The old woman who sold beer

Bia hơi, the popular draft beer of Vietnam is a thriving culture in Hanoi, but much less so in Saigon. In fact, in the tourist district there is only one woman who sells the locally produced, unregulated brew. She is an 82 year old Saigonese woman with a friendly smile but stern attitude who calls herself Sáu (in terms of her being the fifth child of the family, since you start counting your children from “2” rather than “1”) and she has been selling beer in Phạm Ngũ Lão for 13 years.

“Sure. I’m one of the only ones,” she says. “I sell beer and I don’t bother anyone or cause problems. I just focus on making the customers happy and things pretty much take care of themselves.” She speaks with a pleased and relaxed smile as she brushes away some wisps of grey hair blowing around in the warm afternoon breeze. Stepping down from the top step to the sidewalk below to serve some newly arrived tourists from today’s keg, she leans on my shoulder for support to steady herself. A long history of me turning up a little before 3:30 as she’s eating her dinner when the old shop, still labelled as a “video store” switches from day time eatery to night time beer hotspot has led her to think of me as a fixture much like the furniture she shuffles about.

Sáu likes the foreigners despite watching them like a studious hawk when it gets busy because the place keeps her feeling youthful. “I like Bui Vien because it is different each day,” she explains. “There are always new faces and new customers and unexpected things always happen. Some customers mess up with money or don’t understand the currency but mostly it’s not a problem”.

You might think a lot has changed in almost a decade and a half if you listen the ex-pats who grumble about the new tourists and how everything is being ruined by commercialism and westernisation, but Sáu sees things differently. “Nothing has changed, really,” she says noncommittally. “Just the price of the beer. Oh sure, it’s much more busy now. There are more people. But it’s still all same same. People arrive from many countries, they come here and look at things, take a lot of pictures and they drink beer”. But is it possible that her casual dismissal of the many changes in the area that others describe is a reflection of her age and obstinance ? As a woman who has resisted learning any English beyond the ability to count to maybe four at best and who still writes people’s bill on a scrap of paper rather than say it in English, it’s easy to imagine that she doesn’t see what’s right in front of her eyes.

Working for 6 to 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, she opens the bar in the afternoon but retires early when possible. “My daughter helps me,” she explains, but some of the long term customers help her as well and on many nights you can see young Vietnamese guys pouring beer and picking up glasses while she’s bringing in tables or rolling in the awnings. Always busy, Sáu prefers not to sit down but constantly buzzes around, moving people and chairs in and out during busy or quiet periods, sweeping up, or putting out the call when the police come through and yelling “Nhanh ! Nhanh !” which cause the staff at all the nearby stores to rush to the street and pull all the overflowing customers in off the road.

Some suggest she acts a little like a bossy old woman ordering her children about the way she constantly grabs the back of people’s chair and shifts them inwards at the night progresses. I ask her whether the backpackers and ignorant tourists frustrate her. She deftly avoids commenting by taking the opposite tack. “The thing I love the most is the customers who come regularly. The ones who turn up early every afternoon to have a few beers after work. They are friendly and smile a lot”.

Sáu doesn’t like everything about the street even if she doesn’t say it. While chatting with a Vietnamese girl one afternoon a young shoeshine boy approaches us and sits down to chat and having been generous to him before he tries to convince me to buy him an expensive new pair of shoes. Sáu yells at him and waves him away and he scurries off with a scowl to pursue his business elsewhere and she talks angrily to the girl for a while, expounding her words with hand gestures. “Is she worried about him stealing ?” I ask, with the memory of my new phone being stolen by a vendor a couple of months ago fresh in my mind. “No,” she replies. “She says you are too nice to the vendors. You being here encourages them to be more bold and annoy people”.

Some things do stay the same at least. Whether the price goes up or the restaurants change, to Sáu it’s aways about bums on seats and beer in their glasses. “Many customers come here and drink beer and then go back to their home country,” she continues. “But give them two years and so many of them come back for more. I once had one customer who left something behind. Two years later they returned to drink beer again and I was able to return it to them. They always come back. They like the beer”.

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2 Responses to The old woman who sold beer

  1. Jonas Olivier Paasman says:

    Stories are perfect, wish I could make the same so good like you write them, I’m very proud that I met you in TP-HCM and that we have good friendship now, hope you get international succes, if needed, I will advice people in The Netherlands to read it also. Very good done.

  2. Pingback: Nothing changes. Just the price of the beer. | Stuck in South East Asia

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