Growing up in rural England, dive bars – shite pubs – are not just a national staple, but a way of life; one from which we can never escape, not even out here in Hanoi. When I was asked to gut-gargle words onto the glaring blank screen about a deep and profound love for dive bars, I found my mind reeling back through memories of home. Stepping into Wetherspoons in the light industrial wasteland of Watford was like descending into a human zoo, with some incredibly rare and volatile specimens on display. It was kill or be killed – the law of the jungle reigned supreme. As a strategically shaven gorilla, posing as a bouncer, attempted to disrupt an alpha male mating call, he was pounced upon by a pack of rabid hyenas, all sporting Obey snapbacks. Blood, bruises and bad noises everywhere, I tried to focus on my £2.50 pint of moose-piss and embrace the strange. It was a great night, so I’m told.
No matter how heinous the hangover, there are some images – hell, even some sounds – that etch themselves into the mind forever, like an inscription on a tomb stone. Nope, some things will haunt you till you go all horizontal and dead. Nine times out of ten, they’ll be things you see in horrible bars with no-one but horrible people with which to share the unbridled horror of it all. Once the shutters went down and the lock-in started at a ‘Locals’ pub in the town of Reading, UK, I was offered £2000 by a man who wanted to cut off my little finger. I declined, naturally, but some sad sack of shit down the bar took the deal with a slurring affirmation of all that is great and wrong with these places. Less than one hour later I was holding a bar rag over the bleeding stump that was once his pinky-finger. The bartender had evacuated the pub, aside from locals and went about severing his patron’s finger with a nine inch serrated bread knife. Ikea never intended their knives to be used like this. Despite the free over-proof rum we were all “welcome to” after that ordeal, the wet sound of bone giving way to blade will stay with me forever.
Memories like these mean bars that take the plunge from the highest diving board mankind has devised will always hold a sordid spot in my smoke-stained heart. That unmistakable reek of sweat, stale smoke and desperation will always smell a lot like home. I can float home on the breeze of that urinal-cake aroma and it is in this department that Hanoi delivers. Those nauseatingly home-sickening nights at bars of ill-repute are not uncommon in this city. One good friend, a South African lady – according to her passport – insists on a night at Tom’s Bar every time she graces Hanoi with her presence. Not for the music, far from it, but this particular friend ventures forth from the Vietnamese provinces for a weekend in order to “bang a backpacker and fuck off again.”
Another good friend and resident of Hanoi who, coincidentally, is from the same belly-button piercing midriff region of the UK as me also shares an affinity for Tom’s Bar. He is also uninterested the music emanating from the often closed-off sinkhole, but his booze-boner for Tom’s Bar stems from an almost nostalgic masochism.
“A great dive bar is aware of how hideously awful it is and unapologetically opens its doors wide, screaming ‘Come all ye and wallow in my filth’ – there’s something tranquil about drinking somewhere more vile and disgusting than yourself.”
Personally, this author always had a soft squidgy spot for the now extinct Buffalo Bar on To Ngoc Van. Open to ungodly hours of the morning, quick to pile on the drinks deals and more than willing to turn a blind eye to the questionable antics. There’s a definite element of no longer having to give a shit – or even having to pretend to – that appeals to the baser nature of man. Being able to get abrasively drunk, start a fight with gravity and lose, or having unmentionable bodily fluids fly forth from the holiest of holes in the human anatomy and all the while the bartenders just laugh along with you; that is a precious gift. One that, in the age of gastropubs, fine dining “experiences” and gourmet cocktail lounges, is often lost.
Sure, Hanoi doesn’t yet have the dress code restrictive horrors that Londoners are all too well acquainted with, but it will be a sad day for drunkards everywhere when the sun finally rises on a Hanoi devoid of dive bars. Some may argue that the Bia Hoi is the dive bar of Vietnam, but some people also believe the Earth is flat. Bia Hoi exudes a certain amount of communal decency, which is something the dive bar deliberately eschews in favour of the sort of lighting that deliberately prevents anyone from being identified in a police line-up. These are the places that the night-crawling mutants of this world call home and the places that dance-floor demons can slither out of at 5am. It’s a refuge from the thin veneer of decency that is the rest of society’s acceptable drinking habits – in short, the mirror behind the dive bar is a mirror into our soul, it is humanity with the face torn off.