Los Borrachos in Vietnam pt. 3
Los Borrachos in Vietnam pt. 3
The 17 Saloon looks as though it got plucked from Texas in 1929, spent most of a century collecting dust and got dropped right in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Everywhere is wood and raw leather and the thick, musty smell of dozens of passing years; reminding me instantly of my grandfathers house when I was a child. Longhorn skulls hang on the walls with glowing red eyes. The only thing that was out of place on this afternoon was the four guys with long black hair and Jackson guitars and a massive drum kit with about twenty cymbals. They were warming up their rigs with thrash metal finger tapping and double kicks shaking the rustic wooden walls.
We arrived early and after peaking inside walked across the street and sat on a park bench to wait until the meeting time. I visualized myself on the stage both solo and with my band and prayed that the meeting be fruitful.
The entertainment manager was a small round Vietnamese man with a deadpan expression and a solid handshake. We were told that our band must consist of seven or eight members and that if chosen we would be signed on to a three month contract, six nights a week. He said that successful bands would play anywhere from one to two years and that it depended on how the customers reacted. All visas would be taken care of by the bar and accommodation provided. While it wasn’t an immediate solution, it was an exciting opportunity and I walked away smiling and with my head reeling on the idea.
Just as we were about to exit the saloon the sky opened up with another Ho(ly) Chi(t) monsoon. Massive raindrops were bouncing so hard off the streets that it looked as though the water was spraying right up out of the ground. Rachel had spotted an ice cream parlour / cafe next door and jumped at the offer of a sweet treat while we waited out the rain. Ironically the parlour itself was named Rain.
We took ten minutes to throw ideas back and forth about building a band and applying for the contract then jumped on our cell phones and got to work.
Once the heavens turned off the water we cut back through the tourist district we call home, crossed the busy street and sat along the outside wall of a small pho restaurant near ‘our’ cafe. The pho was delicious of course and with something in our stomaches we opted to splurge on a couple bottles of Saigon beer (bia) and retreated to the comfort of our room for a relaxing evening of searching for musicians and emailing possible venues.
That night as I readied myself for sleep I asked the rock gods for a little good news before I closed my eyes. Moments later some very pleasant and flattering messages came through from La Fenetre Soleil with a note that if I made their customers happy that there would infect be some kind of payment for me as well as an open bar.
I posted the status to my Facebook before shutting it down, ‘Life happens wether you like it or not. (keep yer head up — yer gonna like it ;)
I slept later than I’m usually able waking up around 10:00 to a message from The Universal Bar. Could I play that night. I had to laugh. Declining the gig for my commitment at La Fenetre I asked about tomorrow with my fingers crossed. When it rains in Vietnam, it pours.
This mornings adventure took us to the only real music store in town. I inquired about renting a drum kit should my band make it down and had a look at what they stocked and for what price to get an idea of what I would be looking at should myself or the band need anything. Exiting we found a busy food cart in the alley with about a dozen tables lined against one side and had a very nice brunch. Our pork chops weren’t quite the ones from our cafe but it was satisfying. We continued to cruise the city a little on foot. Stopping for a coffee we met a cool girl from Spain who had just arrived in town and invited her to the gig that night. She said she had a group from the hostel who were looking for a place to celebrate a birthday that evening and that she would encourage them to come as well. If they were to show up it would look very good for us to bring our own fans.
We hit one of the hundreds of small markets tucked away within the city and grabbed a huge bunch of delicious little round bananas, some strange, delicious fruit that are some kind of cross between a pear and an apple and a bunch of big crispy grapes Near by we found a small shop with all kinds of cool handmade instruments. Beautiful guitars for around $150 and cool traditional instruments with snakeskin bodies and one, two, three or four stings, some with bows like a violin for around $50. How I would love to make some cash here and drop a few hundred bucks to come home with a bunch of toys for Adam. They even had an electrified bamboo like my new friend had played for only $60.
We relaxed for the remainder of the day laying around our room and sending emails to venues. I’d sent near one hundred messages at this point. It would be nice to stop in at them all in person however the city is just too big.
Near showtime we grabbed an uber and made our way to the gig. As the woman running the bar predicted, it was absolutely packed. Not only was every seat taken but there were upwards of 50 people standing and in front of the stage was shoulder to shoulder and half a dozen bodies deep of vietnamese people sitting on the floor.
Immediately upon arrival I met the host; a tall and charismatic american guy with a very comical presence. I knew the moment I saw him he was a comedian. A natural. I was wearing a cowboy shirt with embroidered flowers on the chest and a fedora hat which he was instantly drawn to for a selfie.
I fought my way to the bar and received two drink tickets. Not what I was expecting, but at least Rachel and I had a beer.
There was a few comedians and some spoken word and another musician was asked to come play as well. I was a little bummed at sharing the small amount of stage time I had as I had a lot of material I wanted to play and I knew whatever cut there was for music was now split in half. Almost immediately after the main acts were done most of the room cleared out anyway. Maybe a couple dozen people remained in the room by the time I was able to plug in and soundcheck.
