Cold Beer in a Warm Time Capsule

I emerged from a fine dinner at Black Cat late one recent night. And following its little side street of Phan Van Dat, I was delivered straight onto Mac Thi Buoi. An ancient xe om puttered by and took a left onto Dong Khoi, heading toward the river. Xe oms and the Saigon River are constants, but our city’s nightscape is otherwise highly changeable. The trends they come and the trends they go. Fashion is ever in flux. Last year’s hot new club is this year’s memory. The foo-foo drinks it served are now shunned for sparkling wine, or some frothy coffee concoction. Maybe next year it will be kava. The must-go-to “restobar” is closed for remodeling, again. A new, simply faaabulous menu will be created and executed by a rising local chef and some of the brightest creative consultants in the biz, darling. Tofu will be edged out by tall food, which in turn will yield to tapas. Maybe next year we’ll all have mushroom mania. Maybe we’ll all just have mania.

The constants are few. And the old reliables, the steady ever-dependables, seem to diminish in number with the passing of years and the unabated pace of development. And those that remain are often very humble. But being humble they are trend-proof. No one is surprised or dismayed that the place doesn’t change for decades. They get no grief from critics for not being innovative. Instead they get loyalty from their regular patrons, a constant stream of customers that makes them proof against the vicissitudes of fashion, fad, or recession. They become beacons in the night to those who hunger for familiarity, for certitude. They are a North Star to guide you to a friendly nod, an unpretentious smile, a cold beer and a small tab.

I turned right on Mac Thi Buoi, took a left at Hai Ba Trung and walked the one block to Dong Du where warm yellow light spilled out from a corner space and enveloped the sidewalk. I stepped into one of those beacons: Hien and Bob’s Place, at 43 Hai Ba Trung. Its ever-present owner, Hien, has been presiding here since 1993. Hien and her late husband, Bob, opened the place in that year. And you’ll still find her, elegantly dressed, at her perch behind the bar from 4pm till “late”, seven nights a week. A fixed star in the firmament of the city’s night.

It’s not very large within. You could park three cars in it with a little room left over for a few boxes of miscellany. The decor might be described as stripped down Tiki bar. The walls are panelled with stained bamboo, and the ceiling with woven mat. Colourful Vietnamese lanterns hang over the L-shaped bar, and there is a brass bell you can ring should you decide to buy a round for all. And it’s rather soothing and calm in here. There is music in the background, but it never competes with conversation. There are other patrons, all having a good time, but never shouting. That is, except, when a Jenga game ends, and the little wooden tower of sticks comes crashing down to everyone’s shrieks of, “Oh, Hell!”

This is more than just a bar. This is a cocoon, a refuge. Outside life passes in full view through tall windows. Traffic snarls and tourists stumble. But all is safe and sound within. Hien and her staff, all of them pleasant young women, are clad in ao dai and providing attentive yet undemanding service. Pods of regulars, both men and women, occupy the bar while visitors cluster at the tables. We’re all in a time capsule here. Nothing has changed in 20 years. And nothing needs to, nor should, change. The formula is flawless. Many bars, pubs, clubs and such have come and gone in this little corner of town. But Hien’s remains, beckoning in the night.

You can get a sandwich here. Nothing fancy, but a decent snack, along with what patrons have long said is the coldest beer in town. There are all the usual bar suspects on the shelves before the mirror behind the bar. And an extensive collection of vintage music. If they know you and your taste, they’ll put it on without your asking. That’s why you’ll hear Elvis if you see me at the bar. So if you do, say hello. We’ll play a game of Jenga. Loser rings the brass bell.

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