05 May 2006

Surreal HCMC

It is after midnight and I am trying to process the evening’s activities. I was invited to three different establishments I had never been to, not a difficult task since I have only been out on the town three times in the past nine months.

Dinner at a French restaurant was the first stop. I walked in off the streets of Saigon, and into a different country. It could have been France, it could have been California. The initial oddity was hearing only English as soon as I passed through the front door. And then, being a French restaurant, the Vietnamese staff great you with bonjour. Pretentiousness aside, the place was cute. Mediterranean looking décor with lots of little bateaus on shelves next to French books, and sailor hats hanging from hooks. The waiters wore jaunty, nautical motif uniforms. The actual seating arrangement left a lot to be desired but, fortunately, it wasn’t crowded so the rows of tables lined against the wall, and touching each other, didn’t matter.

The food was nice and I might have stayed for cake if it were not for the loud Americans at the small bar at the front of the restaurant. Why is it that western foreigners, and especially Americans, are always so loud and obnoxious when in other people’s countries? As I was pondering on this after leaving the restaurant, I got dragged into the Irish pub down the street.

Now things truly got bizarre. It was your basic, small bar, packed to the rafters with white people, a good part of them Americans. This was the ex-pat life that I had heard about and known about but have always chosen to avoid. Crowds of drunks are not pleasant at any time, but crowds of drunken foreigners pretending that they are not in Vietnam, is so amazingly strange. I really wanted to leave as soon as I entered, but had been promised Irish music.

Seated in a corner table where the air conditioning and fan didn’t reach, surrounded by boisterous, drunken conversations about the most mundane topics, I started to sweat and could feel the room closing in one me. The musicians sat down at their chairs along wall across from me and I thought that if I could just hear some good tunes, I would be ok.

The first few bars from the band of three had me shaking my head in despair. It turned out it was blues night/open mike night. One after another, really lousy amateur instrument players got up to ‘jam’. It was painful at times. In fact it was never even moderately tolerable. At long last I got out of there.

The final stop was a Vietnamese cabaret where they sing in French. It was the complete opposite of the Irish place. The clientele were all Vietnamese, seated at small tables in front of a low stage. I immediately became aware of the calm, quiet atmosphere. As I looked over the room I took in couples sitting silently drinking coffee, or maybe a cocktail. I sat at a table just as the band took the stage. There was a guitar, piano, violin and bass. A young woman singer came out and addressed the audience in French. It appeared that everyone understood. And then they began to play and she began to sing. It was phenomenal! Every one of the musicians were pros. The singer was incredible. The audience just sort of sat there and slightly applauded at the end of each number.

After the first singer did three numbers, she was replaced by another, excellent chanteuse, and then another. Sometimes there was only one guitar as accompaniment; other songs used all the musicians. At about 10:45 I noticed that people were leaving. At 11:00, it was obvious that the cabaret was closing, for which I was eternally grateful having about as much noise and commotion as a woman can stand in one night.

I have never noticed the serenity and dead silence of where I live as much as when I got home tonight. The juxtaposition between the intensity of the downtown nightlife and the tranquility of the midnight burbs is astonishing. There was also the feeling that I had been in some sort of weird, alternate universe, and had returned to sanity.

Although I had taken my camera, I took no photos of tonight’s outing. I’ll put up more beach photos, which are infinitely more appealing than the strange scenes of tonight’s adventure.

Give me crickets over electric guitars any day.