The show itself was relatively uninspiring. Everyone seemed to use up their attention spans during the couple hours of silence and focus on the previous acts. I had to kick and scratch for each smile or round of applause which I did with everything I had to give.
The other act only played about four or five songs and I was able to play about twenty from the fifty or so I had on the list for the night and we wrapped up fairly early. The watched as the other performer grabbed his stack of bills from the bar and left while I was still on stage. I was happy to receive some payment still and made about $30 plus a couple more drinks and a delicious hamburger.
All in all the night was a success. I very much enjoyed the owner of the bar, her staff and her friends and made a great connection with the comedian, James.
The next morning Facebook had been blocked in Vietnam due to some protests going on in the city. Apparently it’s common for the government to block social media during times of unrest to slow down the progress of organized protest and in this instance there was a protest in the city about a factories toxic waste being dumped which led to around 300 arrests. My first thought was that The Universal Bar which likes to book acts on the day of the shows was not going to be able to contact anyone for that night. Being only five minutes away I was confident that if I could find the manager on a cold call that I could get the gig. We stopped by several times thought the day amidst our adventures for food and coffees and eventually it was fruitful. He asked me to play that night.
Having made a few bucks the night before and with the promise of a few more that night we treated ourselves to a couple decent meals, a couple coffee’s and even dropped a little under four bucks at a french bakery stuffing ourselves on delicious chocolate croissants and savoury grilled sandwiches. One turn down the wrong alley took us along a stretch of shops with half dogs roasted and hanging on display in from of the restaurants. We knew that eventually we would run into this but it didn’t soften the blow. We hastened our step and ducked into the first alley. Moments later we were completely lost in a labyrinth of back alleys. Narrow pathways between massive apartment complexes and cafe’s and eateries and dead ends every time you thought you were almost out. We found a korean shaved milk dessert restaurant and enjoyed a couple very unique treats. They poured milk in the top of a big stainless steel unit which froze and shaved it before spitting it into a cup. It was mixed with dried and fresh fruits and topped with whipping cream. Unique, light and delicious. Full and happy we eventually found our way back to one of the main streets and retreated once again to our place. I worked on the set for the night while Rachel took a moment to close her eyes.
We showed up at the gig an hour early to enjoy a free beer before the show and I did a couple rounds meeting some very cool people who were taking in a tennis match on the televisions and waiting for me to play. Everyone was very friendly and energetic. I knew it was going to be a good night.
On stage I was hot right out of the gate. I tailored the first set to the people I had just met in the bar according to their countries of origin. A little something for california, argentina and even my original, The Cowboy from the East, for a couple gentlemen from India which was very well received. Big smiles and lots of dancing throughout the night.
We stuck around for a couple hours after the show and enjoyed a few drinks with our new friends and fans. A vendor came by with some small speckled quail eggs and before Rachel and I could turn up our nose the table of expats we were sitting with jumped at them. They looked so cute it was hard to imagine eating them. (I realize that makes no sense) Well colour me wrong — they were delicious! We would peel the delicate shell and dip them in salt before popping them in our mouths. we ate about a dozen and decided we likely wouldn’t pass them up the next time we saw them on the street.
Later in the night the comedian James from the Fenetre Soleil came by. We embraced the meeting with great enthusiasm and soon were great friends and partners planning out future events we would hold together. I was very excited to meet another like myself who follows through with plans and is willing to put work into creating something meaningful out of nothing.
The biggest success of the evening came in a couple small smiles from the manager of the bar followed by a great ear to ear smile when Rachel approached him asking about local rugby. He even left me with, “I may want you to play tomorrow.” We were making some progress.
We carried on a little longer and more enthusiastically than intend the night before and woke up late with a couple mean hangovers. I googled the best pho in Ho Chi Minh City and after a couple coffee’s we set out for the forty five minute walk to what was sure to be the best possible hangover remedy. The staff at the restaurant were not the most welcoming, dishes were dirty, they didn’t have simple things like napkins.. or drinks… and there was mangy dog constantly scratching his fleas beside our table which stunk to high hell but the pho was excellent. Giant bowls absolutely stuffed with strips of steak and perhaps the most amazing broth we had to date.
On the way back across town we met a young man carrying coconuts for sale over his shoulder on a counterweighted piece of wood who laughed as he had us each try carrying it down the road. A little further he called to us and without asking cut open two coconuts and handed them to us. I pulled out a generous amount of dong for him which he received with disappointment wanting double. I laughed and put my coconut on the ground in front of him and began to walk away. He quickly smiled again and insisted I take the coconut. We’ve learned that you have to lowball everyone because no matter what you give them they will want more. Better to give half and act reluctant as you cough up the other half so they feel they got what they wanted. I let a gentleman shine my boots a few night before and encountered the same scenario. He said it would be twelve dong. He did a great job so I gave him forty four dong. He instantly started asking for more money as I was so happy with the work. Always on the hustle. A life I know well.
