Strangers in the Night

Expats have bars in this country that are for, well, expats. Owen Salisbury takes three Vietnamese university students round the bars to see how they, and the bars, fare


"Get some friends; we’ll go to Western bars and drink.”


“Western bars?” Phuc asks. He’s 20 years old, a kid I’d tutored from high school through university entrance exams until he outgrew tutoring and grew to become one of my good friends.


“Yeah. Bars where foreigners go. The Word will pay for your drinks,” I lie, because he’s the fourth person I’ve asked.


“Ok. I can get two or three friends.”


The Experiment


I’ve always been curious what Vietnamese people think about hanging out in foreign enclaves, bars and clubs where they are the minority. The main discovery of the evening? These guys, at least, didn’t feel like outsiders as long as they got free food and drink.


The trio meets me late at the corner of De Tham and Bui Vien — of course — and we make introductions.


“This is Minh,” Phuc says, pointing at the tall one. “This is Linh,” pointing at the guy with stylish hair.


We shake hands.


“You know what this is about?” They look hesitant, so I explain the premise.


One item certainly reaches them. “You’re paying?” Linh asks.


“Yup. But one rule, guys. Only English.”


They agree. My major peeve about going out with people who speak the same native language is that even if they begin speaking English, they shift away so fast it blows my hair back.


Stage One: The Tourist Trap


We begin our carouse at Phoenix 47, one of those all-in-one Bui Vien watering holes — bar, restaurant, club, source of viscera-shaking sonic assault.

We settle at an inside table.


“So you’re paying?” Minh asks.


Desperado and Strongbow girls immediately surround us. Perfect for a chick fight.


Ordering three Desperadoes — Phuc hates beer — we receive four, plus a shot each of vodka. I show them how to push the wedge of lime into the bottle. They do it perfectly. Mine jams.


Mot, hai, ba, vo!” We clank glasses; foaming beer slops onto the table. I check my watch. About 12 minutes to break my only rule. Of course.


“I hate beer,” Phuc mutters. He sips at his vodka.


“Nobody likes it their first time. It’s an acquired taste. How do you like vodka?” I ask.


“I hate it,” he says, taking another sip. Another acquired taste.


Linh drinks both his drinks steadily. No hate there.


Food is called for. Minh and Linh ignore the Western grub and get pho bo, which proves something, I’m sure. Phuc and I get vu de nuong and I get cut nuong, complete with crispy little quail head that Phuc crunches down on as I’m swigging my beer. I nearly inhale the lime wedge.


Linh grins. “Brains taste good.”


I settle the bill. There’s none of the business where everybody reaches for the bill to prove they are the big dog of the group.


Stage Two: The Sports Bar


Onward to Phatty’s, which is as Western as you get. Beefy Australian blokes with hands fused to beer mugs watch rugby, cricket and darts on the TVs.


No beer this time. We order a jug of mojito, and slowly drain it. They like it, but Phuc still mentions the alcohol burn.


“Doesn’t any of this make you uncomfortable? Being the only locals in the place?” Over the low music, we hear the buzz of English from all around.

“No,” says Minh. “It’s still our country.”


Linh complains of getting itchy, and starts to get the Asian Alcohol Flush.


We soon finish with Phatty’s. Though it’s a good place to talk, there’s only so much televised cricket a guy can take.


Stage Three: The Beer Club Control Group


For our last stop, the others take charge. We drive to Vuvuzela, the popular beer club.


The music is about 118 decibels. My single false tooth buzzes in my mouth and a hot sonic spoon stirs my entrails. Young, hip Vietnamese people are laughing and chatting.


A waitress thunks down three bottles and a mug. I take the draft Bitburger and a slow, satisfying sip. Minh and Linh drink their Tiger Crystals. Phuc has ordered a Strongbow hard cider. He tilts his head and drains a third of the bottle.


“It tastes like apple juice. No alcohol.”


Waiters shoo us out at 11pm. We part ways, and I’m reminded of many nights going out while I was in university — though to be fair, no random dude ever took us out, paid for drinks, and wrote about it for a magazine.


The Conclusion


Rather than strain to make some moral point or grand unifying theme, I’ll end this with Minh, Phuc and Linh themselves describing their experience.


Phuc: “This is the first time I drank this much and also the first time I have ever gone to Western pubs and clubs. It’s a new feeling when you see all the foreigners around you. I don’t really like places like this but it interesting to try. However, the price is a bit high for me.”


Linh: “For me, these places have reasonable prices. Plus, I enjoy the music, Vietnamese places are too loud. Also, the service is good and professional. The surroundings are also interesting, and the decorators did a good job. I may find more places like this to try out.”


Minh: “I have gone to many pubs but these places really catch my interest. The atmosphere is comfortable, unlike most of the Vietnamese ones. Employees treat you really well. The food also has a good taste. I think I will try more western pubs.”


So there you have it. The universal language isn’t love, it’s beer. Free beer.

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