Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy !!!!

Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy !!!!

There’s a lot of shouting at a Bia Hoi (pronounced Bee-ah Hoy), after all it’s occupied by a lot of dudes drinking beer. You’re pretty much guaranteed to hear Mot, Hai, Ba! (one, two, three) after which everyone clinks glasses and has a gulp or two or Mot tram pham tram! which sounds like mo jam fan jam, and means 100%. If you say it, then you’ve got to do it, and swig the whole glass back baby.

Bia Hai beer
Topping up the glasses

Bia Hoi means ‘Fresh Beer‘ and drinking a whole glass at once is easy; you could substitute it for a cold glass of water. Made fresh daily, it’s light with 2 to 4 per cent alcohol. At 5000 dong, the equivalent of 30 Canadian cents it’s worth the investment.

There’s a lot beer gardens in Hanoi, kind of like Tim Horton’s there seems to be one on every street. One article I read says that 30% of the consumption of beer in Hanoi is done at a Bia Hoi…and even though I’m not going to do a fact check, it’s easy to believe. We’ve been going to one close to our apartment, A LOT.

Ours is called Bia Hai Xom; I know that Hai means two, and I think Xom is the name of the owners. But first back to the beer. What’s incredible is watching the staff, some wearing no shoes, carry these huge trays of glasses on ceramic (very slippery floors).  They move incredibly fast, as there’s usually has no less than 300 people anxious for another Bia Hoi. For those who are looking for something with some alcohol content you can purchase bottles of vodka.

Bia Hai 1
This WAS ribs and muong, a delicious green
Tofu coated in egg








There’s much more than a stale bag of chips available to eat at our Bia Hoi.  The menu is long and so far the favourites are papaya salad, pork ribs, salted chicken, and this tofu dish.  What’s loved most is the small packages of peanuts they bring with the beer.  Unsalted they’re sweet and fresh.

Bia Hai Kitchen
The Kitchen

The first time we went I quickly realized that amongst the large tables of men, (ie. soccer teams),  there was only a handful of women present.  Not quite yet comfortable with that, on our second visit, we cozied up to a group of kids who were using the restaurant as a gym to run in circles. I think the parents were deep into a tray or two of beer, but ultimately that’s the great thing about a Bia Hoi, no-one cares. It’s a genuine hang out.

But there is one critical point to embrace before entering a Bia Hoi. Forget Miss Manners.  There are no rules here.  Protocol is to drop the plastic wrap that comes around your bowl and plate on the ground along with your napkins, and whatever other garbage you amass.  If you can’t bring yourself to do it, that’s okay too. At the end of the evening the staff clean up by dumping what’s in the dishes on the ground, then removing the dishes into these big bowls, tilting the table on its side to make sure everything’s off, and then sweeping everything off the ground.

For a lot of reasons next time we go, I’m going to chant “Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy” and see if I can get it to stick. I think it’s perfect.

washing glasses
Three bucket, and three second, glass cleaning system.


The dishes.
It pays to get to Church on time

It pays to get to Church on time


It never crossed my mind before coming to Vietnam that we’d attend Catholic mass. A Buddhist ritual for sure, but I assumed that Catholicism would be scarce in the north and it wouldn’t be something we’d come upon since reading that Vietnamese aren’t known to be religious. Well less than 2 weeks into our adventure we embarked on a boat tour through Kenh Ga, a floating village in Nim Binh province and as we meandered past limestone karsts, water buffalo, and rice fields, the steeple of an enormous Catholic Church broke the horizon. Memories of Ennio Morricone’s  theme from “The Mission” swelled inside of me. We did not go in or get close enough for a decent picture, but several weeks later, we found ourselves sitting in the midst of a overflowing Catholic Church in Village #7 in Nim Binh province. Cue the theme music once more.

yellow spokesGuests of Quyen Tran and his family, very devout Catholics, we’d just had lunch with their new priest and were attending Father Peter’s first big mass in his new community. I wish I’d snuck a few more photographs and recorded the sounds, because this was a scene from another movie. (One that isn’t fully realized yet). An ‘Elvis’ version of the Virgin Mary beneath a neon blue halo occupied one side of the stage and the music, more like chants than hymns were lovely and hypnotic. It was good there were kids running around the back plus these women who kept disappearing up a back stairwell, also looking somewhat retro, to keep us awake.  The service was after all entirely in Vietnamese. Evenly spaced across the wooden ceiling, eggshell blue fans worked unsuccessfully to break open the mid afternoon heat.

