Thursday, November 15, 2012


A daytime view of the Hotel de Ville, originally built by French colonists

It’s a Friday night, and I leave Godmother's Bar, on my way to meet Chris, another American in town. Leaving the the Pham Ngu Lao tourist neighborhood behind, I cross into a city park. Even in the evening, HCMC is fairly safe. Although theft and corruption are common, violent street crime is a rarity. Culturally, the Vietnamese don’t like confrontations. I’ve only heard of one foreigner mugged in Vietnam, and it happened in the park I'm walking through. The German victim was so drunk, that he could hardly even walk when thieves spotted him. Stumbling drunk through a dark park at 3am is just inviting a mugging.

But tonight, there’s little to worry about, it’s only 9pm; at this hour it's safe enough. I've plenty of company; the park is full of Vietnamese couples. There are few places in Vietnam for romancing pairs to be alone, as single men and women usually live with their parents until marriage. Good Vietnamese women usually don’t go to bars, and most young men have little money to spend on restaurants or movies. Going to a public park is a cheap date. On weekend evenings, the city’s parks are full of couples. Tonight is no different, countless couples are cuddled up together on park benches, occasionally sneaking a kiss in the dark. With all benches taken, late arriving couples sit on the seats of parked motorbikes. Some nights, older couples take over the park’s gazebo. I’ve often seen them ballroom dancing, despite the tropical heat. They don’t need an orchestra; music from a boombox will do.

I recall another night when I walked through this same park, and the park’s occupants weren’t Vietnamese. On that particular evening, every single bench in the park was occupied by a sleeping African. There were more than 40 of them. During that weekend there had been an immigration crackdown. There were a number of Africans in HCMC who had overstayed their tourist visas, and didn’t have enough money to get home. When the police raided their hotel rooms and apartments in another district, they fled to this park to sleep until the raids were over.

Passing Ben Thanh Market I scare a couple of rats, and take a slight detour. I turn down Pasteur Street, named for the famous French doctor, and come to one of the most stunning colonial buildings that still survives. Bathed with bright exterior lighting, is the magnificent Hotel de Ville. More than a century old, it’s now an official government building occupied by the People’s Committee. The Classic French architecture, contrasts with the armed Vietnamese police outside. They sit bored in their security posts, hardly looking as I walk by. I’d love to have a look around inside the grand old building, but I’m not allowed in. Since it’s no longer a hotel, it’s closed to outsiders. Ah, if these walls could talk…

Looking up, a Vietnamese flag flies high above the old hotel’s center tower. In a slap in the face to the French, the Vietnamese installed a statue of old Ho Chi Minh sitting in the park right out front, reminding them just who it was that bested the colonials. Floodlights light up the entire front façade every night. As I walk past admiring the scene, I notice that all over the yellow painted exterior, there are… lizards! Small gecko lizards, all over the walls. The lighting attracts insects, which in turn attract the lizards. I give up counting them after I pass 100. Back in its heyday, this hotel hosted governors, presidents, and the rich and famous. Now, the only thing living here are little reptiles looking for an easy meal.
Entrance to Apocalypse Now, from

Returning to the main boulevard, I continue on to my evening destination, a disco. In a country that seeks to forget the war, one of the most popular nightspots in town is called, “Apocalypse Now”. Taking its name from the intense Francis Ford Coppola war movie, this strangely themed place opened in the 1990’s when the city’s nightlife was more liberal than now. If you’ve seen the movie and thought it was rather bizarre, well, so is this place. The décor is dark and dramatic. Spherical white light fixtures are painted red, giving the appearance that blood is dripping down them.

On the wall, a surfboard is painted with that famous line from the movie, “Charlie Don’t Surf.” Upstairs the bar is made of sandbags, much like a military bunker. Old US made army helmets from the war have been turned into more light fixtures. The wall's top is lined with barbed wire.

Despite the drinking and partying, the club isn’t as wild as you’d expect. There's some hugging and kissing among the patrons, but not near as much as in clubs in America. On the dance floor, there is far less hip grinding and suggestive dancing. One of the contradictions of Asia, is that sexy dancing, or public displays of affection aren’t considered acceptable. Partying is done in a more conservative manner; there are no go-go dancers here. The government doesn’t want HCMC to turn into another Bangkok.

Prostitution unfortunately, is part of Vietnamese culture. As in many bars in poor countries, some ladies present are prostitutes. Others are Vietnamese ladies hoping to find a western husband. I ignore the advances of a pair of working ladies, and make my way through the crowd to my buddy Chris at the bar. He’s a business consultant in town for a few weeks. As I order a Tiger beer, he tells me about his last weekend, at a karaoke place with a big group of colleagues. He enjoyed the evening, but the next day he had one of the worst hangovers of his life. He couldn’t understand why, since he didn’t drink heavily. I ask what he was  drinking.

“We had three bottles of Johnny Walker Black,” he answered. “We bought the expensive stuff. The first bottle tasted ok, but the second and third bottles tasted a lot different.”

What he didn’t know, was that the first bottle was genuine Johnny Walker Whiskey, and the other bottles were counterfeit liquor. The karaoke workers figured they were drunk enough after the first bottle not to notice the difference! Their 2nd and 3rd bottles of premium imported $100 whiskey, were actually only cheap moonshine. It's a common scam. Johnny Walker Black is supposed to be 12 years old; that’s why it has the darker color. For booze counterfeiters, that’s nothing a little water coloring can’t fix.

Some time later, there's a commotion by the bar. I turn just in time to see a bar stool sailing into the crowd near me, flung by an angry Chinese drinker. The Vietnamese woman he was aiming for responded with her own weapon; she took off her shoe and counter-attacked with her high heel! Her girlfriend also jumped into the fray. In the melee that ensued, the group was gradually pulled apart by black shirted security. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt. Since I’m an American, a bar fight is nothing new. America is probably the world capital of bar fights, and although I’ve broken up a few brawls, I’ve managed to never get attacked myself. US bar fights are usually one on one fistfights between belligerent drunkards. The fracas usually lasts only a few seconds, until bouncers charge in and shove the combatants out the door.

Bar fights in Asia however, are altogether different. As noted from the previous instance, Vietnamese rarely use their fists, and will attack with whatever weapon they can find. In bars, you'd think that their first weapon on hand would be a beer bottle, but they always reach for something else. I once saw a Vietnamese drunkard try and club his opponent with a motorcycle helmet. When Asians go to bars, they go out in groups. In the same manner, when they fight, they never fight alone. Like the woman with her high heel, I once saw a group of Vietnamese remove their shoes, men and women, and fling them all at a belligerent foreigner on the street. Apparently Iraqis aren’t the only ones who throw shoes at their enemies.

Fortunately, bar fights in Vietnam are much less frequent than in the states, since Asians are generally less prone to violent outbursts than Americans. (Surprising, given Asia’s violent history.) But when a bar fight does happen in Vietnam, watch out for those flying bar stools. Or shoes.

With the battle royale over, the excitement in the club dies down, and the crowd gradually thins out. As Apocalypse Now closes, patrons weave towards the exits. As the lights go up, the last song played was that memorable 60's tune from the Doors: “The End". Jim Morrison would have felt right at home here.

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