OP-ED: The problem with Vietnam's vomitoriums

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

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Though ancient Rome never actually had vomitoriums, Ho Chi Minh City is home to tons of them. Club Kingdom seemed, somehow, to acknowledge the irony of this situation and run with it. Photo: Calvin Godfrey Though ancient Rome never actually had vomitoriums, Ho Chi Minh City is home to tons of them. Club Kingdom seemed, somehow, to acknowledge the irony of this situation and run with it. Photo: Calvin Godfrey

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On a recent Thursday evening, a team of young professionals from a multinational e-commerce firm decided to celebrate a long week by heading to the Vuvuzela Beer Club on Nguyen Binh Khiem Street.
At around 11pm, in the chaos of laughter and music, someone spun around and smashed a mug over the heads of two young men for apparently no reason.
Vuvuzela's management accompanied the victims to a nearby emergency room and watched nurses pick bits of glass out of one's scalp and sew the other up.
The perpetrator, whom no one saw, fled without being arrested.
Everyone in their party was shocked by the incident.
I can't say I was.
Those two young men weren't assaulted. They were beer clubbed.
The rise of beer clubs
When I got to Ho Chi Minh City four years ago, people primarily drank bottles of what Garret Oliver called “the worst beer in the world” at sidewalk restaurants that served the best food in the world.
And life was fine.
Last year, a series of beer clubs began cropping up in town, faster than anyone could really notice them.
Among the most prominent and successful is a chain called Vuvuzela –whose name incidentally contains two of the Vietnamese words for “tit.”
The chain's business model involved slapping skimpy shirts and orange short-shorts on girls from the countryside, then having them hawk towers of beer to packed tables of stressed-out young professionals.
Apparently, it's exactly what Ho Chi Minh City wants at this moment in its history.
Caligula goes to Hooters
In the year since its debut here, Vuvuzela has opened six locations in town.
The Golden Gate Group, which owns Vuvuzela and other restaurants, has reportedly grown from 5 to 67 restaurants nationwide.
Their investors have enjoyed more than a 900% return on their multi-million dollar investments since 2008; Standard Chartered just shelled out $35 million for a stake in the group.
Despite the fact that all of Vuvuzela's locations are cavernous, I'm told you can't get a table, any night of the week, without a reservation.
On a recent Tuesday, I went to the Nguyen Binh Khiem club (the scene of the crime) at noon and stayed put.
By 6pm, a din of V-Pop and office worker chatter had rendered conversation impossible.
The atmosphere walked a thin line between an Orange County Hooters and a scene from Gore Vidal's Caligula.
The menu, for example, contained corn chips and a whole fried turtle; slow pans of girls in lingerie and bikinis played on omnipresent TV monitors, while top-40s music boomed in the background.

The view from Vuvuzela's urinals

Game Over
Things got particularly weird in the bathroom, which featured a sleek row of urinals behind a two-way mirror that allowed men to watch other people gorge while they peed.
The bathroom's most dumbfounding feature was a dramatically lit sink with a wide, open drain.
A sign featuring a person crawling toward a toilet and the words "Game Over" hung over it.
Later, I had a conversation with Diep, the lady responsible for mopping up whatever doesn't make it into the sink for $175 a month.
While we spoke, a young waiter walked in and guessed that around 20 Vuvuzela customers throw up every night. He was soon followed by Diep's 14-year old son who delivered his mom's dinner.
Diep claimed she couldn't afford to send him to school.
“That's a lot of hardship,” I said.
“It's a lot of shit!” she answered.
Puke and rally
Vuvuzela's 23-year old day manager, Tuan Anh, attributed the restaurant's need for puke sinks to the popular practice of making friends drink more than they can hold.
“I myself can only drink two bottles before I have to join them [at the vomit sink],” he said.
They were created, according to Tuan Anh, to prevent people from washing their hands in a sink full of puke.
The Golden Gate Group did not respond to a list of question--the most pressing of which was: what percentage of Vuvuzela customers throw up so that they can keep drinking?
“A number of [vomiters] go back to drinking, but just hot tea,” Tuan Anh said. “A number go home. Of course, a number go back and keep on drinking beer.”

