Now the city boasts half a dozen such beer houses with similar themes. Some like Shooters and Vuvuzela go for the more revealing staff uniforms, others like Ahoy take a different approach — Ahoy has their staff dress in sailors’ outfits. During the day it’s all about beer drinking, food and chat. At night the pumping dance music takes over, even more beer hits the tables, and the mandatory food and light bites come to the fore. But most important is the environment. Modern, aircon, attractive beer-influenced décor, but without the prices of nightclubs or top-end bars.
As beer club regular Mark — who confesses, “I have a lot of time on my hands” — explains, expats are not part of this scene. They are welcome, but are very much outsiders, mere scenery.
“All of these places like Vuvuzela and Shooters are Vietnamese hang outs; there are at most a handful of foreigners. If you had 10 percent of foreigners at one of these places I’d be surprised,” he says. “You’ll see Vietnamese going to clubs at night, but there was no place for them to go during the day time until these places came around. The working lunch needed a venue and this is it.”
Thuy, a Shooters regular, explains that the younger Saigonese lacked a suitable venue. A lot of them rejected western bars downtown, but now they feel they have found their home.
“The younger generation were after somewhere to hang out and have a drink,” she says. “Vietnamese don’t want to go to western bars as they are not friendly for them. They don’t feel comfortable there, but when they come to places like Shooters, they like this kind of music, they like hanging out, drinking and dancing. It’s fun.”
One thing that puzzles Mark, though, is where these Vietnamese beer club regulars went before they joined the scene.
The Toronto native’s own experience of these types of bars was at Hooters, the infamous North American franchise. He is surprised by how quickly the scene has taken off, but he believes it makes perfect sense. He still hears the occasional mot hai ba, but the beer clubs have a more upmarket crowd.
“There was nowhere for Vietnamese to drink in the daytime indoors,” he explains. “So the beer club owners came up with this concept of air-conditioned bars. I think they had the first place in Hanoi — Vuvuzela — which was a success, and two weeks after this place opened it was packed. You come here at night and you can’t get a seat. It is standing room only and this is a pretty big place. If you don’t book a table, be prepared to stand if there is any space left. I’d say the guys who opened these places are pioneers on tapping the Vietnamese drinking market.”
A Real Hoot
Mark was first alerted when he saw a post on Facebook site Another Side of Vietnam that explained that Vuvuzela was a Vietnamese attempt at Hooters, so he ended up googling Vuvuzela and showed up. As a regular beer drinker he found not only a great bar but the drinks promo of a lifetime — VND550,000 for 100 beers with a VIP card.
“As soon as I found out about the deal on the 100 beers, my friends and I bought 10 cards between us and we didn’t need to worry about paying for the beer, just the food,” he says. “Some of the beer clubs let you use the 100 beers voucher if you pay for food, but you are only allowed 10 beers per visit. Shooters does the same thing for VND600,000 without the food requirement. The promotions were effective in getting people through the door. It worked for me.”
What about the ladies? Mark, a 13-year Saigon veteran, has noticed many changes when it comes to ladies going to a bar. It is night and day compared to a decade ago.
“These beer clubs are places where a lot of Vietnamese women go,” he says. “10 years ago most women would never go to bars. But in the beer clubs loads of Vietnamese women of all ages are coming in groups and drinking beer. This never existed before. Before people would open a beer hall, there would be no aircon apart from the VIP room, but since these places started popping up the women are coming. They are more female friendly. Maybe it is going from coffee culture to beer culture.”
Ahoy regulars My and Thuy agree. My says, “Yes, Vietnamese ladies enjoy coming to bars like this. I like it, and I like to drink beer with the boys.”
“These places are for more professional people,” Thuy says. “My Vietnamese friends come to places like this every day. They don’t care about money, they care about [having fun]. The beer is cheap compared to their lifestyle. My friends, girls and guys, can come to Shooters every day, they can start drinking at 6pm or 7pm and end the night about 9pm and go home and sleep, wake up, go to work. It is kind of cool. I like it here. A place to relax after work for a while.”
She insists that Viet Kieu and other Saigonese who have spent time abroad studying or travelling in Europe understand western culture, but they put their own take on these type of bars.
“Westerners would rather go somewhere quiet and drink beer and talk,” she explains. “Vietnamese like to have fun and loud music, and talk nonsense. Maybe sometimes it is better we don’t hear each other. We don’t want to care about work and just want to laugh and have fun.”
Riding the Wave
Once Vuvuzela had made an impact, a lot of businesses followed suit with Beer Republic sprouting up across from Saigon Square, Beer and Grill further down Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Ahoy at the foot of Pasteur in the banking area of the city, Shooters in District 3’s Le Quy Don and MOB across from the Reunification Palace. All these places have their own beer promotions to get the punters in the door.
“It seems like the marketing campaigns are trying to target every market,” says Mark. “You have the cheap charlies who are buying the VIP cards for 100 draughts, which normally cost VND30,000 each. There is also a market for high-end beers, imported Belgian beers in some places. There are the beer towers — [many customers] love that gimmick. In Vuvuzela there is a two-way mirror so you can see the other customers when using the toilet. Some people are not sure it is a toilet.”
And the food? Most places offer Vietnamese and foreign-style food. Two guys I met at Vuvuzela were having rice dishes on one plate with Russian-style pork on another. Hien was making his big beer club debut.
“This is my first time here,” he says. “This place is famous and I want to try it. My friend told me about Vuvuzela and it is great. You can come here during daylight and stay late. We are eating some western and some Vietnamese food, so we don’t get too drunk.”
Huy from Ahoy feels safer in a beer club than he would in a more ‘dangerous’ western bar where he is scared a fight could break out at any time.
“I have come here many times,” he says. “I come to relax after work. If I’m frustrated or stressed I come to chill out. It is a nice place, has aircon, good beer and the price is not expensive. Vietnamese people are more comfortable here. The bars full of westerners are too dangerous. Maybe when they are drunk they want to beat you.”
If you want to head for your beer club fix, check out one of these city venues:
Beer and Grill (BG Saigon)
37 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q1
Shooters Beer House
31 Le Quy Don, Q1
11 Nguyen Binh Khiem, Q1;
A43 Truong Son, Tan Binh
MOB Beer Club
152 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q1
92 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q1
Ahoy Beer Club
79 Nguyen Cong Tru, Q1