Bia Hois are cheap, but usually quite gritty; they sell their beer in deformed glasses and in an environment housing rats and a heavy urine odor. Having said that, I love them to bits and frequent them quite often. It’s just that when I was invited to a bia hoi’s six year anniversary party, I hadn’t expected anything so grandiose. The chairs and tables had white sheets draped over them and dark red bows. There were oysters, lobsters, steaks, slices of Parma ham, an abundance of wine, and some very nice Oceanic beer. Everyone was dressed in suits or classy dresses and it was all free…it felt like a wedding. It was invite only.
In Vietnam it is considered good luck to invite foreigners to anniversary celebrations or inaugural events because it means you’ll have good business throughout the year. A friend of mine, and the photographer for this week’s blog Michel Anderson, goes to this particular bia hoi often. There is a server there whose name, for reasons that will later be explained, will remain anonymous. This server had invited Michel to the party and after talking to one of the managers told Michel to bring some friends.
It was buffet style so in typical Vietnamese fashion there was plenty of pushing, shoving, and hoarding with regard to the expensive food items. I kept hunting for the oysters but they were phantom-like in their ability to disappear from the buffet. I’d usually see an angry looking middle aged woman with a large plate of them just after they were brought out. I didn’t mind, I was party crashing anyway and contented myself to sit with my group on mats atop a bamboo bench with a bit of ham. The table was extremely low to the ground for a large man like me so I had to stretch them out in awkward ways that nearly tripped passersby. The man across from me found this amusing.
He was from Vung Tau, a beach town near Saigon, and was at the celebration alone. He had a large mustache and was wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt—the kind of shirt that a girlfriend would throw out when you’re not looking. He was drunk; he was a drunk; so am I, so we got drunk. For me it was a good chance to practice my Vietnamese, which got me as far as finding out where he was from and that he was an engineer who worked on large building projects. I don’t remember his name, probably due to his tendency to make me slam full glasses of red wine. “Mot tram phan tram! (One hundred percent)” he’d say clinking my glass and looking disappointed if I showed hesitation.
My red wine drinking companion had a craving to sing some karaoke and so I accompanied him to the main stage. The thing is that it wasn’t really open karaoke; at the time there was a white suited professional on stage with long slicked back hair being given a large bouquet of flowers for his great performance. Earlier there’d been a staged comedy team and I wasn’t surprised when they wouldn’t let my friend sing—especially given how stumbly and red faced he was at this point.
Instead we just stood in a corner and took in the whole scene. His big smile and giggle went cold and he seemed to be having a solemn moment. He motioned around at all the well off people in the room with their expensive suits and seafood and said something about money. A friend of mine from Saigon had recently told me that people from Hanoi are much showier with their money than in Saigon, so I assumed this may have been his intention. I said Hanoi people have a lot of money, right? He seemed to understand my Vietnamese for he shook his head and clinked my glass.
|Red Wine Drinker|
Soon after I think he realized that he was wasted for he said goodbye and left the building. I decided to get another wine and meet back up with the friends I’d come with. The man who served me the wine, the man who’d been feeding the engineer and I wine all evening, turned out to be the man who’d invited Michel to the party in the first place. His English was impeccable; I asked him how he’d achieved this and found out that it was due to missionaries when he was growing up. He had a secret to tell me, that in a few months he was quitting his job to go to seminary school…he was having a glass of wine when he said this.
I was later introduced to another manager of the place who was younger than I’d expected and holding a smiling baby when he talked to me. I thanked him for inviting me, though he hadn’t really, and that I wished his business much success. The whole thing must’ve cost a fortune. Outside an old hunchbacked woman pushed a large wagon of rubbish for which she’d receive a pittance, and somewhere out there a mustachioed man from Saigon was probably getting sick.