church sidecarved detail crowd

Driving through the countryside that week-end we spotted many Catholic Churches in a wide variety of styles. The most spectacular of which is Phat Diem, the oldest Catholic Church in Vietnam. Just 10 km from Village #7  we arrived early on a Sunday as the parishioners were gathering for mass.  It seemed like something special was about to happen. Like the Church near Kenh Ga, this structure was majestic, however on first glance I would have identified it as a Pagoda. Made out of stone, there were tiered towers with multiple eaves. Officially described as a cross between European and Vietnamese architecture, there are numerous other structures built in a similar style to the main Cathedral.  However it wasn’t the Cathedral itself that captivated our attention; it was the hundreds of women dressed in their best Ao – Dai’s parading around the grounds and then into the Cathedral.

woman in pinkred women







They were simply stunning. Accompanied by altar boys, nuns, and the occasional group of men carrying what must have been religious paraphernalia, they marched solemnly, and eventually dissolved inside the church.  We didn’t follow.gong leader

altar 2

white ao dai

Our ‘Hood in Hanoi

Canary 2I just paid our second month’s rent at the Canary Hotel and Apartments (‘The Canary Hotel, I remember it well’…. ) and expect we’re going to stay here the entire time we’re in Hanoi.  We could find another place that’s bigger and with more personality, but we’re close to Somara’s school and we really like the Canary staff. Both Son and Ton, they two key guys at reception have decided it’s also their job to help us learn Vietnamese.  Ton taught me the word for sweat today, Mo Hoi, as I was walked through the lobby dripping wet from head to toe after a workout.

Daily activities are starting to etch themselves into routines and we are getting to know our ‘hood.  I don’t know what to call this area.  Our district is Ba Dinh, but that’s huge, and we live off Lieu Giai, a major artery.  As I’ve said before everything here is layered, including the streets. Each large road, leads to numerous secondary roads, leading to even smaller alleyways.  A lot of times I feel like I’m in a corn maze. I’m still surprized by all the shops you find in the smallest of alleyways. Convenience stores, clothing and a lot of Cafes.Cards and Cong

The Cong Cafe, about 45 seconds out our door has become a favourite. It’s a genuine hangout, a place you can play cards, or just while away an afternoon. On order are fancy coffees, smoothies, beer…I’m there (here) right now drinking an iced lemonade blend. I’d show you a picture but I sucked it back too quickly and now have a freezie headache.

The Cong looks across to the Japanese Embassy, and in the evening people exercise here or bring their kids to ride bikes. Best of all it’s where people come to play badminton.badminton wide

One evening as I was strolling about in flip flops and a sundress trying to get a few photos, a man pulled me into a game of doubles. I was happy to play but then my participation in the game of doubles was protested by another man who told me to go away. He got overruled by the others and then refused to play in that match. I was uncomfortable for about 10 seconds. Perhaps he didn’t think I’d play well enough, I don’t really know what was going on, but I did just fine. My plan is to return in running shoes and shorts to whoop his butt – if he’ll ever engage. Somara and I have been back several times and she’s the one improving the most.  I, on the other hand, sent 3 birdies over the fence onto the grounds of the embassy never to be seen again.

Aroulottend another corner is the Lotte (pronounced LAW-tay) Tower. It’s not just a landmark for us, but for all of Hanoi. At 65 stories, it’s close to being the tallest building in the city. Mostly an office tower, it has a grocery store and some very fancy shops…kind of a cross between Holt Renfrew and The Bay on Bloor. Eventually we’re going to check out the Dim Sum on the 36th floor plus everyone who visits will be treated to the view on the observation deck up top. Perfect for a romantic night out.

door dude


Traffic around here can be crazy, but truthfully, it’s more peaceful than where we were when we first arrived and lived in the Old Quarter. Besides watching traffic can be a bit of an activity as you never know what you’ll see driving by.

Close to the Cong, we’ve found an amazing bakery that makes delicate moist croissants for about 60 cents. I really like the man we buy milk from; his store is so full you can only open the door one way, but it’s spic and span clean and he’s got cheap cheese. I’ve made friends with a few vegetable and fruit vendors, and feel like I’m cheating if I choose one over the other. You can buy virtually anything within 1 km of our place, anything except Cheerios, haven’t found those yet.

