Vietnam once the sun’s sunk. Overhead, cluster-bombs of bugs held buzzing parties in the gaudy glare of indifferent streetlights.

On the bus ride over from Vientiane in Laos, I’d been told to ignore men should they approach me as I sauntered around the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake constitutes a major landmark in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and it has long been the stamping ground of con-men who casually strike up seemingly good-natured conversations with single travellers before asking them if they would like to be ‘accompanied’ to a nearby pub or club. Should any travellers succumb to such bait, it might not be long before they wake up with a killer hangover, wondering why they have been stripped of everything they’d held dear.

Mentally casting aside the huddled mass of worst-case scenarios that my mind couldn’t fail to conjure, I was overjoyed to see the neon lights of the fabled ‘Funky Buddha’ some twenty minutes after we’d begun pounding the litter-strewn streets away from ‘The Polite Pub.’

Here it is for you, Sir,’ the Singaporean proudly announced.

This was the point at which our innocent search for after-hours nightlife could have become ‘awkward.’ However, we were fortunately spared the horror of subsequently mashing our minds and ‘losing’ our money. To our mutual amazement, the man simply clapped his hands together, took a bow, and spun on his sandals. He had no intention of accompanying us into the bar. He might have been of an Anti-Alcohol persuasion, and perhaps his sole intention all along had been to ingratiate himself with an appropriately-humbled group of out-of-towners. Suitably stunned, we hung back at the kerbside for a minute before diving inside.

The interior of ‘The Funky Buddha’ was divine. There’s simply no alternative way of describing the plush, ultra-funky decor. Busting a series of clumsy moves to our left (all of which were executed as though we were founding members of ‘The Club for People with Two Left Feet’), we slid up to a bar. There didn’t appear to be a queueing system in force, so we waited patiently for a couple of minutes to see if one of the barmen asked what we desired in terms of drink. Five Vietnamese twenty-somethings were working behind the spirit-choked bar, yet none of them acknowledged our presence, in spite of them having nobody else to serve. Preposterously parched, I eventually hailed one of the men, asking for three bottles of ‘Halida.’ The man shook his head in response, nodding towards one of his colleagues prancing around in front of the bar with a notepad to hand. Evidently our order had to be processed via a suited and booted middleman.

Three beers, please,’ I said in a language which was clearly unfamiliar to his ears. To be honest, I couldn’t help but sympathise with him. After all, I was speaking in thoroughbred ‘Yorkshire.’ Aware of my mistake, I tried again, assuming the guise of a well-spoken southerner, smoothly clipping the rough edges from my harsh northern accent in hope that the man might understand.

Yes, thank you,’ he nodded, committing our order to his pad.

He then moseyed behind the bar, passed our order to the bar-keep I’d spoken to earlier, and shot off to attend to a fellow patron’s needs. Saying nothing, the bar-keep plunged his hands into an attendant fridge. He placed our beers on a silver tray before expectantly holding out a hand.

It was time to pay.

How much?’ I asked.

Ten dollars,’ he dryly mouthed.

Are you serious?’ I fumed, careful not to rip-off former tennis ace John McEnroe’s catchphrase.

Yes. Three beers. Ten dollars.’

Right,’ I seethed.

I knew when we were being ripped off, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Eager to calm my passions, I sloped away from the front bar, around a corner, skirting a packed dancefloor which lay abreast of another alcohol-saturated bar.

The cool and collected confines of the discreetly located venue couldn’t be faulted. Suffused with a wealth of metallic surfaces, the place shimmered in fine style, its clientele acting bold whilst looking impossibly beautiful.

Shame we were practically ringing our respective banks after buying a round each. In desperate need of overdrafts, we conspired to call it a night before the well-stocked bars within ‘The Funky Buddha’ laid waste to our best laid plans.

We left at closing time, on the dark side of two in the morning. Semi-sober but exhausted, the act of locating our hotel proved to be farcical, not least because its front shutters had been lowered, thereby concealing the main entrance.

Looking on the bright side, we knew the situation could have been a lot worse. Having kept our wits in check, we proceeded to roam the ancient streets of Hanoi in good spirits. We still had our money and our health, not to mention a new day of wild adventures to embrace.

Meanwhile, east of Vietnam, the sun was once again on the rise, and the sooner it cast its rays in our direction, the better.

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