Tim Walker’s Vietnam XVI

It was pandemonium. The noise, the lights, the people; this was utter insanity.

I remembered a year ago how Bui Vien had been considered the ‘party street’ of Ho Chi Minh City, but in my opinion it had always been pretty tame; so how could this pleasant little street from last year have since become the hub for all things mayhem – of anarchy? …

Around a year ago, it was a Saturday night; the time was roughly 5 a.m., I was outside the Aston Hotel Saigon with a few of the staff, sitting on kid’s plastic play-chairs and sipping Jimbean (see last year’s Chronicles). The night was winding down with only the occasional motorbike buzzing past, along with the odd drunkard having at some point throughout the evening lost his bearings. The following evening would involve nothing more than a few social drinks and only a small amount of idiocy, which would be largely wrapped up by 2 a.m.

…Bui Vien Street today is unequivocally a 24 hour, seven day a week operation…

This year, from what I perceived, most bars have a two to four hour window, ideally between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., where the venues will shut down, thus briefly allowing ladies equipped with brushes and damp rags to flit through and again make the place presentable; sometimes though, if a group of particularly hardened (usually Aussie or Kiwi but occasionally Brit) drinkers come through and start buying liquor by the bottle rather than the glass (which I later discovered is recommended to noticeably drunken or egotistical patrons – trying to make a show of flexing their drinking muscles – by the establishment’s canoodling bargirls) then the bar manager can scarcely justify closing her premises, can she? (For the record, it is always a ‘she’; Bui Vien Street, indeed the whole of HCMC, is run by women – more on that later.)

…I recall taking a stroll one morning, deliberately early in the hope of catching a different perspective on this number 1 District of depravity and, indeed a different perspective I was shown; shortly before 8 a.m., the sun having been up for some time, down the bottom of Bui Vien, I stumbled upon a couple of bars, still cranking music, still flashing lights around, still going for it like it’s 3 a.m.

I had a chuckle at the few drunken revellers still inside one bar in particular, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the sun was now shining (well, as much as the sun ever shines in HCMC) also that the ambient temperature must have been already pushing 30 degrees, and meandered on across the city. Over an hour later, having crossed several Districts in the meantime, I wandered back to my hotel along that same route, strolling past that same bar; the music had been shut back to a paltry conversation level and the establishment was now – aside from a few ladies dashing about brandishing their brooms and damp rags, also the couple of middle-aged drunkards, the same two drunkards who had apparently been the driving force behind the lengthy evening (the same pair of drunkards who, incidentally, a few nights later I would end up befriending and, along with the woman of my dreams, beating in a game of pool) were now flopped forward on their tables, respective bottles of whiskey or tequila, or whatever the hell it was they were drinking that morning before they passed out, caps removed but bottles still almost full beside them – undergoing it’s hasty makeover before reopening in just a few hours.

This night though, Saturday night, it was still before 12 a.m. as I wrestled my way towards the visibly less-populated end of the street…

Interesting from a walker’s perspective; right up the top of Bui Vien Street, the end on which the Aston is located, things were relatively subdued, then the farther down the street one progresses, indeed the deeper one ventures into the bedlam of deafening audio and deranged revellers, the more one finds oneself struggling for forward momentum – struggling for room to breathe. Keep going, continue pushing through the boozy horde and one will emerge into an area not unlike the other end, again densely populated but again with room to move and breathe freely.

…I made it to the bottom of the street. I was going to keep going, just wanted to keep on walking, so desperately keen I was to explore these Southeast Asian badlands; I so badly wanted to do those things that I knew I shouldn’t do but wanted to do anyway just to see what happened – oh God I wanted to do that – but no. Early days yet, I decided; best to keep a measure on antics in the beginning then see how things panned out before doing anything blindly reckless or irresponsible…

Additionally interesting from a walker’s perspective; if one stands in the middle of the street and casts an eye around, one will notice how, between the hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and other licensed premises – in fact usually directly above these establishments – are situated residential buildings – Bui Vien Street housing. The majority of these people breathe, work, play, and live practically their entire lives, in or around just this one street.

…I cast my eye around. Where the bars up the other end had looked modern, shiny, inviting hence popular, the bars down this end looked more unloved, derelict and ultimately seedy; this explained the bottlenecked variation that I encountered in reveller density along the street. Even so feeling like I was feeling, exuberant as I was at that very moment, I just didn’t know if heading back up the street for a further ear-bashing at the hands of an over-extended Vietnamese sound system was for me. On the other hand, I thought, perhaps it was – who was I to tell myself what was good for me, anyway? Then again, it was my first night in Vietnam (this year), so maybe I was obligated to let loose..? That was a good point; it was a very good point – how loose need I be letting though? So loose I end up losing all my money then waking up sweating and bloodied in a gutter somewhere..? Not that loose quite yet, no (give it a few more nights though)…

Prior to coming back to Vietnam I had set some rules that I very much expected myself to follow. Firstly, ‘You must not allow yourself to become so intoxicated (one will notice how I am using the term ‘intoxicated’ rather than ‘drunk’, this way the ruling stands for whatever variety of toxin I allow to enter my body) that you lose utter control of your capacities’.