We took a few moments to relax in a massive park and watched several teams of youths work on hilarious choreographed dances and I hit some of the workout equipment to sweat away a little more of the hangover.
I passed by The Universal bar intermittently to see if we would be playing but was never able to find the boss. I sent a text and a fb message and about an hour before showtime finally got a response that yes I would.
A coffee as we set up for the show washed away the final remnants of the hangovers and we were back in fine form and ready to rock another night. The gig went great, the boss smiled several times; especially anytime Rachel spoke to him which was perfect. He had a great personality which was starting to shine through and was warming up to us. He even asked me to come back on wednesday for my next show. Major progress! He went as far as to request a song, Beautiful Soul, by Jesse Mcartney. While a very strange request from an athlete and bar owner on the strip in a bad ass town like this, I assured him and myself I would learn it.
We met another great couple who had just moved back to the city recently and received many great tips about the best food in town over a few beers. We learned of a delivery service which brings all the delicious cheap eats from around the city right to your door for a buck. Not wanting another hangover morning we called it fairly early after only a few beers, grabbed a bag of quail eggs and came back to our room to watch a bit of a movie and munch out in bed.
We woke bright eyed mid morning and set off to try a new food we were recommended called bun bo hue named after a town in Vietnam where it originated. It was similar to pho and absolutely delicious.
Taking a new street I stumbled upon a great little guitar store filled with local and import guitars for as cheap as $25. I fell for a beautiful locally made guitar that was about $80 with a bag! As we walked out into the street I realized I was in the famous guitar street which I had read about but never before been able to find. There were upwards of twenty five guitar luthier shops with dozens upon dozens of guitars in each along a long city block. Some had nearly one hundred guitars hanging from the ceilings. So many it was impossible to see them all. We spent hours exploring and playing some of the most beautiful and unique instruments I’d ever seen. At he end of the day my true love was an electric acoustic with a thin body for less than $200 with a bag. We made a plan to advertise my Takemine guitar for sale and once sold return to the street and purchase a vietnamese made ax.
Exiting the street we got caught in a monsoon and running home were absolutely soaked. It may be time to buy ponchos.
Over the next couple days we were asked back to Universal Bar, picked up a spot at La Fenetre Soleil and lined up an opening gig at a place called Yoko Cafe. Things were finally starting to happen.
Outside the gig at Universal we are getting familiar with the dozens of vendors selling late night eats along the strip. They push carts with the fixings for big sandwiches, dried, flattened squid ranging from bigger than my hand to about half the size for various prices which all hang from a cart which fries and chops them up for calamari at request, fresh doughnuts, fruit, nuts and many other eats. It’s a beautiful thing when you’ve just spent yourself on stage and are a few drinks deep. We are starting to take advantage a little more each night.
Wanting to get back into training in the martial arts I made contact with an Aikido school. Two of the sensei picked Rachel and I up on scooters and took us to a massive dojo. The space was divided into six sections with different schools in each and a boxing ring in the middle. There was karate, tae kwon do, a vietnamese art and a couple I couldn’t put my finger on. It was very exciting to walk back onto the floor. Despite my background in karate, Aikido was very foreign to me. The sensei I had made contact with was an american guy and one of the only one’s in the class who spoke english. He took me aside and gave me a great introduction.
Afterwards seven of us went to a local restaurant and we ate a bunch of amazing food and drank too much beer. I had to call it a little early as I was asked to play a brief set at Fenetre which I was only a little late for.
Since our move to District 1 we have been making friends with a lady on the corner who has a small market. We enjoy coffee’s there and play with her puppy as well as having our taxi’s pick us up from her spot as it’s easiest for them. She is very sweet and is quickly becoming our Vietnamese mom. One day we stopped to pick up some water and a couple small treats for home and she gave us a dragon fruit and some other fruit resembling lycee. The next day we stopped for coffee and she really pulled out all the stops. Suddenly she was bringing us strange home made green tea smelling jelly treats, sticky rice with peanuts and chicken and more fruit.Ten minutes turned into an hour and we left stuffed and covered in puppy kisses.
We have been extending our circle from our hotel more everyday and finding so much amazing food. Sushi feasts for under $8 all in, old ladies outside a beautiful temple with various meats and mini spring rolls and veggies atop a bowl of noodles with made to order passion fruit juice complete with crunchy seeds for about $2. Delicious roadside coffee for about fifty cents around every corner. The coffee is hands down the best I have ever had. Portugal and France had some great coffee but nothing compares to what we get everyday here in Vietnam.
Our bearings are getting better and better and gigs are picking up. Life is good. We even have made a connection with a school to possibly get Rachel teaching english soon. Life keeps getting better in Ho Chi Minh City and looking more like a long term home everyday.
As I write this we are resting up for a double header tonight. Yoko Cafe opening for the rock band Little Wing then directly to Universal to rock out the rest of the night. Life is good in Ho Chi Minh City.