Hanoi locals, while acting as smiling ambassadors for their 84-million strong nation, will tell you to watch your wallets in the bustling southern capital of Ho Chi Minh City.
Tourists are sometimes easy prey for pickpockets in HCM City (formerly Saigon), they warn you in Hanoi.
But that doesn’t mean visitors to Hanoi – in our case relaxing in the Old Quarter enjoying a quiet beer after a day spent sightseeing in one of Southeast Asia’s most colourful cities – are immune to passing danger.
With three corner bars facing each other and tiny plastic stools offering a cosy, if hardly luxurious, vantage point to the passing traffic, the beer flows freely from friendly family staff at Bia Hoi junction. Our host at Hai Loan is Vu Cong Luc, a wrinkly-faced 65-year-old with an engaging, humble smile.
Shuffling in gentle fashion between boisterous guests from Italy, the US and Australia, he retreats to his shopfront-cum-lounge room with his wife and grandson, but only when all drinkers have full glasses perched precariously on their footpath stools.
Luc’s family has lived at 41 Luong Ngoc Quyen since 1930, running a street-corner bar for five years; he’s also been a cyclo-taxi driver from 7am to 7pm each day since 1970 – “after President Johnson bombed Hanoi”.
In the warm evening air amid excited banter of beaming, sunburned, foot-sore tourists, trouble erupts in the group next to us as six Americans suddenly scatter. Luc appears to be snatching the stools from underneath his guests’ plump Western backsides, beckoning them to leave in a hurry. Were they fighting, or being insulting, or is this not such a friendly drinking hole, after all?
One second later, a police van roars into view, quickly followed by another, and a dozen officers pile out of the back of the vans, batons by their sides.
Leaping awkwardly to our feet from our cramped seating positions, we attempt to flee the scene.
Are we facing arrest? What’s the standard length of visit to the “Hanoi Hilton” for crimes against the state?
As patrons disappear into the dark back alleys, Luc looks on with a rueful grin, as police snatch his few remaining stools from the footpath.
The “chair police” have struck again. It seems Luc can operate until 11pm, and trading for an extra half an hour is pushing the friendship.
“We are a very poor family. But I will buy more tomorrow,” he says of the stools he was unable to rescue before the lightning raid.
The danger, as it turned out, was only to the bar owner’s profit margin, slim as this may be. Our guide Ngo Manh Ha tut-tutted to us.
“I told you to come earlier, five o’clock, not 11.30,” he said, sucking back on a cigarette, his stained Nike cap pushed high on his forehead, revealing his tousled black fringe.
Unruffled by the whole scene, Ha cradles in his two bony hands a beer, a smoke, a plate of dried squid prepared by a roadside vendor and a tiny bowl of dipping sauce. vietnam travel