It’s a diminutive version of backpacker hangouts in Bangkok and Saigon, but Hanoi’s Ta Hien Street has its own charm.
Tourists in Ta Hien Street, Hanoi's Old Quarter. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.
The sounds are unrestrained and very loud.
There’s the clinking of glasses followed by zesty shouts: "zo, zo tram phan tram" (Vietnamese for bottoms up).
Pham Tuyet Lan, 33, is both apprehensive and excited as she gingerly steps her way through the masses of small plastic chairs and people, drinking bia hoi (local draft beer) and chatting nineteen to the dozen.
It's the first time that Lan, a reserved, reticent accountant, is visiting Ta Hien, having gathered up enough courage to visit the place, talk to foreigners to practice her English and become a more gregarious person.
She was born to a traditional family in the northern province of Thai Binh where it's assumed that women should not go out drinking like men. Just an hour earlier, Lan had insisted that she would not go. Now, she is not at all put out by the crowd, the noise and the drinking. "It is more fun than I thought," she says.
Ta Hien is much smaller in scale than Bui Vien Street in Ho Chi Minh City or Khaosan Road in Bangkok, two places well known as backpacker hangouts, but acquiring an increasingly local flavor.
Part of Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter, Ta Hien is only about 200 m long, connecting with Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ma May and Hang Bac streets. It used to be a street that sold souvenirs, mostly, but for about 10 years now, it has become the hub of bars and restaurants, attracting tens of thousands of weekend revellers.
People have to walk in a singe line in the middle to move, inch by inch. The "mountain" of people, noise and chaos at Ta Hien can be a headache and a nightmare for someone who does not favor parties, but Nguyen Thanh Hang, mom-of-two, another first time visitor, is having a blast.
"It’s amazing. All the stressful things disappear in a moment. I feel like I have returned to my youth, crazy and happy," she says.
Near Lan, Jack, 22, from England, sips from a bottle of local beer at another table. Determined to practice her English, Lan asks Jack how he likes the place. "The food is good, the beer is good, I like the atmosphere here," Jack responds.
Luu Thu Trang, 39, who is drinking a beer along with Lan at a table for four, says seeing "young and beautiful" Westerners drinking all night long is fun.
"It is not very comfortable for women to go to local bia hoi shops in the city. There are just too many men there. But Ta Hien is a place where everyone feels comfortable."
The beverage most consumed on Ta Hien is something that is almost exclusive to Hanoi among major Vietnamese cities - the bia hoi, and the influx of dozens of brands over the last several decades has not dented its popularity.
A glass of bia hoi, of about 300 ml, costs between VND7,000 - VND10,000 ($0.3 - $0.4), while a bottle or a can of beer can cost anywhere between VND25,000 - VND200,000 ($1.1 - $8.6).
Khanh, owner of a bia hoi shop at No 23 Ta Hien, said many people visit the street not just for beer, but also for good food.
Khanh serves his clients a variety of local finger foods including roast squid, fried fermented pork, roast bird meat, boiled peanuts, fried chips and cheese sticks to heavier dishes like stirfried beef with vegetables, roasted chicken feet and chicken feet steamed with lemon grass.
Like most other establishments on the street, the snacks cost from VND6,000 for a cheese stick to VND400,000 for a roasted squid about 30 cm long.
"Food turnover is higher than beer. I used to have more foreigners than local customers, but now it is around 50-50. And Vietnamese eat more food than foreigners," Khanh said.
Ta Hien after 2 a.m.
While the rest of the city retires relatively early, establishments in the central district of Hoan Kiem are allowed to remain open until 2 a.m. Ta Hien is also up until 2 a.m, but it becomes a yesteryear place after. It is then a typical, narrow Old Quarter street with French architecture.
The 2 a.m deadline was extended to Hoan Kiem District in 2016 in a bid to boost tourism. Not many complain about the apparent mayhem that precedes the pre-dawn silence.
To My Ngoc, 55, a resident in a nearby alley, said "sometimes the street is too loud, but it's still okay."
In fact, after 2 a.m, it goes back not only to the days before Ta Hien assumed its current avatar of the most popular hub for drinking beer, eating good food and generally letting one’s hair down, but also to the time when the street was called Rue Géraud, and the time when it was renamed Ta Hien in 1945.
The throwback to the colonial days also makes Ta Hien Street an attraction for professional photographers, including those wanting pre-wedding shoots, and many young people who want selfies in this setting.
Leaning her back against the door of a house, Nguyen Phuong Mai, 27, poses for a photo with her boyfriend.
"I want to preserve the best moments of my life in the best places in the world. Ta Hien is one of those places."