Somara’s school Lycee Alexander Yersin is just over a 1km away.  A cab there costs $1.20 but we mostly walk. We’ve discovered a nifty shortcut that winds its way through one of those corn mazes avoiding Kim Ma another major artery. There is still one massive intersection to cross, MASSIVE, and you need to take a special course to work out the traffic signals. And I’m setting myself up for trouble by telling you this, but yesterday I caved and let Somara walk to school on her own.  She begged for a week and I couldn’t take it anymore. Now I need to go home and wait for her to return from school.  I’m not worried and you shouldn’t be either.




A Tale of Three Black T-shirts

A Tale of Three Black T-shirts


I believe that the black t-shirt, like the black dress, is a wardrobe staple. The best one I ever owned was last seen in Paris. I still miss it.

In late August last year my cousin Len, his wife Diana and their two kids Sarah and Avram joined us on a cottage vacation along the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Early in the week Diana and I noticed we were both wearing black t-shirts with holes. Agreeing that sometimes you hold on to a beloved piece of clothing too long, we made a pact to dispose of our shirts at the end of the week.

Here’s Diana wearing her black t-shirt at a picnic in Keji Seaside Adjunct. Note that I am unwilling to show you my black t-shirt, which is more of a thin black sac with virtually no shape.

Diana's holes

When the end of the vacation came, and we were packing to go, Diana informed me her shirt was in the trash. I was then forced to explain that I just couldn’t do it. I worried that I didn’t have a replacement yet and pictured myself floundering in front of my closet desperate for its presence.

Now roll ahead to March 2016 and I’m in Hoi An, Vietnam with my sister and her family. We’ve decided that we’re going to do what a lot of tourists come here to do and have some clothing custom made. We’ve chosen a really wonderful shop called Yaly.  The way it works is that you can bring in a picture, pick a pattern or show up with an item of clothing that you’d like replicated. Once you show the design, the sales women take you to the bolts of fabric best suited for the item.  So in the midst of this gorgeous shop, where people are spending thousands of dollars, my sister pulls out a thread bare black t-shirt with more holes than one can count and proclaims it the best t-shirt she’s ever owned and that she wants another. My brother-in-law Joel winces and disappears. And in a moment of compassion and understanding, coming out of the trauma of trying to part with my t-shirt earlier in August, I show it to a sales person and ask her if she thinks we could remake it.  Looking part confused and part horrified she tells me there is virtually no fabric in their very large store that would be suitable.  I wish I had video of that moment but I don’t, so here’s what the shirt looks like instead.

Fia's holesFia holes 2

With the plan for reproduction scrapped, and my own black t-shirt back at the hotel, my sister and I were forced to discuss our ‘clothing issues’. Money’s not an issue, and we both have good taste; so why do we walk around in clothing with holes? Note: These are not the only pieces of clothing we cling to that should be burned.  We couldn’t come up with an agreeable explanation but in the end we decided there was no other honourable option but to make another pact.  She would leave her shirt in Vietnam if I would commit to get rid of mine.  I agreed.

But something happened in the remaining few weeks of our vacation. Maybe she thought I’d forget or she wanted me to act first….I’m just not sure. But the long and the short of it is that Fia left with her shirt firmly stowed in her backpack and I’m still wearing mine.

Now I am left wondering if it’s necessary to close the book on this, and if it is, how? In pursuit of the answer I conducted a little research and have discovered that Fia’s black t-shirt has a LONG history. I have evidence that it dates back to 2009 -mine only goes back 3 years at most.

Fia's holes 2009
Fia in the shirt in 2009
Fia's shirt 2012
Me in Fia’s shirt in 2012

(If anyone is able to provide me with evidence of this t-shirt before 2009 I would like to see it).

So here’s what I think needs to happen. Fia before we disgrace ourselves any further, I will find myself another black t-shirt. I’m in Vietnam for god’s sake, how hard can it be?  And when I do I will bury mine in a small repatriation ceremony, as I just discovered it’s ‘Made in Vietnam’.  And if you can provide me with evidence that you’ve sent your shirt on to its rightful place in the trash, I will do the same for you. Heck you can have 10 black shirts if you want. There must be millions made here each and every day.  And then we need to move on.  This is far too mundane a problem to be writing about.  And thank-you Diana…you’re an inspiration.


