One of the beautiful things about traveling is stumbling upon forms of entertainment that make you cover your cheeks with your hands and shriek, Holy shit, they would never let us do this in America! Truly, isn’t that why any of us go anywhere?
I discovered funky balls on my last night in Hanoi, after an evening of karaoke with a room full of middle aged Vietnamese people whose eternal fandom we won after my boyfriend sang “Telephone Line.” We were walking down the street, drunk on sidewalk space and beer, when we noticed groups of people (teens) clustered around tables, sucking on the contents of big, white balloons. The scene at each cafe we passed was identical: Take a sip of beer, take a hit of the balloon. What the hell tomfoolery was going on here? And…could we do it, too?
“What are those things?” we asked the proprietor of one cafe, gesturing to the balloons strung along the ceiling. “Marijuana,” he replied, without sounding certain of his response. “Oh,” I said, recoiling. I hate weed. It makes me sleepy and disoriented, and yes, I have tried sativas; no, it does not make a difference, and I secretly think the whole idea of the various specialized properties of weed strains is a load of crap.
But I knew this wasn’t weed. Firstly, because it just didn’t make sense. Stoners long ago perfected weed inhalation in the form of the vape pen, and there’s little reason that I could think of to try to stuff it into a balloon. And anyway, how would that even work? Secondly, I knew that if I were trying to say “laughing gas” in a second language, I would fail. But…could I really be that lucky? Had God been hiding in the atheist state of Vietnam all along?
I’d only had nitrous once in recent memory, and it was when I got my wisdom teeth removed. My insurance covered the procedure itself but not sedation, so I had to pay something like $200 out of pocket for the pleasure of thirty or so seconds of sucking my money’s worth out of a gas mask. But let me tell you, it was worth it. I had the time of my life, and I was so busy trying to charm the dentist as he plucked my teeth from my head that I hadn’t even noticed that he’d already done it! Nor did I notice that my boyfriend at the time, who was supposed to take me home, had gotten bored and abandoned me to get a bagel. Normally, I’d have been livid, but who had time for anger? I was having too much fun! I love laughing gas!
Still, there were risks. What if it was actually weed? How would I get home? How would I get up the stairs? How would I brush my teeth? (I cannot overstate what a helpless mess weed makes me.) We wandered a bit further down the street, pausing in front of another balloon-filled cafe. We were nearly to our apartment. It was now or never.
“What are these?” I asked the waitress at the last balloon cafe along our route, pointing to the dangling row bobbing gently in the stale September air. She searched for the correct words, and I leaned in close in anticipation. “Funny,” she said finally. That was all the confirmation I needed. I KNEW IT, I cried. WE’LL TAKE SEVERAL.
As the waitress went upstairs to fill our first balloon, we noticed the only other patron in the place, a woman staring with feverish intensity at her phone and a balloon dangling languidly from her lips. Unlike the others we’d seen in previous cafes, this woman was not taking her nitrous in drags between sips of beer and chatting with friends. She was just…breathing it, her gaze never so much as flickering from her screen. In our total time there, we saw her inhale four balloons.
In the States, laughing gas occupies a strange legal position—possession is fine, though inhaling it for fun is explicitly banned in several states. Still, unless you’re sucking a can of whipped cream directly in front of a cop, you’ll probably get away with it. In much of the world, though, whip-its are a popular, legal way to get high. (They can also be dangerous.) In Vietnam, it doesn’t seem to be on its way out any time soon, despite concern from doctors. Here’s a sterling quote from Vietnam News:
“According to scientists, young women were advised to avoid exposure to nitrous oxide because it might lead to fertility problems. For a normal person, inhaling the laughing gas regularly could affect their nervous system, he said.”
Yeah, yeah, I know what they meant, but phrasing. Still, after just one funky ball and a couple beers each, the woman in the corner began having an unnerving effect on our high. It was time to leave the cafe, it was time to leave Hanoi, it was time to leave funky balls. I sincerely hope she’s not still there.