The day the music died

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On Sunday, the regulars at the Asian Kitchen Hideaway filled the narrow bar with the ebullience of an Irish wake.

For the past seven months or so, it sat, speakeasy-like, at the top of the rear stairway in the 185 alleyway off Pham Ngu Lao Street.

Many a tired expatriate wandered up for a drink, to cobble together a playlist on its open computer or watch an English football match.

At around 9 p.m., it's most dedicated denizens filed in the door to mix drinks, blow up balloons and help prepare for the last hurrah. They all believed that the fun had been brought to its knees by the woman living in a wooden shack across they alley.

"No tabs tonight," Matt Ryan, 24, told his bartenders, who would be out of work the following morning. "Everyone pays as they go."

A pair of British DJ's cranked out hip-hop at epic volume as Africans, Europeans and Americans poured in the door and plunked down VND200,000 for a hand stamp that guaranteed them volley after volley of free beer, shots and mixed drinks.

"It's a real shame," said Clifton Buck-Kaufman, 64, smoking at the big round table on the bar's small outdoor balcony. "This was a funky little place. Not many like it here."

The Vietnamese bartenders lamented that they would head back to their hometowns for Tet and, perhaps, never return.

"This was a cool place," said Hai, who plans to return to his home in the southern resort town of Vung Tau on Monday. "I'll come back if I can get a job at a similar place."

Hai doubted he would find one.

A bar for expats

For many in the expat community, the Hideaway served as a much-needed wormhole back to the West... or some version of it.

Flip cup was often played at the long granite bar. The speakers blared Al Green, the Wu Tang Clan and Bob Marley, among others. A crazed, incomplete mural along the back wall portrayed Saigon as a lime green cartoon landscape populated with stubby blue characters.

Frosty mugs of Fosters were served up on draught and the bar's menu dared patrons to take the "Jagerbomb challenge."

The bar is owned by a Vietnamese family who had tried to open it up three years earlier, only to close it, soon afterwards.

Ryan partnered up with Dung, the daughter of the owners of Asian Kitchen, the ground floor restaurant.

Soon after Saint Patrick's Day, 2010, they re-opened the Hideaway.

"Basically, I just wanted to open an expat bar," he said. "For a while, I got a bit obsessed with bringing in as many people as possible and turned it into a tourist bar for two or three months. Then I switched it back."

Not long after the bar began, the revelers came at odds with Ha, a local woman whose small home faced the bar's front door.

She had complained bitterly about the noise, so Ryan and his partners tried hiring her as a janitor.

She quit, he says, in a huff after they gave her a written list of things to take care of.

Ryan could be found seated at the bar, on most nights. Every evening, around 11 p.m., he'd hustle revelers on the balcony back inside, for fear of angering Ha.

A property broker named Dang Van Tram reached out to Ha when a client expressed interest in opening a take-away restaurant in her house. Tram says his client and the family that ran Asian Kitchen had offered Ha $500 per month to rent her small home and inspire her to move, elsewhere.

She declined.

The killer revealed

The day after the Hideaway's closing party, Thanh Nien Weekly paid a visit to Ha's small tin-roofed shack, just as the late afternoon shadows closed in over the alleyway off Pham Ngu Lao. The lane seemed remarkably quiet.

Thuy, a pretty young restaurateur at Table De Saigon, an open aired kitchen three doors from the shuttered bar said that the place had never bothered her.

Most in the neighborhood didn't mind Asian Kitchen.

"Ha is difficult," she said in a hushed voice. "She didn't like people walking back and forth in front of her house at night."

Ha answered her door helmet in hand. She said she was on her way to pick up her seven year old daughter from school. "She's very smart," she said. In the evenings, they could be seen lying together on a mattress facing out into the alley.

A sign with her telephone number advertised the cups of coffee Ha sold to earn her livingVND10,000 a cup.

Inside the house, a narrow refrigerator loomed in the corner of her kitchen. Clothes dangled from hangers hooked to the ceiling and a television glowed in the cluttered dark living room.

Ha said her mother had built the small house out of wood, twenty years ago. Her father, who lives in Ben Tre Province in the Mekong Delta, and owns the home, would not allow her to accept the broker's offer.

She claimed that she and her husband (an auto-mechanic in faraway Thu Duc District) were kept up until 1 a.m., every night, for the past six months by the sounds of reveling foreigners.

She didn't have any problem living in this increasingly noisy neighborhood, she said. Just with that bar.

Ha said she'd complained to a police official, twice, about the bar.

She claimed not to know whether she'd succeeded in shuttering the bar and didn't deign to guess why the police had acted so decisively in her favor.

She mentioned that her brother was a policeman but declined to name him.

She provided the telephone number of a police official she'd spoken to but he refused to identify himself.

"Call the ward police chief," he said, before hanging up.

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