It’s just past 7pm on Friday night and Quan has just got to Polite Pub after his daytime job at a five-star hotel. Every evening, he’s the manager-cum-bartender at this pub that was opened by his parents in 1995.
Still wearing the necktie and outfit from his day job, the young man busies himself behind the bar. After about 10 minutes he brings out to his customers a plate of cold cuts, nicely decorated with a couple of green olives. The mid-40s customer sitting next to the bar lights up a new cigar, and slowly takes another sip of whisky.
Later Quan tells me that the man is the owner of the Bentley auto showroom on one of the most expensive roads in the capital. But at Polite Pub, he’s a frequent customer.
The pub is one of the four longest-running venues in the capital. Opened in Hanoi in the early 1990s when the US embargo was still in effect, during this period 90 percent of Polite’s customers were foreigners. Only a small percentage were the high-income Vietnamese employees working at international banks or the embassies nearby. The first proper cocktails served at Polite were Long Island Ice Tea and the margarita — both were taught to the bartenders by American customers. The pub was also one of the first places to install satellite TV. It has served draught beer since the mid-1990s.
In the Beginning…
Nightlife in Hanoi has its origins in the early 20th century, when the French first introduced electricity to Vietnam. Suddenly nighttime entertainment spots began to open — including cinemas, theatres and dancing spots, with a variety of night food vendors coming along to satisfy the evening hunger pangs. Hotels also first opened during this period. They quickly became popular hangouts for ‘civilised’ Hanoians and put on a range of entertainment.
“Hotel Le Splendide is a giant castle which has every function necessary to bring happiness to any Vietnamese person who has extra ‘coins’,” wrote author and journalist Vu Trong Phung, in his masterpiece Dumb Luck. “A group of architects have put a lot of thought into creating this spectacular building which is half under the water, half above the ground, with a balcony on the water so that the visitors can both watch people swimming and kayaking. Inside its flowery garden, lays a tennis court, a swimming pool, a table tennis table and more. The hotel also has a dancing room and a television.”
Often known as the Balzac of Vietnam, his 1936 novel satirises the Vietnamese middle classes of the time.
Hat a dao (sung poetry) was also another popular form of nighttime entertainment among the monied Vietnamese. Hang Giay and Kham Thien became well-known for their theatre houses, where lyrical poems were sung on stage by women to a background of chamber music.
With the arrival of ice, in the early 1900s the first beer was sold in Vietnam. In his book The Old Stories of Hanoi, To Hoai wrote, “At that time, not many people drank beer. The BGI exclusive beer company didn’t make its beer in Hanoi. Homel beer was owned by a Frenchman, and its factory was located where the Hanoi beer company is now at.”
However, beer-drinking culture quickly became popular, particularly during the war. “Once [people] became familiar with beer, they couldn’t stop opening bottle after bottle. When the American aircrafts were threatening the city day and night, on the street people drank more beer, from small glasses to big giant cups. Even when the war sirens were ringing, the line of people in front of a store in Tong Dan didn’t even move.”
However, when the French were kicked out of Vietnam all the nightspots in the capital were closed down, only returning in the late 1980s after reunification and Doi Moi.
From the Late 1980s
Famed electronic musician Vu Nhat Tan remembers when he was a 17-year-old pianist wandering the city to find a place to perform. It was 1987. The majority of nighttime music venues were in hotels or restaurants, but there weren’t that many places.
“People came to listen to music at 6pm during dinner and by 9pm or 10pm they had already left,” he recalls. “By 10pm, all the street lights were turned off.”
The few hotels back then included The Metropole, the oldest hotel in Hanoi and Hoa Binh Hotel on Ly Thuong Kiet, which was originally called Le Splendide when it was first built in 1926. Aside from the pianists, the hotels also had a jazz band, drummers, flautists, accordion players and singers. Most venues were small and the singers sang without the support of a sound system.
