Even more than eating for fun, the main pleasure of Vietnam is mingling, but that's only if you enjoy being around people, which Vietnamese obviously do, and here, community life is most intense and intimate in alleys.
The French gave Hanoi and Saigon a facelift, so there are straight streets, grand boulevards and many traffic circles, but if you enter an alley, you can be sucked into a labyrinthine network that's entirely Vietnamese, and once in, there is a risk of humiliation with each turn, for if it's a dead end, one must retrace one's steps past all the locals. Escaping one dead end, one may enter a worse one. Thinking they might never get out, most foreigners never take the first step.
On my morning walk today, I passed the egg noodle man, who's been in business for over three decades. Though overcharging a bit, his food is decent enough to fill his three tables, set up each dawn at the head of my alley.
Within sight was the itinerant fish monger. Perched on a tiny plastic stool, she snipped one fish head after another.
Up and down that alley, men relaxed at tiny cafes, under anchored umbrellas. Some read newspapers. A pair played elephant chess. Here and there, an old man sunned himself in front of his house. Food carts sold noodles, wontons or sticky rice. A man pushed a three-wheeled pedal wagon, laden with vegetables. Under a conical hat, a woman slowly drove her motorbike around, with a speaker that repeated, "Hot bread here! Crusty, thick-bodied bread here!"
At a small, half-dead banyan tree, still believed by some to be holy, there is an array of Taoist icons, plus two faded and dusty tiger figurines. Once all over Vietnam, this fearful, sacred creature was dubbed "Mr. Tiger," but between sport hunting, as introduced by the French, then Napalm, illegal logging, poaching and explosive human population growth, there aren't even five tigers left in the entire country.
Pulling up to a tube pasta restaurant's window, a motorcyclist shouted, "Beef here!" Then he handed the waitress a small sack of red, bleeding flesh. Much more meat was in a green basket between his legs.
Beneath an idle fan, a thin, shirtless tailor was concave over his antiquated Singer.
Alarmingly, there's this on a greengrocer's wall, "A THOUSAND DISEASES CAN ENTER THE BODY THROUGH THE MOUTH."
An entire semi-covered market can be hidden inside alleys, with butchers, fish mongers and vegetable vendors all jammed together, so that each merchant is within earshot of half a dozen others, facilitating much jovial bantering. "If that whore isn't ridiculous, then who is?" "Such a fart-sniffing face, yet so arrogant!"
"To collect some money!"
"You're going to get drunk! Admit it!" Both women laughed.