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The Flip Side of Vietnam

Sometimes another driver will challenge you with his horn. In such a case the relative size of the opposing vehicle (and the volume of its horn) determines the outcome. However, the system has its flaws, as when a cyclo (rickshaw) driver installs an 80-decibel bus horn on the handlebars of his puny carriage. This is something I've seen, and, more to the point, something I've heard, and it's a terrifying sound. Taxis, vans, dump trucks will swerve to avoid the madman and his horn. And the whole hierarchy of the road is turned on its head.

It sounds absurd, but this is the way of things here, and visitors would do well to learn the rules, such as they are. A locally published Vietnamese phrase book offers the following lines for travelers in case of a traffic accident:

"You were on the wrong side!"

"I was trying to avoid that bicycle/truck/infant/ox!"

"I was blowing my horn!"

And my personal favorite: "It was my road!!!"

ON EATING DOG

Tried it. Kind of liked it.

Sorry.

You can try it yourself, up in Nhat Tan, five miles north of town. A whole strip of roadside cafés serve canine treats: roasted, boiled, curried. But you don't want to go there in the first half of the lunar month. It's unlucky to eat dog while the moon's waxing. On the wane, however, dog is what you want, and the Nhat Tan cafés are jammed.

ON EATING OTHER THINGS

I had a craving for authentic Vietnamese food of the non-dog variety, so I set up a lunch date with a friend who'd lived in Hanoi for several years. We met at Quan Hué, a hole-in-the-wallserving Hué-style dishes (read: delicious) on flimsy folding tables. The restaurant is as casual as casual gets, though like most local places it's run with pride: when we pulled up on our Honda motorbikes, a smiling valet-of-sorts parked them and laid a straw sun cover on each seat.

First up was a filling round of banh khoai(also known as banh xeo),crispy rice pancakes stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts, to which we added sliced star fruit, mint leaves, and lettuce, then dipped it all in a peanut-curry sauce. Next was a platter of smoky grilled pork, which we rolled in rice paper; and finally some spicy sautéed crabmeat and vermicelli--a heaping platter of hearty id-food. The bill came to something like 70,000 dong, or five bucks for two, including drinks. I went back three times that week.

Hanoi has become a great eating town, rivaling Saigon in quality and variety of restaurants. These range from modest street stalls and bia hois (where, as at Quan Hué, the food far outshines the atmosphere) to chic 90's-style bistros straight out of Islington or TriBeCa, from reborn villas serving haute Vietnamese to classic Continental dining rooms where Europeans feast on rack of lamb and the pianist plays "As Time Goes By."

THE PART WHERE THINGS GET WEIRD

It was a Friday night, still early, and already Ronnie Milsap was telling us there ain't no gettin' over him. Two Vietnamese guys in Calvin Klein T-shirts were playing pool with two Americans in Ho Chi Minh T-shirts. (I swear to God I'm not making this up.)

We were at the Gold Cock Bar--delightful name--just west of Hoan Kiem Lake. The beer flows freely, the pool table's always lit, and the "french frise" are very good. Behind the bar is an odd CD collection: you've got your Tom Waits, your Judds, your Huey Lewis, Charlie Parker, En Vogue, Nirvana, Dan Fogelberg, and a cool Dolly Parton album that gets a lot of play.

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