In the hurly burly of a developing city, change is part of the daily routine. So sometimes it’s nice to have some constants. In Ho Chi Minh City, where for the last 22 years towers have risen, urban rail systems have been commenced, stalled and re-commenced, and heritage buildings have been demolished in favour of the latest thing, Hien & Bob’s has been an oasis of the same. Surviving in the same central location it’s always been at, serving the same drinks it’s always had, and giving the same sassy attitude over the bar it’s famous for, it’s one of those places that people who’ve been coming here for years always come back to. It’s a touchstone and is unwavering in its simple philosophy. As owner Hien puts it, “Cold beer and good music, that’s it.”
Looking like a 1980s suburban bamboo rumpus room, where flatscreen TVs are the only real acknowledgement of ‘the future’, Hien & Bobs is a well-storied location. Meeting Hien, you can tell she’s the type of lady who could tell a million of them — if she trusts you. When I tell her where I’m from, however, she’s very keen to let me know that ‘she doesn’t want to be famous’.
“Take a picture of the bar, no worries,” she says, “but leave me out. People already know who I am.”
Starting with her late husband Bob ‘some time’ in the early 1990s, she has seen Saigon change, but the subject doesn’t really rouse her. “People used to come here every night back then,” she tells me. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday… it didn’t matter. I’ve served them all. Now, not as much, it’s more like Friday and Saturday only.”
When I go there with a friend, it’s a Monday night, and it’s quiet. Classic American rock plays from an mp3 player and Hien mans the bar with her daughter, who will soon go overseas to study. A family that appear to be on holiday are in, along with one man from Estonia, who’s staying down the road. Hien & Bob’s still attracts all kinds.
Like a Tiger
“It’s hard to find good staff now,” Hien tells me during our chat. “We used to have real good girls, but this has never been one of those bars, I’ve never allowed it. But we used to have real smart girls in here, but now they all go away. They don’t want to work here anymore.”
I fish for more. Has she ever had trouble?
“Of course, all the time,” she says. “That’s why I am like I am. If people come here enjoying a drink, some music, that’s good. If people come here and aren’t nice, I throw them out.”
Has it made her hard?
“Yes. I don’t pretend to be nice to people,” she says. “Better that I show them straight away that I’m a tiger. Less trouble that way.”
So will the bar go on I ask her, sipping on my second Jack and Coke. “Who knows” she says, “probably. I’ve been here for 22 years already, but you never know what might happen.”
Hien & Bob’s is at 43 Hai Ba Trung, Q1, HCMC