…Last year, in Nha Trang, on my birthday night, hand in hand with my bottle of ‘Genuine Vietnamese Scotch Whisky’ (see last year’s Chronicles), while I seem to have maintained most of my recollection, to this day I have flashbacks of the horrors that I both endured and was forced to endure at some of the places that I entered that night; purely, I believe, (although you might say ‘obviously’) because I allowed myself to become intoxicated to a point where I had no control…

Yeah. That seems to be all the rule-making I did for this recent trip which, having now returned from Southeast Asia with no substantial gains or losses – other than a headful of lurid recollections also a diminished opinion of a Viet woman (or in fact any Viet person’s) ability to speak the truth – seems to have been a fairly liberal way to go.

…To hell with it; I turned to the seedy-looking premises on my left. The décor was almost entirely black which, aside from the intermittent flashing of lights, rendered the place a rather shady, yet oddly entrancing, atmosphere. I suspected this was their intention. I stepped closer and looked for a name but could see none. Sure, there was music, lights, people, clinking glass and the unmistakable audio of general drunkenness – people falsely empowered by alcohol, doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do; empowered furthermore by the sense of being so far from home in this exotic land, taking chances they would not otherwise take – yet this enigmatic establishment seemed to have no indication that it was even trading as a business…

Among the archives now clogging my memory bank, the over four weeks’ worth of optical snapshots from my most recent solo voyage to Vietnam – of which, incidentally, a great many would be captured from among the shadows of this very bar – is one of me standing behind a heavily drunk, very sweaty and hoarse almost to the point of unintelligibility, middle-aged American man who, probably based on my oddly clean-cut and well-dressed appearance, also the way that every employee in the bar appeared to know my name along with my preferred drink and was so friendly towards me (the result of, at that point, seven consecutive nights not leaving the premises until closing time; in most cases 5:30 a.m.), had presumed that, as seems to be the case with many White folk, I was in fact the owner of the aforementioned establishment; given that we had only recently become acquainted I felt it would have been improper of me to correct this gentleman’s assertion. Somehow – might have had something to do with the WWE Smackdown that was usually showing on the bar television – we had started talking about MMA and more pointedly, the UFC; I admitted to not knowing a great deal about the current state of Ultimate Fighting and confessed that I wasn’t really into Mixed Martial Arts either, however, as I casually slipped into the conversation, I was in my fourth year of training in the art of jiu jitsu.

…I looked across the road; four gorgeous women patrolled the sidewalk each adorned in flowing red dresses and six inch stiletto heels, ostensibly soliciting business for a bar called – I thought initially it was ‘Bluesky’s’, based on the letters’ vertical configuration along with visual obstruction on the second and third to last letter, and wondered momentarily about the origins of such a surname, only to later discover it was – Blueskies (turns out not so much the bar owned by old Red Bluesky but the fusion of two inherently single words to fabricate a term which, regarding pronunciation anyway, is decidedly ambiguous), and wondered why I just didn’t go there instead…

This American man (we hadn’t wasted time on formal introductions but let’s just call him ‘Craig’) nodded knowingly and revealed that he also used to compete in MMA asking me, in raspy jest, “So how’s your rear-naked choke?”

I laughed lightly and told Craig, “Honestly bud, it could be better.”

“Go on then,” he wheezed and, still seated on his barstool as I stood beside him, turned his back to me.

“You serious?” I queried with a laugh, “You want me to put a choke on you?”

“Yeah go on,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand, “show us what you jiu jitsu pansies can do..?”

At that point I knew I ought to have just walked away but of course more compelling was the desire to know what would happen if I didn’t, so I dutifully slid in behind the portly American. “You sure..?” I asked as I slid my left arm around his throat.

“Yeah,” he rasped, his hoarseness amplified by the force of my forearm dragging over his windpipe, “go on, see if you can choke me out.”

I hesitated in setting up the manoeuvre, the grin having suddenly vanished from my face. “Dude, I’m not choking you out,” I said firmly, “because you are going to tap before it gets too much, yeah?”

“Yeah whatever,” he wheezed, “don’t be a pussy – choke me out.”

I tightened the grip of my left forearm around Craig’s neck, bending my knees and pulling my chest in close to his back. I then linked up my left hand with the biceps of my right arm. I positioned my head beside his right ear and reiterated my intentions, “Just make sure you tap out as soon as you feel your head start to swell, alright” – anyone who has experienced a rear-naked knows the feeling – “because shit man, I don’t want to kill ya.”

“Nah, you won’t kill me,” he uttered in a strangled tone, curiously, already sounding halfway to death. “So go on then, ya fuckin’ pussy, show us you what you can do.”

…Saturday night, my first night on Bui Vien of 2018, I looked at the bar-with-no-name and the drunken revellers therein; there was something about its dark, seedy and all-around unappealing quality that I just found so damned inviting. To hell with it; I stepped onto the footpath and, with one last look at the glorious ladies in red over the road at Blueskies, entered the premises of – I glanced up to see a small neon sign obscured by a folded awning – Crazy Girls.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Junkin Yank

Photography by S Connor-Getter/Ria Naked

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