Pho Primer

vermicelli pot
Pot to warm noodles for Pho

Everything in Vietnam is nuanced and layered – especially food.  So I’m not pretending that after six weeks I’m an expert on Pho, but I can peel back a layer or two. Pho, a soup with vermicelli noodles, greens and meat, should be called Vietnam’s Food Ambassador as it seems to be the best known dish outside the country.

Pho Ba
Pho Ba

Pho is NOT pronounced FOE. It just isn’t. It’s closer to the French word for fire, feu. But the key is in the tone, and if I understand it right, the voice goes down and then up a tiny bit at the end. We’re still working on it.

When we got off the plane and arrived in Hanoi at 10:30 at night it was the first thing we ate even though I originally understood that Pho is for breakfast.  It’s what our hotel served for breakfast and when we went with our friend Quyen to his village last week-end it’s what we had in the morning. But we’ve also been eating it for dinner and for lunch. Looking it up I discovered that the South Vietnamese confine it to breakfast and sometimes lunch, whereas here in the North it’s an any time of day meal. Pho B0 (Bo sounds more like BAH) made with beef, and Pho Ga made with chicken are most common.


We, like many of you, have eaten Pho in North America.  But the one thing we hadn’t experienced was its partner quay.  Quay is essentially a deep fried piece of dough you dip in the Pho.  Somara adores them, and I like to start my Pho with a piece of Quay while the broth cools.  On their own, they’re ‘meh’, soaked in a good broth they’re ‘YAH!’

somara and noodleI thought Pho was defined by the size of the vermicelli noodle, a slim one. But we were just introduced to a restaurant where the noodle is wide, wider than linguine.  This particular shop has two kinds of Pho Bo; thinly slice pieces of raw beef cooked by the broth or thick grisly chunks of beef that have cooked so long they fall apart with the touch of a chopsticks. You can have both if you can explain that in Vietnamese to the server.   We love the place, but it’s a cab ride away.

condimentsWatching people eat Pho is fun as it’s an expression of your personality. How many quay do you consume if any, do you add hot sauce, lime juice, salt and pepper, pickled hot peppers?  I recommend hot sauce.

Around the corner from our apartment is a really good Pho Ga spot where Tim has gone to buy just the broth.  (The owner sent him home with two cups and wouldn’t accept any money). And if you go the other direction is a Pho Bo spot where you can see the huge quantities of meat that go into the broth.  Tim says Pho is defined by it’s broth, and we’ve discovered a couple chicken broths that are so clear they would make any Jewish Bubbe proud.  What I love are the greens, green onions in particular.

If you live in Halifax, go try the Pho on the Bedford Highway at I Love Pho.  Tell them that a friend in Hanoi says their broth is on par with the best we’ve had in Hanoi and could they please start to make quay, because some Hanoiing Canadians are going to ask for it when they return home.

Going down the road to Village #7

down the road

Our 2nd day in Hanoi, Quyen Tran, a tour guide and lecturer in Hospitality and Tourism volunteered to help us do a few errands. He’d heard that some Canadian guy was coming to work in his department at Hanoi Open University.  So off we went to Viettel where Quyen helped Tim buy his first cell phone (quite unbelievable) and showed me how to purchase a SIM card.  And then he told us he wanted us to come to his home village. “But don’t you think you want to know us a bit better, you know have a few dates” I joked “before taking us home to your parents”. But secretly I was thinking “YES! Let’s go“.

Quyen and Tim have become buddies.  And last week we were invited back to Quyen’s home village to spend a national holiday.  It’s in Ninh Binh District and when I asked Quyen what his village was called, he explained that it was considered Village #7 in the area.  I think I missed something in the explanation but it doesn’t matter. Not only was it was peaceful and quiet, we were wined, dined and welcomed by everyone in his family. It was just amazing.

River behind house
River behind his house
The house Quyen grew up in
green gate
A neighbor’s gate
green door
corn crop


rice field
Rice field
Village #7 traffic
Village #7 traffic



Somara and Trang
Somara and Doan Trang, his other niece
Quyen's Niece
Quyen’s Niece Doan Thi
going to church
Quyen’s brother, grand-mother and nieces going to church


Somara and Quyen
Somara teaching Quyen duck lips


Doan Tri driving
Doan Thi loves her car
red hat
What eyes this one has!


feeding pigs
Doan Trang caught feeding the pig


living chaos
Everyone hanging out doing their thing