One of the first bars to open in Saigon — Apocalypse Now had only opened the year before — Q Bar’s location in the basement of the Opera House brought it fame far beyond the borders of Vietnam.
“As Vietnam opened up in ‘93, ‘94 and ‘95, [Q Bar] became a bit of an institution,” says co-owner Sean Mulraine. “At the time, Vietnam was hip in an avant-garde kind of way. So, people came in like Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke and Robert de Niro. They wanted to be the first there.”
They were just some of the celebrities during the 1990s who ended up drinking at Q Bar.
Q Bar was opened in November 1992 by American Viet Kieu Phuong Anh Nguyen and her-then partner, photographer David Jacobson. At the time, says Sean: “There was a small art gallery in the Opera House and a hotel at the back of it. Somehow Phuong Anh had a connection with the Opera House and they told her she could take a small space there. But the one thing she had to do was to provide breakfast for the guests in the hotel.”
He adds: “So when Phuong Anh first opened Q Bar, it was really small, just the end bar of what it eventually became. Every morning she had to get out of bed and come down and cook bacon and eggs and croissant for all the guests in the hotel.”
Eventually the hotel closed down and throughout the 1990s Q Bar became one of the go-to venues in Ho Chi Minh City. Then, in February 2000, Phuong Anh was forced to vacate the premises. So, she went back to Los Angeles. After about a year the Opera House got in touch and said that she could have the space back. She reopened in March 2002.
A Sharp Exit
Sean’s first involvement was as a customer. He was working in Hong Kong and was a client of the old Q Bar before it closed down.
“I came back during [the] SARS [health crisis] when Hong Kong had to be evacuated,” he recalls. “I saw Phuong Anh in the bar and well…”
With David Jacobson now living in Bangkok — he opened up a Q Bar there in 1999 — Sean soon became Phuong Anh’s business partner, and together they ran the bar until 2011 when for the second time they were shut down.
“A theatre in District 5, which was the home of the ballet and symphony orchestra, had been sold,” says Sean. “[The authorities] decided that they needed a new home for them to practice. Originally there was supposed to be an Arts Centre built in Thu Thiem in District 2 that was going to accommodate all these artists. But it hadn’t been built yet.”
“So, they said ‘we’re going to need your space’. But the musicians said no, we don’t need that space, it’s wrong, it doesn’t suit our instruments. So, there was a to and fro. In the end we were told that whatever happens we had to move out.
“We closed down then and for the next few years we were supposed to move back in, but it never happened. We’re still in theory the existing tenant.”
In the meantime, however, a second Q Bar had opened in Hoi An in a house that Phuong Anh had originally bought for her grandmother in the late 1990s. That was in 2010.
Back in the Mix
So, after all these years, how does Sean feel about having Q Bar again in Saigon?
“When you’re top of the tree, and you’ve got all the kudos overseas and all the press, to go to doing something that’s more low-key is a little bit hard to adjust to,” says Sean. “But it’s exactly what we need to adjust to.”
He adds: “We were hanging out in District 2, spending money in other people’s places, and enjoying ourselves, and complaining about them. So why don’t we open our own place again and let people complain about us?”
Together with a third partner, Xavier Codron, last year they started to search out a space. The original idea was to do a small, 50sqm speakeasy type of place. But they couldn’t find the right venue.
“As inevitably happens,” says Sean, “we found a space that begged for a little bit more investment so we decided to go for it.”
Q Bar take three reopened on New Year’s Eve. It’s been well worth the wait.
Q Bar is at 9A Ngo Quang Huy, Q2, HCMC
PHOTO BY OLGA ROZENBAJGIER
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