Immortalised by movies like The Big Lebowski and Kingpin, there’s something special about going bowling, about that elusive strike. Dating back 4,000 years — apparently the ancient Egyptians played to wind down after a rough day getting their slaves to build pyramids — three millennia later, King Henry VIII banned the sport as it was too much of a distraction from work.
But in the last 60 years bowling has earned more widespread popularity and rivals sports such as football for regular players. Whether it be relaxing with friends, the setting for a first date or the location for a family night out, bowling is arguably the cleanest form of fun that just about anyone can enjoy.
Despite its popularity in Vietnam, the recent closure of two ten-pin bowling alleys in Hanoi begs the question, how healthy is the sport in the capital? So we checked out the two remaining centres. Would bowling ‘Hanoi-style’ offer something different with a Vietnamese twist?
Finding Hanoi Star Bowl (2B Pham Ngoc Thach, Dong Da) is harder than you might imagine. There are no bright lights, no neon signs, just a building that looks as though it’s about to be knocked down. This isn’t far from the truth and here’s why.
Walking up the stairs and into the main lobby is like stepping back into 1994, and if you’re over 30, you’ll remember exactly what that means. Not much has changed since the alley opened in 1998 to a fanfare and a high degree of local interest.
The cumbersome TV score screens hang from the ceiling with cheesy animations that have evaded an update, and the signs and graphics around the centre still remain the same as when they were the coolest new place in town.
The receptionist asks if you want shoes. These are optional — you can bowl in hiking boots if you want, but the charge is compulsory. Another staff member then fires the lane into life with an inaudible clunk. A drinks list — a list of four or so drinks — can be obtained from the bar, which looks more like a store room than a bright, well-stocked drinking area. Still, at least the drinks are chilled.
Bowling here feels like you are back in the 1990s, and for a moment you believe that maybe time travel is real. There is no music and you might find you are the only people here, your lane lit up among the darkness of the 14 empty ones.
Maybe the reason it’s so quiet is that there is no website or online presence. The manager, Nguyen Hai Dang, told us a well-established reputation renders a marketing budget redundant. He also said that there’s going to be a two-month-long renovation, hence the builders downstairs. We’ll wait and see the results, but there’s fresh competition for this Hanoi stalwart.
Again, finding the bowling centre in the cavernous expanse of Vincom Mega Mall, Royal City (72A Nguyen Trai, Thanh Xuan) isn’t the easiest task — the place is massive and there aren’t any signs that read ‘Bowling — This Way’.
Once found, the modern and fresh design, if a little over-themed in the corridors leading to the lanes, transports you back to the 21st century with the sounds and liveliness one might expect of a western alley. We visited in the mid-afternoon of a weekday, and it was already busy despite it only opening on Jul. 26. The atmosphere reeks of fun and enjoyment rather than the sombre, church-like ambience of Hanoi Star Bowl.
Everything is slick and well-oiled, the experience more refined and the manager, Tran Viet Hung, in charge of Vinpearl Entertainment, has some bright plans for the future. He is organising a seven-day national competition which he wants to be an annual event — this has recently been advertised on TV. The website is nearly up and running, and there is a healthy marketing budget. He wants this bowling alley to be firmly placed on the map of Asian ten-pin centres.
Hung believes it is busy because people are coming to see the new shopping mall, but with a positive bowling experience being had by all, it will undoubtedly increase in popularity. We were told about the queueing system at busy periods where names are taken down and then phoned when a lane becomes available.
The drinks list is a little more comprehensive, too, with plans to offer bar snacks should there be a demand.
Either way, it seems that the modern Hanoian will continue to be bowled over as the sport gains in adulation and becomes a hot trend in the city.
Hanoi Star Bowl
Opening times: 10am to 10pm
Price (inc. shoe rental): VND30,000 per game Mon to Fri, VND35,000 on weekends before 5pm and VND45,000 on weekends after 5pm.
My score: 122
Experience: I enjoyed the old-school feel of the place and the beer was cold. There’s something that is still special because it represents the history of bowling in Hanoi. Like a museum.
Royal Bowling: VMM Royal City
Opening Times: 9.30am to 10pm
Price (inc. shoe rental): VND35,000 Mon to Fri, VND50,000 weekends. They also offer lane rental for groups of up to seven — VND175,000 Mon to Fri, VND250,000 weekends. Prices are for an hour rental.
My score: 101
Experience: The bowling balls were much better although it didn’t show in my score. Everything is still new resulting in pure bowling pleasure. The staff are friendly, speak good English and the drinks list is extensive, even mocktails make an appearance — perfect for a Sunday afternoon, alcohol-free chill out.
By the time Word was ready for print, Hanoi Star Bowl was ready for renovation and the doors have sadly — or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint — now closed for the sprucing up. It was scheduled to take around two months, so check back at Tet, just to be safe, and by then the joint should be rolling away as usual. You can also call (04) 3574 1614 to check progress.