Homebrew in Hanoi
There are plenty of people who, with the slightest provocation, will tell you about how they experienced the ‘real’ Asia by eating street food. There are plenty of pieces on the internet as well sprouting on about the virtues of, the authenticity of and how much money they saved by eating food with the locals in the streets of Vietnam. One thing you don’t hear about too often is the drinking that has been done on the streets. Street food is lauded as safer than the food served in expensive restaurants, the rationalization being that as they have to buy their ingredients to cook each day, with no refrigeration, the food must be fresh. However the same thing can’t be said for the drinks that are served up in road side bars. People often say that alcohol will kill anything. Let me tell you that it doesn’t.
An evening meander through the streets of Hanoi brought us to an intersection; on 3 corners of this intersection were hastily erected bars, with plastic seats laid out for customers on the footpath. The beer in these establishments was advertised on a bright yellow and red sign for 3000 Vietnamese dong. At the time that converted to 24c a glass. Yes an alarm bell should have been ringing and considering that the bottled beer could not have cost more than $2 at the same establishment we still elected to give the budget option a go. It was our last night in Vietnam after almost a month. We had eaten, lets face it, anything that was put in front of us, been taken into people's kitchens to learn how to replicate their dishes and eaten on the street. We’d had nothing more than a minor stomach upset the whole trip. We were suffering from a false sense of security.
The beer tasted like beer, but more like your housemate’s home brew than something that you’d get at a bottle shop. It was drinkable but not really enjoyable. Pumped out of a homemade keg set up made of large white plastic buckets the beer was served by a lady with a wide, generous smile. The fact that it was not enjoyable for some reason did not stop me from ordering a second one when my husband went around the corner to buy yet more DVDs . I spent a good portion the evening taking photos of the brightly lit intersection, playing around with the settings on my camera. At one point we were all made to get up off our plastic chairs which were hurriedly packed up inside. The scene was repeated on each corner of the intersection. A moment later a police car drove past and as soon as it had turned the corner a plastic chair was placed back on the footpath for me. At this point I’m sure another alarm bell was ringing somewhere but I damped my radar with another 3000 dong beer.
What happened the next morning my husband blames on my decision to order spaghetti carbonara for dinner. I still blame the beer although he had a few as well and felt no ill effects. We spent a pleasant night exploring Hanoi with a slight buzz from the home brew, buying things we knew couldn’t fit into our luggage home and stopping for dinner in a restaurant we had heard good things about. While we had spent the first few weeks of our holiday determined to only eat local food as time went on my resolve left me. I wanted to eat something familiar. And so I ordered spaghetti carbonara. I hadn’t eaten anything creamy in weeks, I was dying for a big bowl of pasta and I was a little bit drunk.
The following day we had a 1pm flight to Singapore and I woke up feeling strange. I didn’t feel sick as such but I had an urge to throw up. It was like an itch that needed to be scratched. I got out of bed, was sick and felt fine. For 15 minutes. I got progressively worse as the day went on and I dare say that I have never so thoroughly purged myself as I did in the departure lounge toilets of Hanoi International Airport. I am also thoroughly thankful that I made it to the toilets to do it.
Hanoi's Old Quater. Cheap beer is somewhere in here...
I suffered through the short flight to Singapore and alighted into the excessive labyrinth that is Changi Airport. Coming down the escalators a group of worried official looking people were watching passengers. There were large white arches set up and I was pointed at. A few of the staff took an interest in me and looked down at a screen. A mantra started in my head, ‘Please don’t search me for drugs. I can’t cope today,’ and too my relief they let me pass.
The next day I was reading the local Singapore newspaper and one story dominated the front page, Swine Flu. Singapore had been hard hit by the Bird Flu outbreak a few years earlier and they were not taking any chances this time, screening all passengers coming into the country for high temperatures. I’d been lucky not to be taken into quarantine. Although if I had to choose somewhere in the world to be quarantined it would be Singapore. My first meal in Singapore, a place where eating is a national pastime and where influences from all of Asia fuse together to create a culinary smorgasbord was a cheese burger from McDonalds. One of those soft sugary buns, the same anywhere in the world was so plain and easy to chew, easy to swallow and I knew it couldn’t irritate my stomach further. But it was a disappointing start to the gastronomic adventure of Singapore. I still love you beer but from now on only from a bottle or can.
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