By Rick Ellis
If you drop into a bar after work in the Western world, most patrons unwind while quietly sipping a drink over subdued conversations with soft music in the background
I was wandering around central Da Nang early one evening and heard a huge racket coming from a shop – someone won big in the lottery, family squabble, or a crime underway? It was really loud, then I could also hear a lot of clinking bottles and shouting, so as I turned the corner and the shop came into view I realized it was a bar!
Bullseye! Just what I was looking for!
If you drop into a bar after work in the Western world, most patrons unwind while quietly sipping a drink over subdued conversations with soft music in the background.
In Vietnam, the end of the afternoon atmosphere in a local bar is more like a hotly contested football match or a scene from a back room gambling den out of the movies. It’s hopping in all directions!
The customers laugh and roar, hollering out orders to the service crew on the fly. “Hey, bring us some ice and another plate of cold cuts!” The servers sprint around balancing all the orders and serving in record time, not a precious moment to spare.
The clientele was all men – in groups except for me. Sometimes I’ve visited with a local buddy or two but usually alone. Ironically, it’s where I do my best reflecting on life despite the noise and distractions. Also, if I go alone I always meet lots of people – or, better said – lots of people meet me.
The patrons are excited to be out of work with the gang, but also need to get home early, so they drink at a hearty pace and the noise level increased with every passing round of beer.
They usually order beer by the box of 24. Why bother fooling around with a few bottles at a time?
There is no menu or price list posted anywhere, but everyone knows what’s offered and at which price. There is no music nor television, and hardly anyone is looking at a smartphone. Occasionally a phone rings and someone jumps up from a table and sprints into the street away from the din, possibly to offer excuses: “Still working on that report honey, be home soon!”
Most of the staff are on consignment from a local beer company – several young women buzzing around in green uniforms, adding ice cubes to keep the beer chilled, serving food, and schlepping around those boxes of 24.
The patrons are seated in tiny plastic chairs at low tables, like little children in school. At first it seemed odd, but it creates an aura of intimacy and friendship because everyone is clustered around the low-slung table.
Those tiny plastic chairs look innocent enough but can be dangerous, particularly for oversized Westerners like me. One time I leaned back to get something out of my pocket and the rear legs collapsed in an instant – beer bottle catapulted in one direction, glass in another, plate of food yet another, and I ended up on the floor.
Customers and staff rushed over to pick me up off the floor and asked if I was OK. It sure is an easy way to meet new people and never be forgotten! They wanted to call an ambulance until I convinced them all I needed was a replacement for the beer.
I learned a lesson that day and since then put one chair on top of another so I get a double layer of stability.
Random people wander in and out: a cigarette promotion girl wearing a hairband shaped like bunny rabbit ears, several lottery vendors, then a snack vendor toting a basket who gets scolded by the bar owner. He doesn’t like competition in his place.
Featured food includes black preserved eggs, known locally as “bách nhật trứng” (100-day eggs) served with pickled onions, dried shrimp, and spicy chili peppers. The egg comes out smooth, a bit chewy, and rich, perfectly complementing the flavour of beer.
Another favourite is “mực khô,” dried octopus cut into strips. The mực khô stinks up the whole place with an aroma of fish sauce while being heated but don’t let that put you off. It’s about the same texture as a rubber tire, but it’s just right with some chili sauce, so don’t let that put you off either. Just be prepared for extensive gnawing and chewing – if you’re short of time best to skip the mực khô because it’s a long battle to get through it.
The most popular snack served is a plate of cured meats and fermented pork sausage meticulously wrapped and folded in banana leaves and served with raw garlic and a pepper/salt mix. It’s called “nem chua” – sour, pungent, spicy, and therefore delicious with a beer. Beats salted peanuts or chips every time.
And that’s when it usually happens: I order the nem chua, squeeze the head of garlic in my fist, then peel the first garlic toe and pop it in my mouth. By the time I unravel the nem chua from the banana leaves, dip it in the salt and pepper and bite off a chunk, a local has appeared by my side.
Nearby customers are watching me out of the corner of their eyes – very discreetly – but I can feel their glances, my senses now trained.
Is that white guy really going to eat the nem chua?
Damn right I do, as well as the raw garlic, just for good measure.
The customers are business people for the most part, so they’ve learned English in school, but maybe not had many chances to practice. Da Nang is still provincial so there are not that many Westerners in the city center, and practically none that go to the local Happy Hour Beer joints, so it’s a great opportunity to make contact.
This time a man pulled his chair up very close to mine and sat down, then out came the phone equipped with translation software, and away we went. The conversation was spirited yet choppy to say the least, but neither of us cared, it was fun to meet and make contact.
Many of these locals have never been outside Vietnam because international tourism is expensive for the average person, so they are doubly curious about life abroad.
The local man’s eyes widened as I explained that I’ve travelled extensively and lived in many parts of the world, and I see Vietnam is going great places and enjoying increased attention as a destination.
He looked at me in disbelief when I tell him the problem will be that Vietnam will become very popular so the challenge in the future will be to find new and interesting places to visit that are not overrun with foreign tourists. Domestic tourism has also skyrocketed as the living standard constantly inches up in Vietnam.
That’s just what he wanted to hear but I’m not sure he really understood all that progress comes at a cost, there will be pressure on infrastructure, services, and prices as time goes on.
I rhymed off a couple of meaningful statistics such as international tourist arrivals, which were up 25% in 2016 over 2015, and closer to 30% this past year over 2016.
At that rate, they’ll be 20 million foreign visitors annually in just a couple of years.
Things will change in a very big way in Vietnam – there is no way to avoid it if the number of visitors triples within the span of a few short years.
It’s naive to think that things won’t change because there is no way around it, but some traditions don’t die.
I’m quite sure we’ll still be able to enjoy nem chua and a cold beer in those little Happy Hour places in the coming years no matter how much Vietnamese tourism grows.
Where else would all the guys go?