How to live forever

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The Emergency Room Bar, where most regulars secretly hope to die  

On the last weekend of February, a grayish haze settled over Ho Chi Minh City.

Scores of citizens had left for suburban pagodas to make offerings on the first full moon of the Year of the Snake. Those who stayed spent Sunday burning offerings to the dead.

Incense seemed to smolder on every corner. Dark orange flames glowed in tin burners filled with colorful votive papers.

In the middle of all this inter-dimensional giving, three houses exploded in an alley in Phu Nhuan District after the home of a pyrotechnical director named "Smoke and Fire Phuong" exploded.

The Sword of Damocles dangles mightily over us all these days, straining against its fabled horsehair thread.

Unlike Damocles, few of us are begging to get off the throne.

Instead, we're all reclining under the blade"”zig-zagging between busses, huffing unfiltered small engine exhaust and keeping alive with food and medicine that has passed through a consumer safety net that few believe could catch a basketball.

The true Saigon resident loves danger or has simply forgotten how to worry about it. 

In this way, the city itself is a sort of perverse guru"”teaching us to live in an eternal present by dangling death overhead.

In this bizarre exercise, our only insurance policy against certain doom, it seems, is gluttony.

The words "Trời Ä‘ánh tránh bữa ăn" (Even God wouldn't kill me when I'm eating) could easily pass for the city's unofficial mantra for all it's uttered.

And, after two years here, I do have a sense that if I keep eating, drinking and dancing death won't catch me. It's only when we're lounging around at home in our underwear that everything might go up in a puff of smoke.

That's why I'm making this week's column a list of ego-obliterating destinations for eating, drinking and being merry. Because, if we do, we'll never die.

La Fenetre Soleil

If the brain-melting, ubiquitous thunk of local nightclub speakers has left you looking for something a little smoother, consider this small, upstairs nightclub. Most Friday nights, they convert a quiet, white table bistro into an open party with three bars. At the beginning of the year, they brought Onra, the French-Vietnamese DJ in from Paris to spin his latest hip-hop mix tape "Deep in the Night." Last month, Maft Sai, the owner of the Zud Rang Ma record store in Bangkok, flew in to dazzle a room of zonked expats with vintage Issan folk rock, Ethiopian funk and other soulful stuff that actually reminded everyone they were in Southeast Asia. Weeks later, the bar held a smoky reggae party, featuring every decent DJ in the city and hyped by a Filipino Rastafarian who bellowed into a red, green and yellow bullhorn in perfect Kingston patois.

 
French beatmaker Onra playing a packed show at La Fenetre Soleil in Ho Chi Minh City last October

It's hard to know when these parties will kick off. But when they do, VND100,000 gets you in the door, usually with a free shot of fluorescent booze.

44 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1 HCMC

Tel: (08) 3 824 5994

Emergency Room

You know how they used to seal mummified Pharaohs up with all of their favorite things and people so they could spend the rest of eternity together? I'm pretty sure that every mummy at this sexy nurse bar wishes he could somehow apply for pharaoh status so that (if there is such a thing as eternity) he'd spend it eating buffalo wings, playing pool, shooting darts, fiddling with the juke box and basking in the glow of a dozen knock-outs dressed in tiny nurse uniforms.

The manager, a skinny American named Jerry, has come as close as any modern man to immortality. Most of the time, he has no idea what day it is. His memory, instead, is an endless regress of flirty nurses and free drinks.

59 Huynh Thuc Khang Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, HCMC

Tel: 0121 8923894

VND25,000 for a frosty mug of Tiger draft

666 Truong Sa

Truong Sa seemed forever doomed to remain a dusty drive along a stinking Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal. But an ambitious public works project has transformed it into a breezy, tree-lined stretch of smooth road.

In other words, the perfect road to eat on.

Follow the "Yo's" to this small riverfront quan (eatery), which remains the favorite watering hole for hoardes of buttoned-down short sleeves.

Quy, the stern, thin-haired owner runs the place like a battlefield hospital"”pacing among the tables and signaling commands.

Thanks to his efforts, the food is delicious and the service prompt.

A recent evening began with crispy chicken feet fried with onions, blood cockles cooked in tamarind and a Thai hotpot full of fresh seafood.

The real winner was a dish called Bò Má»™t Nắng (Beef One Sun) which turned out to be strips of tender beef sautéed in a light curry sauce and buried in a mound of flash fried herbs that dissolved on the tongue.

After a few iced-down glasses of Saigon 333, we all forgot that tomorrow we may have to do it all again.

666 Truong Sa Street, Ward 17, Phu Nhuan District.

Roughly VND120,000 per person for a full five-course feast.

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