You have to wade through the clouds of smoke when you enter the bar. Adjust your lungs with a few deep breaths, rub your eyes till they match the blurry haze, and dive in. Squeeze up close to the small stage - because up close is the only option - scavenge an empty wooden chair and sink into the rock ‘n’ roll. Anything and anyone could be on stage at that moment: a Vietnamese band, crammed up there, led by a harmonica player, with bucket and garbage bin drummers; an old man singing traditional songs; or a poet reading about love lost. It’s open mic night down an alley in Hanoi and the freaks are out.
They’re packed inside, smoke and sweat mingling, eyes roaming, bums sharing seats and everyone moulding into each other as they share their energy with the stage. It’s a free for all - one of Hanoi’s many - where anyone and anything goes and opportunities to freak out are everywhere.
My Hanoi begins here and it ends with a drive down the slick, slippery streets, through the mirrored city lights. Somewhere in the middle two sock puppets - a wizard with giant ears and a ninja-fried-egg - zip through Hanoi. The twinkling city lights around the lake are a solar system of undiscovered stars for them, the rush hour traffic is a maze to find the pirate’s treasure, a bánh mì is their food of life and youth. They’re only floating behind a thin, purple curtain in recycled cigarette smoke, in a damp Hanoi bar, but it’s a new universe, and all the freaks are in on it.
This is the world that I discovered in Hanoi: a completely out-of-left-field community, a small family of dismembered parts, a Scrabble game of people and stories. It’s a place were everyone is welcome, what you never knew you wanted, but wanted all along, appears before you in a dream and fun is at its freest.
Allow me to explain. My best friend and I created a sock puppet show in India while travelling and since then we’ve taken it on the world’s many roads. It came mostly out of boredom, lack of funds and two socks hanging on the clothesline on our porch, but became an adventure of its own over time. They’re an unstoppable duo, an untamable twosome - Hugh the Huge-Eared Wizard, a wizard with giant ears to hear all across the universe, and Sir Sunnyside, his egg-tastic and ferocious sidekick. Together our dirty, old socks have journeyed back in time to the Paleozoic era in a kindergarten in Melbourne, gone deep into the earth’s core on an island of Indonesia, and sailed in magic bubbles on the side of the road in Canada. But in Vietnam, the two of them really came to life.
A few months after moving to Hanoi we began to find little spots on certain curves around certain lakes, down unknown side streets and in treasured green parks. Spots where Vietnamese from Hanoi, Vietnamese from around the country, and expats from around the world come together - usually in tight quarters - and share what they have to give. Hanoi has many open mic nights across the city and a fair few poetry slams, a bi-weekly circus gathering in the park, craft workshops, sexual education meet-ups, cabaret shows, writing clubs, and then, of course, there’s the coffee hang outs. Always the coffee hang outs. Whether it’s art, music, circus acts, poetry reading, live painting, or puppet shows, it’s all put out there in the open for Hanoi’s many different clans to see.
We found a space - many spaces actually - to let our freak flags fly while disappearing into a world of puppet escapades. We did our first puppet show in Vietnam at an open mic. It was an impressive line-up that night, a smooth combination of Vietnamese punk rockers and bluesy-rock ‘n’ roll bands with long hair and their button up collars still on from teaching.
We had the puppets in the bottom of a backpack, and so we went for it. ‘A puppet show??’ they asked incredulously, ‘We’ve never had a puppet show before.’ But who’s to say no to an offer like that, and so at the end of the night, after midnight when Hanoi’s streets are supposed to shut down and the city is supposed to go silent, on we went. The bar could have been a spaceship; every single one of us could’ve been a particle of dust floating and bumping around each other. All of us jammed aboard and we romped around through all of our shared stories. I opened my eyes from my final, magical listening song - Hugh’s trademark - and felt nothing but love and joy from the audience, from each and every single person in the room.
The smoke, the heat, the stench and the stage weave into each other and become one, but by now everyone has accepted it. They’ve done their piece, they’ve given all they have to give and a beautiful bond, outside of language or cultural differences, has been born. In line for the bathroom two people congratulate each other on their performances while they wait, inside groups shift and re-puzzle together around the bar and a revolving door of friends and strangers come in and out. Sometimes words in a shared language are exchanged, but, when not possible, appreciation is given in abundance. It’s the kind of energy that can only be felt in the depths of a cold, winter night and, when can’t be shared through words, can be shared through dance moves, familiar songs, talent and vulnerability. It’s the kind of community that can only be born in a city like this.
Hanoi is charming chaos, a decrepit Paris of decades ago. It’s a free-for-all, in which, if you can find the cracks and crevices that are yours, anything is possible. Young Vietnamese couples sneak around after dark, canoodling as they cruise in third gear on their motorbikes and kiss by the lake. Footpaths become motorways, an empty doorstep becomes a community spot, a trà (tea) on the side of the road is the neighbourhood event of the week. Anything and everything goes, and from this springs Hanoi’s dazzle.
The streets on the drive home that night are empty of people but full of glimmering and shimmering lights as they reflect off each other in an endless cycle. I’m now on my own adventure through the city - weaving, slipping, speeding up, slowing down, damp from the rain and windblown from the rush. This is what it feels like to be young, alive and free in a city only just beginning to reveal its magical secrets to me.
As my puppet, Hugh the Huge-Eared Wizard, always sings in his magical listening song, ‘Oh-ya-ya-ooh-ay-ya-ya. Ooh-a-ya-a-a-ya-ya-ooh-a-yaaa.’