Saigon Cool: Posters, Tattoos and “Chicken Girls” + Interview with Punk Rocker and Bar Owner Ben Burns
Reviewer Goes Abroad
By Katherine Sweetman
Should you ever find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (aka Saigon), I have four recommendations:
1) Shop at Lotus for vintage propaganda posters where you can get the originals and/or smaller prints of real Vietnamese agitprop posters.
2) Get a tattoo at Tâm Bi, 209 Bui Vien, Quan 1.
3) Have a drink before and after you get a tattoo at the bar next door to the tattoo shop, SHOTS, and find this guy– Ben Burns.
We met Ben Burns one evening while stumbling back towards our hotel in District 1’s backpacker neighborhood of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). My friend and I (both tall, 30-ish, white women) had just spent the evening at the bars and dance clubs in the area, and we noticed that we received very little attention from any male patrons of any of these establishments. Overall, their attention was focused elsewhere– like on the two very hot Vietnamese women dirty dancing with each other or on the scantily clad Vietnamese lady with her hand down the front of their pants. The walk home revealed other bars that seemed to have only female clientele. Then out of nowhere a seemly American, white guy called out to us. He was sitting alone in front of an establishment that he introduced to us as “my bar”, so we sat down to have a drink with him (even though we didn’t believe him).
It turns out it was his bar, SHOTS Bar Saigon, and upon further interrogation, I learned he was an ex-pat punk rocker/artist/writer living in HCMC, but even though that was his city of choice (at the moment) he returned to the states frequently to tour with his San Jose punk band, Preachers That Lie.
Katherine Sweetman: How does a 30 something, white guy with a punk band get himself mixed up in co-owning a bar in HCMC?
Ben Burns: Actually, 40-something, but thanks. I guess it all started ten years ago when I first met my best friend (Mike) in Japan. We were both teaching English and enjoying life. A few years ago Mike gave up teaching, moved to Vietnam and started writing e-books on dating. The idea was to make a decent income via the internet while living in a relatively poor country in order to have a good quality of life. Anyway, he invited me over to join him in the whole writing thing. I saved up my money and came over. Soon after arriving however, his fiancé lost her job. She had been managing several bars on Bui Vien – the main backpacker strip in Saigon. So, Mike and I decided to pool our money, buy a bar and let his fiancé run it. That, as they say, is that.
K.S. Tell me about prostitution in HMC in general and then about prostitution at Shots.
B.B. Prostitution in Saigon is quite varied. There are hair salons where rather than getting your hair cut, you’ll get a blowjob, karaoke bars where naked girls will give you hand-jobs, girls who ride on the back of motor bikes and try to pick up tourists, club girls who will go home with you for money, and finally, bar girls…otherwise known as “chicken girls” who are for hire.
Our manager had been running several “chicken” bars on the same street before losing her job, so that’s what our bar started as. However, we don’t have anything to do with the prostitution side of things. Normal chicken bars will take a cut of the girls’ income through prostitution. The girls would be expected to pay the bar a percentage or set fee each time they took a customer home.
At Shots, however, we don’t negotiate prices nor do we take money from either party involved in sex for pay. Here’s what we do: our employees must pass a health check (including an STD check), then they serve drinks and serve as waitresses at Shots. If a customer buys them a drink, we will pay them a large percentage of that drink’s cost. That’s it. Oh, and we feed them. They come and go as they please and if they go home with someone, that’s their business. You would be surprised though, many customers just like to have cute girls serving them drinks (think Hooters) and are willing to buy our staff drinks all night. As I said, this is how Shots started, but we are moving away from that type of business. Now Shots is a seafood restaurant in the afternoon, a bar/party spot in the evening, and then a hostess bar/chicken bar late night. The business keeps evolving and will likely faze out the more nefarious parts over the next year… although I hope not.
K.S. What are you doing with yourself on a daily basis in Vietnam? (how do you spend your days?)
B.B. Aside from working on my book, I am quite interested in self-defense, or to be more honest, dealing with drunk people who want to start trouble. Seems to me that if you’re going to have a hooker bar in Saigon, you need to be able to take care of yourself. On a nice, productive day I would wake around noon, go to the gym, box with my trainer, take a nap, write, go out to dinner, play pool, then head in to Shots for drinks and socializing.
K.S. What is your book about? What’s it called? (Tell me it’s not on e-dating)
B. B. The book is about open relationships. Over 20 years of doing that, figured I’d write about it and the issues involved in living a sexually free life.
K.S. So, how long have you been with the punk band based out of California, Preachers that Lie?
B.B. P.T.L. Started in 1986. I met the drummer while setting up a tour for my first punk band Manic Depression. My band broke up in 1992 and I joined up with P.T.L. in 1995 to write and record some songs and play some shows in Northern California. Now we just get together once a year to play a few shows, lose money and stay eternally youthful. So far, so good.
K.S. When are you going on tour again?
No, I didn’t forget the fourth recommendation:
Want to know more about living in Asia? Check out blog by Ben and his friend Mike: AsiaWTF