Last Wednesday Maya and I decided to try and find this metal/hard-rock store in Hanoi, called Coi Xuong Rock Shop, that I had found on that metaltravelguide.com website. The address I had was “So 3 ngo 154 Doi Can,” translating to “number 3 alley 154 Doi Can Street); I found Doi Can Street on our map easily – it’s a big street not far from the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Memorial; hopefully the alley would make itself apparent once we got to that main drag. So we headed down there, away from the hectic tourist-dominated commercialism of the Old Quarter and into what turned out to be a cool, almost whitey-free, and very authentic-feeling neighborhood. The Vietnamese were still selling shit on the streets, but to each other, instead of predominantly to foreign sightseers. And the street was still jampacked with motorbikes but somehow their drivers didn’t seem quite as prepared to mow you down. The vibe was not only a lot chiller but also more friendly – the locals were clearly less concerned with separating us from our money and more intrigued by our mere presence.
As we strolled down Doi Can, we saw an awesome designer respiratory mask hanging in one store and stopped in to buy it. Two little girls – one, maybe 8; the other, maybe 4 – were the only people manning (or “little-girling”) the establishment. The older girl handled the transaction shyly, while her younger sister (I presume) waved hello, stared at us, then waved goodbye. Outside, kids were just getting out of school and swarmed the sidewalks, shouting “Hello!,” waving, and asking us where we were from and what our names were.
When we finally found 154 Doi Can, the number marked a dark, narrow alley which would have been slightly menacing if it hadn’t been for the red-cheeked old woman cheerfully eating at a small table at its entrance. We passed her and wound down a blind corner in the alley. On the other side we found door number 3, which looked exactly like the door of a residence and nothing like the door of a business – until I noticed the small cardboard sign with “Rock Shop” written on it in blocky marker letters sticking out from the wall. Maya and I exchanged confused and amused glances, then I knocked on the door. No response. I knocked again. Same result. Then I heard a sound behind us and turning around, noticed an open doorway into a very dark room in which a man sat in the shadows, smoking a water pipe. He was gesturing for me to ring the doorbell (which I hadn’t even noticed). Almost simultaneously, a woman passing behind us in the alley, gestured likewise. I hit the bell a few times, but still no answer.
As Maya and I retreated, somewhat disappointedly, out of the alley, the old woman at the corner accosted us in Vietnamese, either having seen the doorway we were knocking on or guessing where we wanted to go from our look. Seeing that we weren’t comprehending a word of what she was telling us, she held up all 10 fingers, and then 5 fingers. “Back in 15 minutes?” Maya asked. The woman didn’t understand, but she then held up 6 fingers. “Back by 6?” I asked. The two gestures didn’t jibe, since it was about 4:50 at this point, but we thanked the woman for her efforts in communication and decided to continue our stroll down Doi Can and then swing by again on our way back to our hotel.
A little farther down the strip, we noticed on the other side of the street this rather amazing-looking shrine, which was all the more striking because of the way it emerged from the otherwise urban landscape while still looking like it belonged there. I asked Maya to cross the street so I could take a photo of her in front of the structure. As she went to do so, I pulled the camera from the bag and checked its settings; next thing I know, I look up for Maya and she’s crossing the street with an old, bent woman in some sort of ethnic, turban-like headwrap holding her arm, walking with her through the whizzing traffic. Maya will later tell me that the old lady’s teeth were black. Once they reached the other side of the street, I fully expected the woman to disengage, but she kept walking with Maya arm-in-arm, chatting to her (as Maya would tell me) about god-knows-what in Vietnamese the whole time. It was only after Maya effectively communicated that I was standing on the other side, waiting to take a picture of her, that the old woman went off on her way.
Here’s Maya and her friend in front of the temple:
A closer view:
Soon after this stellar interaction, we decided to turn back and stop by the Rock Shop alley again, with hopes that the owner had returned. But when we arrived, we gestured to the woman, who was still sitting and eating at the corner, if the propietor was back, but she shook her head. So we thanked her again for her help and started to head back toward our hotel, with plans to try again some other day.
We had walked maybe 5 minutes, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a middle-aged dude in a crisp white shirt on a motorbike, which he had apparently ridden onto the sidewalk. I immediately tried to brush him away, assuming that he was one of the “motobai” drivers trying to get me to pay for a ride. (I think I forgot to mention earlier that Hanoi is absolutely full of motobike taxi-drivers who are constantly harassing you for a ride by calling out “Motobai?!” or waving at you or grunting at you, etc.) But he was persistent and when I finally turned to look at him, he pointed back in the direction that we had come from and said, “Rock Shop,” in halting English. “The Rock Shop owner is back?” I asked. He nodded, and with us following on foot, he sped off back toward the store.
When we finally got back down into the alley, door number 3 was wide open, revealing the living room and kitchen of a humble abode. The motorbike dude was standing in there waiting for us (he, it turned out, was the proprietor), and on either side of him were two racks of black T-shirts, which we soon discovered were metal and hard-rock tees from bands ranging from Nirvana to Death. The owner dude didn’t speak English at all really, but this didn’t stop him from flipping through T-shirts with Maya, phonetically reading out the names of the various bands: “Me-tal-lica. Se-pul-tur-a. Cra-dle of Filth. Link-un…” “Linkin Park,” Maya would help him out occasionally. It was pee-your-pants hilarious. After a little while a whole group of teenage boys in their school uniforms rumbled into the shop, clearly shocked – and excited – to find two whities in the store. They talked to the owner in Vietnamese and he opened up this glass case for them so they could inspect a variety of spiked, black leather gauntlets. Maya asked the kids, though a combination of carefully enunciated English and hand gestures, if there was anywhere to see rock shows in Hanoi, but they all shook their heads and laughed. I ended up buying a Pantera T-shirt and a CD by a Vietnamese rock band called Flashback, who, we are positive, are gonna suck big time, but it was the only CD the shop had and I wanted to “support the scene, man.” Plus it cost all of 10,000 dong, or about 70 cents. Here’s a little video tour of the shop, which I shot after making my purchases – you’ll see the mural that was on one wall of a band rocking out and the slogan “Heaven from Hell,” written out in band names.
The one thing I wished I had captured in this vid – but didn’t notice until after filming – was the portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging on the living room wall right over one of the racks of rock tees. In a similarly absurd and amazing juxposition, we saw, as we walked back to our hotel from the Rock Shop, a small square dominated by a towering statue of Lenin; a group of Vietnamese teenage boys were practicing their breakdancing right in front of the monument, and honestly, they fucking ruled. So, as the sun went down, Maya and I sat on the curb and watched them B-boying, thinking what an awesome afternoon it had been – and how Lenin’s jaw would be on the ground right now, if it were actually him and not just a statue, looking on with us.