Leaving your house in the outer Hanoi district Cau Guay, you open the door onto two small man-made ponds. You know they have fish in them because locals are always sitting and squatting around the edge with their rods, but someone must have put them there in the first place. Nonetheless their placement makes sense, from your rooftop they seem to add some tranquility to the place.
You turn right, passed the small temple, to the fish sellers. Small mop buckets are packed with all different types of fish, from the size of a platter to smaller then your palm. To add to the intrigue you notice another bucket of crabs, and another with small eels slithering over each other in panic. Yes, everything is alive, for now, writhing in the shallow water at the bottom of their bucket-cage. Still, better that than to be the next one picked out and diced into thick, bloody slices.
Continuing on passed the lone tofu stand, the pungent smell of raw meat hits your nostrils like a right hook to the face. Welcome to your main street. It’s not even quite like the sterile smell of your butcher back home, it’s more raw. Stalls everywhere contain random slabs of meat and unidentifiable innards. Except for the whole pig’s trotters and ears.
Chicken carts come and go along this street, except the metal cart on your left. Stuffed inside it’s small hold are far too many chickens and the occasional duck. On top are those who weren’t lucky enough to see another day. They’re still whole, but completely featherless. The chickens are laid on their back, their exposed slit necks hanging over the edge. The ducks lay on top, their necks crumpled at odd angles. You turn your head and try to focus on the green vegetables you wish you could eat without hours on the toilet as a consequence as the lady selling them reaches into the metal cage and pulls out another chicken, her hands around its neck. You never realised chickens screamed.
You calm yourself by looking at the street as a whole. The place is alive. In between the food, established shops sell everything from household cleaning items to baby clothes. Fruit and veg are spread in baskets on the ground. Scooters beep their horns, requesting that you move aside for them. Babies lazily flop over their parents’ arms and pet dogs run wild around feet and wheels. Overhead, masses of tangled wires provide electricity for flashing neon signs.
Until you hit the dog stand. It’s not a myth, dog is on the menu here, but more as an occasional treat as it’s though to bring luck to the consumer. Whole dogs have been skinned, hollowed out and roasted crispy. They may have been cut in half or kept whole, but there is no possibility of mistaking this is a dog. Which is fine, you tell yourself, this country is poor they need to eat what they can get. But then you remember reading about these dogs, and the fact that they are purposefully treated with incredible cruelty while they are alive, so supposedly be luckier as a snack.
And back to distracting yourself. While you’ve been going through an inner morality debate, locals on foot and on scooters take time out from choosing their dinners or selling their wares to stare at your 6-foot, very white self. This place is the real-deal and it’s clear they don’t get a lot of foreigners here. Sure, this makes you incredibly self-conscious at first, but their giggles are good natured and come with a smile and a ‘hello’, so soon you relax into it. You may even have just caught yourself strutting with ‘They see me rollin’ going around in your head.
You hit your favourite bánh mì stand. For only 10,000 dong (about 60c AUD) you get a bread roll with basic salads and scrambled egg, smothered in sauces. It’ll only fill you up for about 5 minutes but it sure is tasty. Walking on you hit what has become the local cafe of your group. They don’t serve food yet, but the beer is fairly cheap (very cheap for western standards), there are plenty of little wooden stools and there is always a shop owner or fellow teacher to keep you company.
You could continue on, to the parks, playgrounds and outdoor gyms around the corner, or more man-made pools filled with fish. Or to see more of the skinny, tall houses crammed together wherever you look. Or you could just stay here and drink more bia hoi.
This outer district, this city, is one big messy contradiction, and you’re so glad to be caught up in it.