In numerous Southeast Asian countries, the locals smoke a very strong, very potent type of tobacco. In Vietnam, it’s known as thuốc lào. It’s especially smoked after meals, or with beer and snacks, supposedly to aid digestion. Some people roll it up in papers, others smoke it out of these makeshift homemade bongs that Teresa and I started to notice on the streets of Hanoi. Even for typical smokers, this shit is heavy.
We first noticed it as I was driving to a mall to look for a movie theatre. We were going to watch the new Wolverine movie that had recently come out.
We stopped at a KFC (just so Teresa could use the washroom, I swear) and as I waited for her outside next to our bike, I noticed these ladies selling food on the side of the road and hauling smoke out of this long black bubbling bong. I immediately inquired.
Of course, if you’re from Canada, the US, or Europe, you probably acquaint bong use to marijuana use. I certainly do/did. But I knew in a city like Hanoi, or in Vietnam in general, where police corruption is rampant and drug use is generally looked down upon, there was no way these ladies would be hauling drugs at 5 in the afternoon on a street corner. Instead, as they explained to Teresa and myself, her translating of course, they were smoking this pungent, overwhelming tobacco. The idea of hauling tobacco smoke from a bong makes my head hurt just thinking about it. But when in Rome, right?
The ladies offered us a toke which we happily partook in. It left our heads swimming and the ladies laughing. An interesting feeling, one which isn’t for the faint of heart, or head. This thuốc lào is no joke, apparently, and it’ll leave your vision blurry if you aren’t careful. After sitting on a little stool for 5 minutes as our heads swam, we finally took off on our bike, thanking the ladies for providing us with this unique experience. Later that night, we’d come to realize that it wasn’t very unique here in Hanoi, or in other parts of Asia as well.
After enjoying Wolverine, we drove around the city, sort of back towards the area we were staying, but really just driving around, enjoying the bright scenery. I love the concentration of motorbikes on the road in large Vietnamese cities, it’s so much fun to drive through.
We ended up at a bia hoi stall, bia literally meaning beer and nearly sounding like it when pronounced, as well. These little spots sell beer and a variety of snacks, from shelled peanuts to these cold sausages wrapped in banana leaves. The owners of this particular location are a young couple in their late 20s, early 30s, with a son and daughter. The owners names are Phuong and Linh and they and their friends turned out to be some of the coolest people we’d meet on our entire 6 month trip.
Our friendship started with Teresa explaining to me how to eat the wrapped sausage. There’s this little leaf that runs along it that you’re supposed to eat, but I misunderstood, thinking I was supposed to eat the thick banana leaf surrounding the whole thing. Phuonh, Linh, and some of their friends were killing themselves with laughter as they watched me happily tearing away at this massive leaf that is only supposed to be used as a wrapper, or a small plate when unwrapped. To them, the fact that I was so willing to dive into something different, whether I was doing it right or not, made them think we were the coolest foreigners they’d ever met. I guess they were used to people who shy away from unusual food or the places where mostly locals eat at. Teresa and I are always the adventurous type when it comes to this kind of thing, but especially in Vietnam where she understands the language and is able to inquire about just about anything. Their surprise at my willingness to enjoy their food sealed the deal. All of us have been friends ever since.
Phuong and Linh wanted to know all about us, and us about them. Their friends, many young married couples and some with very young children, kept dropping in and out, too. Despite the fact that only Linh and some of his friends spoke very little English, and I spoke almost no Vietnamese, our personalities just clicked in a way that it often wouldn’t for me with people from my own home country. We all just enjoyed each other’s company. The men, too, were enjoying some thuốc lào from their little bong.
I will say that there is a persistent aspect of Vietnamese culture, and Asian culture in general, that places men above women in the social hierarchy to one extent or another. The men we met did most of the talking compared to their respective wives or girlfriends, and were a little more interested in getting to know me in particular because I am a man as well. It’s not that they treated Teresa with any overt lack of respect, but when it came to constantly wanting to satisfy us by feeding us food and drink, there was a bit more of a concern with my own satisfaction. However, I’ll also point out that the women in the group did become outspoken from time to time regarding their input, sometimes vehemently verbalizing their frustrations regarding the opinions of their male counterparts. They’re a younger crowd and thus, in my opinion, more open to social change in a country that is very socially conservative and frankly misogynistic. It’s one nuance of many in a complex social structure and while Teresa and I are both aware of its existence to some extent, and both of us clearly favour a more modern social outlook, it wasn’t so terrible that we couldn’t see ourselves associating with these people who truly were genuine and pleasant to both of us.
We frequented Linh and Phuong’s bia hoi stall for the remainder of our time in Vietnam, visiting them between our journeys beyond Hanoi which took us to the northern mountain region of Sapa as well as the untold scenic beauty of Halong Bay. Both, which I’ll be getting into very shortly, were amazing…but we were always happy to return to Hanoi which we’d fallen in love with before we even knew it..