Vomit sinks have migrated from fringe drinking establishments to Ho Chi Minh City's new host of middle-class drinking establishments. You probably can't get a table at one--any night of the week--without a reservation.

More fun than America
This conversation set me on a kind of week-long odyssey into the puke-soaked heart of these places.
At an open-air beer club in District 3 called Poc Poc, I encountered a communist-chic mural that read uống có trách nhiệm (drink responsibly) just outside a pair of rest rooms equipped with stainless steel puke bins.
The bins were clearly labeled bồn ói [nôn] (“sink” and “puke” in both southern and northern dialect).
An instructional icon of a bathroom man projectile vomiting graced their fronts.
A waiter named Vinh Duy guessed that around seven or eight people use them every night.

This janitor at Poc Poc argues that bars here have puke sinks because Vietnam's more fun than America. That's probably true.
A saucy janitor disagreed.
“Lots of people use it!” she said while she checked the receptacles before the dinner rush.
When she heard American bars don't have puke sinks, she scoffed.
“That's because Vietnam's more fun that America!”
Touché.
From whence puke sinks?
These kinds of sinks, I gather, have provided relief to the janitors of quán nhậu places for some time. This past weekend, I found one in the dark corner of a rundown bathroom in Thu Duc--fashioned out of an old metal wash basin and plastic pipes.
Most of the restaurant's customers seemed to prefer throwing up in the urinals.
The week before, I waited an unusually long time to use the bathroom at one of my favorite seafood restaurants—one that happens to serve beer. When a wasted diner finally opened the door I found a surprise waiting in the toilet.
Ói,” the manager cried to a young man playing on his phone, evoking a long, low sigh.
I get it.
What's in a name?
When I asked my Vietnamese friends what they called these sinks, reactions ranged from “I've never heard of them” to simply “wow.”
Puke sinks have exploded in the tawny core of the city so fast, they don't even have a name yet. The more I looked for them, the more I kept stumbling upon new and terrible beer clubs.
On yet another weeknight, I stopped into the Kingdom Beer Club on Ton Duc Thang.
Girls in cocktail dresses and clunky high-heels wobbled out the front doors like dying bees while others--prim and nervous--stood in a small line waiting to get in.
Inside, a strobe-lit morass of drunk people swirled around taking pictures of itself.
Badly-painted Roman centurions clutched beer steins above the fray.
The bathroom...the bathroom was amazing.
It had a puke sink--complete with “Game Over” sign.
It also had bare red plasticine asses and legs splayed out over each urinal, which were separated by two-way mirrors.
No one seemed to notice them.
What's the puke sink, officer?
Ho Chi Minh City is nowhere near the top of the list of drunkest places in the world.
Vietnam didn't invent binge drinking or beer clubs or puke sinks.

A mural at Poc Poc Beer Club admonishes customers to drink responsibly. If they choose to ignore it, they can just hang a left and puke in the puke bins.
Kotzbecken (puke pans) have apparently been a regular fixture in the bathrooms of Bavarian beer inns and German student halls since the middle ages.
Moreover, drinkers everywhere puke.
But there's something deeply unpleasant about these beer clubs.
Leave aside the obvious grossness of opening a bunch of vomitoriums in a country where 14% of children under five are still malnourished. Forget that Diep will spend her working life mopping up after people who blow her monthly salary down the bồn ói.
The problem with them is much more insidious than that.
No escape
Beer clubs stripped away all of the most redeeming aspects of Vietnamese drinking culture—the good food, the intimacy, the conversation and lack of pretension—presumably because they were impediments to people consuming more beer, faster.
The rise of beer clubs has coincided with a confounding political campaign to move Vietnam's drinking off the sidewalk and into these clubs, which appear to be modeled and named after the most loathsome products of American corporate culture (e.g. Hooters, the Hangover franchise, the office-night-out).
It may be hard for non-Americans to know where I'm coming from, but beer clubs feel eerily like the strip mall watering holes where lost middle-class suburbanites drown their anomie in blaring music and Budweiser—only to go home, throw up and head back to work.
The only distinguishable difference is, beer clubs offer a convenient place to throw up right on site!
It's sort of heartbreaking to watch a city you love harken toward something you hate, particularly when you moved halfway around the world to escape it.

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