Flamenco in Alley 61
A new friend from the gym asked me recently if I liked music. I thought it wise to hedge lest I get invited to another evening of off-key karaoke. Then he clarified and asked specifically about classical music. So I pictured an evening at the opulent Opera House. Wrong again. How about classical guitar in a cafe near Nguyen Trai St?
I accepted but later doubted I'd heard right. Nguyen Trai is the big dustbowl thoroughfare I take every day to and from work. It is the main to route through the burbs of Thanh Xuan and is currently the site of major overpass construction. Past the bridge site I'm sure there are lots of cafes - they are ubiquitous in this city - but live classical guitar seemed so unlikely. Vietnamese pop videos or live bong da (soccer) on satellite maybe.
Well, Hanoi is a city of surprises. What casual visitors to the city never see is the extent of the maze of laneways that make up this city. They are endless and quirky. Some promising ones fizzle out after a few turns. Others seem to be going nowhere and suddenly yield new networks complete with noodles shops, hair salons and internet cafes. I've heard the laneways of Hanoi compared to the medinas of Morocco in their complexity. You never know what is waiting for you around the corner through the next crack in the wall.
In this case, it was a bohemian guitar salon. Bao pointed his motobike down some narrow little corridor off a main street and we emerged into a little parkette type opening. Just past that was our destination.
Nhac Tranh Cafe has only two little rooms. The first room is where you place your order, the second room is where the action is. There are several rows of low wooden benches (which refuse to accommodate Western spines) facing on to tiny stage. The yellow walls have character, all chipped and worn and covered in portraits of what it seems are the patron saints of this cafe: John Lennon, Trinh Con Son, and any Spanish guitarist. There is a large framed portrait of Andres Segovia over the stage. Once the room is packed your order is likely to be delivered from the outside through the window. The room is lit by candles and it seems the music begins when a small hurricane lantern is brought to the stage.
First up, a former professor from the National Music University, all tweeded up, performing Spanish classical. He is great but so unassuming and cracks only a faint smile when the applaud comes. The audience seems to be mostly students, many probably from the same institution as the prof. His act is followed by his students. The repertoire gradually gets less classical, less tweedy and more flamenco. And those nervy students get virtuosic. Wow! Sometimes it could only be played by the Buddha with a thousand arms. Too many notes, not enough fingers. But they do it. Meanwhile to our side are four fine arts students with a pad whipping off line drawings of the performers.
I am thinking I'm the only whitey in the joint when suddenly they pull a real live Spanish guitarist out a hat at the back of the far room somewhere. The master brings along a student on stage for a flamenco duet, followed by a kick-ass Cuban vocal number. The tiny room goes wild.
Sometime during all of this I start feeling watched. It turns out the art posse has decided I make ideal sketching material. I guess that's what I get for being in extreme minority. Even when the show is over they want me and Bao to sit there a bit. It's an odd experience. Where are you supposed to look when you are being sketched? I am flattered even if most of the sketches are not altogether kind and seem to overestimate my age. Must be the dim ambient lighting.
I didn't know there are real bohemian places left in this Starbucks world. It was all very 1963 Greenwich Village, but in a completely unselfconscious way. God forbid the Lonely Planet gets hold of this, but you know the remoteness of Alley 61 should be enough to protect it. The next day I text Dat to tell him about this discovery. He knows about it already, and is completely shocked that I've been let in on the secret. How many other secrets is Hanoi hiding from me?
Promise not to tell?
Quan Nhac Tranh
Alley 61, Thai Thinh St.
Thanh Xuan District