It is Christmas Eve in Hanoi, darkness has settled, and the city’s famous nighttime economy is starting up. Leaving behind couples hugging each other in secret around a glistening lake, I take off down a side street where a group of ten or so men are huddled around something. Only when I am right up close can I make out that this is a game of backgammon and it’s an intense one; only those who dare would disturb it.
Nearby, an undercover market is wrapping up; sacks of rubbish are poured into a heaving bin and a little mouse scoots madly across the wet floor avoiding piles of fish guts splayed out in front of him.
Over the road is a queue of students waiting to order bubble tea from Father Christmas-hatted shop assistants. The urban soundtrack is produced by mopeds bleating incessantly, buses whooshing by and men sitting on motorbikes touting for business.
At the corner where Nha Hoa and Duong Tranh streets meet in the old quarter, I stop off for some corn-on-the-cob from a lady grilling it over hot coals. As requested I hand over 10,000 VND (50 cents) but as I open my mouth to bite into the charred kernels a small Vietnamese man in a black leather jacket arrives and asks her how much I paid. And then something rather lovely happens. On hearing that it is the same as the local couple behind me – as if confirmation that I am to be trusted – he ushers me to join him and his friends a few tables away. Pointing at the pot of hot snails, I explain that first I must finish eating; instead, he orders a plate too and points again at his table.
Being in Vietnam, the seat offered to me is a very small, plastic chair that looks as if it might have been designed for a child. Nonetheless, all six foot of me manages to perch on top of it, legs curled up on the floor – cue shrieks of laughter from my new companions – before six of us shake hands and introduce ourselves.
This is Christmas Eve, a night of celebration for me, yet I am alone tonight and I barely speak the local language, so what follows is an example of extraordinary generosity and kindness. First a mug of beer is thrust into my hand; we all chink glasses and take a decent glug of the cold, salty liquid before it is magically refilled again. Next my friend plonks the snails down near my lap and proceeds to give me a lesson in how to pluck the little creatures out of their shells using chopsticks, dangle them in sweet chilli and lemongrass sauce then cast the shells onto the floor. Not wanting to get this wrong, I try a few times but on each attempt I manage to leave half of the slug inside the shell and someone has to fish it out for me.
Once on my tongue, they are squelchy and salty and take a while to swallow. But it is not an unpleasant experience; merely a world away from the escargots smothered in garlic and butter that I have tasted in France.
Next on our dinner menu is what I believe to be a rather unexceptional-looking egg and spring onion pancake – I have since found out from friends that this local speciality is made made using animal guts – there are monkey nuts, the shells of which are also meant to be thrown onto a now very crunchy floor, and conversation in broken English and Vietnamese. We may be sitting on the street drinking away the cold but it is as if I have joined a private dinner party in someone’s house.
Through sign language and nods, I detect that one man, who wears gloves and a thick moustache, is 58 years old, divorced, lived in Germany for a few years and now runs his own business in Hanoi. He understands a lot of what I say but speaks very little. My host, meanwhile, speaks no English; his language is beer and every few minutes insists we all chink glasses again. Before long, they are shouting Appy Chrreestmas, I have learned một, hai, ba vô meaning “1,2,3 in!” and taught them to say “cheers” in return. Soon they are passing around my notebook, taking it in turns to write down phrases in Vietnamese. One man, a moped driver in his 60s who is married with three beautiful children that he has just shown me photographs of, writes Em You anh – I love you – and then adds nyo nyo meaning “very much”.
But before my new admirer has a chance to begin writing adoring poetry, we stop and turn our ears to a bizarre, scratchy sound coming from behind us. There, moving steadily past our table pushing a tiny food trolley labelled nom thit bo kho, is an old man with a ponytail of white and iron grey hair and old wooden rimmed spectacles. As he trudges forward, he snips a pair of giant metal scissors, cutting the night air like a happier version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s the Child Catcher. Laughing at my confusion, my host taps him on the shoulder and asks him to perform.
His act, it turns out, is cooking, and evidently I am lucky to have caught sight of this particular gentleman, for he has been wandering around the old quarter for 35 years, cooking for anyone who asks but never stopping in one place for more than a few minutes. And now, after much chopping and banging and mixing of things, he delivers a plastic plate of food; from what I can decipher it is a medley of thin rice noodles, some sort of sweet chilli sauce, crushed peanuts, pieces of lettuce, bits of what could either be burnt beef or pork and unrecognisable chunks of something resembling lardons. We take turns to try some: it is light, crunchy and, as far as Christmas Eve dinners go, intriguing. Of course I am so wrapped up in detecting what is in the dish that I barely notice my scissor-handed friend disappearing into the night again, snipping and smiling as he goes.
Meanwhile, men from the neighbouring table are intrigued to see a tall foreign girl sitting down to dinner and every so often one of them will come over and ask to have a group photograph with me; I laugh, pose obligingly and nod when they wish me a Happy Christmas. Next another man arrives and tells me he says he is pleased and happy to have me here. Every time he says something in English, he nudges my arm as if asking for approval. I learn that he is 50 years old and has two sons; by the end of our meeting I already have an invitation to join him at Lunar New Year – tet – when I return.
Soon the food is taken away and it is time for me to peel off. With a notebook full of email addresses and useful phrases, I stand up, wave goodbye and leave the little table.
Walking back along lamplit streets, I pass endless rows of baby Father Christmas outfits, a flashing neon Christmas tree and speakers pumping out a completely unrecognisable Vietnamese trance remix of Jingle Bell Rock. Apparently the night is only just beginning.
Originally published in Unmapped