“But it was a very great time. People really came to enjoy the music and to admire the artists,” says Tan. Like his contemporaries, Tan learned about world music from used cassettes bought from the harbour in Hai Phong or at the flea market in Hanoi.
In 1997 the internet came to Vietnam, and the music scene and nightlife quickly developed to a new level. By the early 2000s, there were more nightclubs and dancing bars playing loud techno music. The live music scene also began to develop across the city. The arrival of growing numbers of tourists increased demand, and bars like Le Maquis (now Tet Bar), Labyrinth (now Mao’s Red Lounge) and a range of other establishments in the Ta Hien and Bao Khanh areas opened up serving the need of both visitors and expats. The Spotted Cow, Jaspa’s in Hanoi Tower and later Finnegan’s Wake also became popular watering holes.
A relative latecomer to the scene, Nguyen Qui Duc opened his first Tadioto bar/art space back in 2008, with the intention of bringing a new concept to the city. Tadioto was never just a bar.
“I had a small concept store before across the street,” says Duc. “Later, it was also a gallery and above it were rooms used for discussions, artist talks, meetings with international curators, filmmakers and artists.”
His customers were a 50/50 mix of Vietnamese and expats, but not backpackers — many were Vietnamese who had lived abroad and wanted something different to the more generic clubs and bars spreading across the city. It was a reaction to the growing popularity of MTV music, Vinahouse and Vietnamese pop, genres popular with Vietnamese youth that had taken over the clubbing scene.
CAMA, an active independent music promoter since 2005, opened its bar CAMA ATK in 2011. Providing an underground space and a home to original live music and international, non-mainstream DJs, the space quickly became a popular spot for music and bar lovers. It is also a haven for the city’s growing number of underground artists. The three-year-old Hanoi Rock City, with its arts space and live music venue, has also had a huge impact on the scene.
A young nightlife industry like the one in Hanoi means limited options. But in return it means more opportunity to create a new scene to fill in the gap. Long-term Hanoian expat JC Smith was among the first people to DJ soul and funk music in the capital, the kind of music he grew up with but missed when he came to Vietnam. Recently he and two other like-minded souls — Vaughan and Rich ‘Spectrum’ Mills — founded a collective called London Underground. UK bass music such as garage, drum-and-bass or new style deep house has yet to gain widespread popularity in Vietnam. But there’s a hope that one day they will take off.
Still a Challenge
“It’s chaotic,” says Tan, when describing today’s nightlife in the capital. “There are more options but it also means one needs to be very selective to choose the right one.”
Despite the increasing number of visiting musicians or artists from overseas, nightlife in Hanoi is still criticised for its lack of venues and quality. One of the reason is the lack of a profitable market that can sustain the venues.
“Despite what people say about wanting an exciting and good quality nightlife, providing a variety of music they don’t normally find in Vietnam,” says JC, “they still don’t come out in the numbers necessary to [make a venue] profitable in the long term.” Having opened a restobar back in 2008 — Cuba — he says he has no intention of ever opening a bar again.
Now as a member of London Underground, he’s also facing a hard time improving the group. There is a shortage of artists.
“It is missing an element that will make the night more authentic,” he explains. “And that’s the MCs, as most nights like drum-and-bass and grime will definitely have someone to MC.”
Economic slowdown and the enforcement of early closing times have been other factors that are said to have challenged the nightlife scene.
“It’s been tough — partly because there are many more places, with events happening on most nights,” says Duc. “It’s also exciting. But if the economy doesn’t improve, places will come and go.”
It’s getting late and some customers have just arrived at Polite Pub. Sitting at a table with me, Quan says, “Now people have more choices. If they like five-star, they choose Angelina at The Metropole or The Rooftop. People who like a louder atmosphere can go to Dragonfly. Clubs open and close. But customers who like the idea of a friendly family-run business and tradition stay with us.”
As he says this, the familiar sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival rocks through the bar.
I want to know, have you ever seen the rain
I want to know, have you ever seen the rain
Coming down on a sunny day