Blessed to be a witness

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Saturday, July 2nd

The cheapest beer in the world

Our friends arrived at noon, and it was a genuine pleasure to see them. Fighting their jetlag, they bravely helped us empty the contents of three mini-bars, sitting on their balcony above the teeming street, and then we went for food in a fancy little French place.

The next day the girls went for beauty treatment - 10% of the price you'd pay at home - while the boys went for the self-guided walking tour as prescribed by the guidebook. From this we learned mainly that diversification is not a key to Vietnamese retail business. If you want to buy something, chances are you'll need to find the street on which it's sold, there being a high probability of every other shop on the same street selling the same thing. Thus we walked down streets of little shops selling nothing but boiled sweets, or nothing but nails. This is always how it's been done, too: the old-style Vietnamese streetnames are things like "Flower Street", "Rice Street" and so on. And if you don't know the geographical location of the goods you need to buy, you're screwed: for the life of me couldn't find Underwear Street.

Most interesting to me was "Counterfeit Street", that sells paper facsimiles of everyday objects, for mourners to burn at funerals. The idea is that the burned objects end up with the deceased in the afterlife: fake paper mobile phones, dollar bills, Sony TVs and DVD players. I have no idea how literally people believe this - do they actually picture their loved one driving round heaven in the Mercedes they just burned an effigy of, or do they do it for superstitious, or just traditional reasons? I suspect I shall never know, unless of course I read some dusty academic tome.

We then retired to a street corner to have a glass of Bia Hoi, which as far as I know is the cheapest beer on earth. This beer is a pilsener that was originally made by a Czech brewer in the last century. The technology remained, and the beer is delivered daily to Bia Hoi stalls throughout the country. It's made entirely without preservatives, designed to be drunk within three days. And it's delicious - a bit like a cross between a lager and a weissbier; a little sweet and yeasty on first swig, but then its crispness comes through in subsequent gulps. And the most astonishing thing is its price: 1,500 dong per glass. That's a dime a glass, or 7.5 euro cents. I highly doubt there's anywhere else in the world that you can get entirely steamed for less than a dollar. (It was while the lads were introducing the girls to the wonders of Bia Hoi that a friend in Dublin called us with the terrible news about London. Thankfully everyone we know there was safe.)

Which brings me to the paucity of the Vietnamese currency. There are 15,000 dong to the dollar, or 20,000 to the euro. This causes all of us terrible confusion, trying to divide with all those zeroes. I like to relate the story of when I bought the two motorcycles in Hanoi ten years ago. We finally located two Belgian expats who were prepared to sell us two black market bikes. They wanted $650 for the pair, but asked to be paid in dong. I therefore went to the bank and duly changed dollar travellers cheques for the requisite amount of dong - the exchange rate was 11,000 at the time, so I ended up with more than 7 million dong in cash, which my girlfriend and I later took back to the hotel room and rolled in on the bed, shouting "we're millionaires!".

The low value of the currency, however, meant that the bank had given me a huge brick of notes to take away with me. Not wanting to get mugged, I stuffed the entire lot into my money belt, which I then shoved down my shorts. As I left the bank, my girlfriend looked at the huge bulge in my crotch area, and asked "what on earth is that?"

"Oh that," I replied with a smirk. "That's my dong."

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