Our magical, humdrum Hanoi lives

Connla Stokes
4 min readOct 2, 2020
Illustration by Oslo Davis (circa 2000)

Sometimes I get to thinking about those rare old times of early 21st century Hanoi. How about you, buddy? Nah, I’m not talking about the dizzying highs like when I fell in love 12 times in the space of an afternoon without even getting off my motorbike, or when you won 17 games of pool in a row in Apocalypse Now (even beating the guy who took it so seriously he wore a special glove), or when Vietnam hosted the 22nd SEA Games (heady, heady times). And I’m sure as hell not talking about the terrifying lows (mostly involving motorbike crashes, prolonged bouts of diarrhoea, and encounters with strange, whisky-addled and/or reptillian men after the hour of three a.m.).

I’m not even talking about the creamy middles (and by that I mean, mainly, never having to wash dishes and eating out, three meals a day, seven days a week) — I’m talking about the humdrum in-between stuff and the insignificant ways that you and I passed the bulk of our time. Like: all the hours we spent sitting in an internet café (that didn’t serve coffee) listening to the sound of an erratic dial up connection, which on occasion offered us access to the world-wide-web; all those times we whiled away an afternoon in Moka Café (I swear it was the best brunch café in all of Indochina for most of the year 2000), taking turns to read film (and restaurant) reviews in the Newyorker or doing the crossword in the Bangkok Post; and how about those heated debates in Kangaroo Cafe on whether or not we should scrap Hotmail and sign up for Yahoo, or whether we should stop renting a (highly dependable) Honda Wave (with a monthly service thrown into the bargain) and purchase a two-stroke motorbike that would break down on every road in town and, bonus extra: most provincial highways across the breadth of northern Vietnam. No matter where our motorbike failed us, within seconds someone would begin to help (this sometimes involved peering into the petrol tank to confirm, yes, it was drained dry). We had one spanner between the pair of us and never used it once.

I’m talking about an era when nobody would even raise an eyebrow when a restaurant boasting an epic all-day English breakfast would serve you a canned frankfurter in lieu of a sausage. I’m harking back to a time when one of our favourite (and only) post-lunch activities was sifting through catalogues of bootlegged CDs in those pokey little shops on Bao Khanh Street — yes, we did buy every Tom Waits album ever recorded, Café Del Mar volumes I to VII, three Ali “Farka” Touré albums (two of which were never played) and the greatest live album ever recorded (no, not The Last Waltz, I mean Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s En Concert a Paris).

I’m talking about all those evenings we’d sit in a bar — pick a bar, any bar, doesn’t matter which bar — drinking a bottle of Halida while listening to I’m the King of Bongo for the fifth time that night. I’m talking about those rare evenings when we decided to stay in and enhance our understanding of Vietnam by watching films (made by overseas Vietnamese directors) on a contraption known as a “VCD player” while eating pizza Diavola from Luna D’Autunno.

In those days we didn’t even have to buy packs of cigarettes, as street vendors and cafés would sell us a single Vinataba for a thousand dong, or a ‘pack of four’ for two thousand, so we’d sit there with nothing really to do, and nowhere else to really be, sipping on our iced coffees, smoking our ciggies and flirting with, or just staring at, the girl who served us the coffee, and whiling away another afternoon…

Whenever we got itchy feet, we’d jump on our motorbikes and crisscross the town, over and over, till hunger for food or a thirst for beer, whichever came first, signalled us to dismount by a plastic table on the pavement. Maybe we’d share very limited repartee with the locals around us (until they ran out of English, or we ran out of Vietnamese); maybe we’d trade barbs with the grumpy materfamilias and her diminutive underlings; or maybe we’d just sit there watching the traffic — even that seemed like a worthwhile thing to do in those days — and every mouthful of cheap-street-eats and every glug of a two- or three-thousand-dong glass of beer seemed like a tip of the hat to the entire city swirling around us. Is it any wonder that you didn’t stop grinning for a bloody year? Not to me, buddy. We were in love. In love with the whole goddamned city and our magical, humdrum lives.

The only thing that could get between us and Hanoi was time. With age, and the passing of years, came a nagging sense that we would have to do something with our lives. Simply existing (and watching the traffic) wasn’t going to be enough. And at this stage of our lives, we may not be clever, just wise enough to know there’s a sad side to falling in love with a time and place. But listen, don’t you be getting teary-eyed on me buddy. We’re still around and life isn’t so bad, we just have things to do, and places to be. And maybe it’d bring that smile back to your face to think there are two young foreign men, not unlike the men we once were, settling into life in Hanoi and falling head over heels for the city right now, and maybe this very afternoon, they have nothing to really do, and nowhere to really be — and maybe there’s even a part of them that knows that years from now they will look back, like we do now, and say “those were our fucking salad days my friend.”