Barry wants to petrol bomb his neighbours. This is what he said to my brother, Louis, and I, as we sat down with him at his lonely beachside bar just off Vietnam’s Bãi Tam beach. It was more of a garage, actually: painted in a cool white and with wind-beat sofas, chairs, and tables scattered across the skin-yellow sand surrounding it. Due to money problems, Barry only opens the place at around seven and closes it, gradually, at around eleven, by which time the new neighbouring bars have dialled their sound systems up to full thrust. Consequently, both customers and money quickly flee from Barry’s Bar.
Barry looks out towards these new bars and says, through an exhalation of his suspicious-smelling cigarette, how much he hates them. He speaks with a Brummy accent that has been gradually thinned out during his eleven-year absence. On what conditions he left Blighty were suspicious. He speaks little of his home country and says with a frightening conviction that he never wishes to return. I didn’t ask why because I didn’t want to know.
For seven of the eleven years he’s spent in Vietnam, Barry has run the bar with his Russian wife. As well as cheap beers and spirits, on the menu sits an array of English dishes that Barry cooks himself if he has the ingredients. But tonight, all Barry had for us was a burger and a generous helping of fries. I do not tip him, despite the prolonged, uncomfortable eye contact we share as he thrusts the card machine into my gut. As Barry rushes around the kitchen, diving once or twice beneath the counter and then leaping upwards and rubbing his nose, we sip slowly on our beers and gaze out at our peculiar surroundings.
On the horizon, the cliffs of Ha Long Bay jut upwards like the limbs of a sleeping, prehistoric beast. The setting sun flees, leaving the ocean stained with various neons spilling from nearby bars. The stench of cheap meat and money laundering waft across man-made beaches dotted with meticulously assembled palm trees. There is an undeniable eeriness to the place, which is strange considering that Barry’s sound system shuffles through a collection of slow, ethereal house music. No one but a few now-regretful tourists and the occasional local mope along the single road that leads down to the harbour, its potholed surface only occasionally skidded on by a moped bleating past or a family car that’s taken a wrong turn. It’s a strange place. A melancholy place. A place soon to be drowned in hideous triadic colour schemes and nightclubs with incorrectly spelt copies of western names, and pedlo hire, donkey rides, volleyball courts, playgrounds, four huge carparks, and eventually a five-story shopping mall. Paradise lost to Paradise.
Barry appears with two burgers and three lagers. He sits with us and proceeds to lament back to a better time, a time when he was the only bar on the strip. He tells us of days when regulars would fly from all over the country and spend the weekend eating and drinking at his bar, keeping it alive and keeping him happy. They would party until sunrise, sleep on the beach, and do the same all over again the next evening. Ah, the nocturnal lives of souls who’ve fled their homelands and found themselves in this strange yet wonderful country, where beer is cheap and money buys. I ask myself: who wouldn’t want to live here? Time moves slower, and the people are relaxed; they seem perfectly content spending their days playing cards in the shade of their motorbikes or sitting as still as a painting at the end of a jetty, patiently waiting for their supper to bite their homemade fishing rod. Through day and night, light conversation and laughter echo beneath the thudding techno of local bars. Even within the sweltering madness of the cities, there is a tangible nonchalance, a happiness, a carelessness. For a Londoner, it is terrifying.
When Barry speaks, he avoids eye contact and instead looks outward into the black nothingness that slowly creeps in from the sea, swallowing our surroundings. He seems somewhat on edge, but also strangely at ease, as if he has accepted his fate without even knowing what it is.
And then suddenly he leaps up, as if zapped by a cow prong, and heads back into the kitchen. Louis voices his praise for the burger. I agree. The harsh sun of the day has drained us of energy, and we chomp down lethargically on our food, saying little to one another and instead just looking around us, trying to find one pleasant item that can revive our hope for this place.
About half a mile at the end of the road stand row upon row of hollow houses. There must be at least one hundred, all grand, old-style classical villas - the type that would sell for three million and change in Hampstead. They seem well built, but within these houses there’s nothing. No smiling families eating, no young students debating, no elderly couples reading. It’s a ghost town. These houses are skeletons unearthed after one hundred years, with only the occasional house warmed by the cold company of junkies as they sit wasted, not present, gone.
We finish our burgers, try to enjoy a final beer, then leave Barry there, alone in his bar with only a cigarette for company. Prior to leaving, we say that we’ll come by and say hello tomorrow, but I know we’ll be out of here first thing. Vietnam, for myself at least, had been a destination I’d chosen to go to in an attempt to escape the western world, yet here we were right in it. All of home’s most typical annoyances were here in this strange town we’d landed in: burgers, techno, and xenophobia. This was not the Vietnam I had expected to find. Yet sadly, this scene was rather common across the country: stunning beaches and locations slowly losing their magnificence to tourism, or rather, the yearning for tourism to one day come to that particular area – but the weeks of waiting turn to months, and then years, and then it’s forgotten altogether. All that is left behind are the eerie cries and cheers of what could’ve been. This capitalist fantasy has scoured the coastline like some twisted verdillac, sinking its fangs into any unoccupied area and then sucking from it its blood and, with that, its life. Paradise lost to Paradise.
For the rest of the evening, my brother and I walked along the beach with our feet in the warm water, but failed to enjoy ourselves as only ten meters away there bobbed a small island of plastic, or on the shore a gang of diggers tore apart the beach to clear room for the twentieth Hawaiian-themed bar in a two-mile stretch. The unbelievable ubiquity of America, the willingness of the Vietnamese government to destroy such beautiful locations in the name of domestic tourism, and the faint stench of organised crime that stunk out the area were all too much. Come rampant tourism or guiltless neglect, the conclusion of Ha Long Bay’s magical reign is nigh. There is no hope for this place. The next morning, we hopped in the first cab we saw and got ourselves out of there.
Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor