Bui Vien’s grand old beer lady

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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Ba Sau has sold beer out of her tiny rented shop at 102 Bui Vien Street for the past 14 years. When asked about the recent raids, she shrugged. ‘It's the same thing over and over again,’ she said. ‘They just want to keep the sidewalks clear.’ Photo: Calvin Godfrey
Ever since we vacated a broken down old cigarette factory in District 4, Thanh Nien’s editorial staff has toiled on the outskirts of Pham Ngu Lao Ward. For a time, I celebrated the survival of each weekly deadline by wandering up Bui Vien Street and having a beer.
Last week, our paper carried a story describing a new and muscular crackdown on the vendors who keep us all buzzed and happy. So I decided to go to the lady who seemingly started it all to see what had changed.
Four years ago, there was only one place on the dirty main drag that didn’t ply powdered ladies or terrible food with its beer. “Grandma’s,” as it was known, sold cold bottles of local suds for a good price—sometimes a great price. When Ba Sau (Grandma Six) added up your bill, she usually missed a bottle or two whether due to an unspoken generosity or a geriatric lapse of memory, we never knew.
For a long time, Ba Sau’s place consisted of nothing but a refrigerator, a rack of glass mugs and a densely-packed peninsula of red plastic stools that forced her patrons to become fast friends, particularly if they wanted to climb into the tiny telephone-booth bathroom in the rear. At some point Ba Sau introduced a tap for fresh beer that none of her regulars ever came to trust.
Beyond that nothing changed.
Ba Sau has sold beer at 102 Bui Vien Street for fourteen years.
She imagines, now, that she was the first. At some point a couple of years ago, her business went viral. First, her next door neighbors began selling suds. Then, the people across the street. Soon the area around Ba Sau’s place swelled shut every night, like the throat of some poor allergic bastard who went wild with a jar of peanut butter.
By 9 p.m. on most nights, foreigners and locals poured out of every house on red plastic stools to drink and watch children breathe fire for tips, essentially bringing traffic to a halt.
Ba Sau doesn’t hold it against them.
“They all just wanted to make a living,” she shrugged. She managed to bring up ten children in her house around the corner on beer money.
She was assisted, for a long stretch, by her beautiful, long-suffering daughter, Van, who had a preternatural talent for wrangling sloppy drunks without breaking her tight smile or ruffling her cascade of blow-dried shiny black hair.
Van has since moved on to manage a Ben Thanh Market stall and been replaced by yet another daughter, with a smile and hair reminiscent of but not equal to her sister’s.
Ba Sau always worked in heavy jade earrings and a set of shimmering pajamas. She spent her evenings walking the thin line of lawlessness—wordlessly scooching drinkers a little closer toward their neighbors, admonishing customers not to park their motorbikes anywhere near her establishment and keeping an eye out for the sudden and inexplicable raids from neighborhood militiamen looking to seize her seating.
“I have no idea how many chairs I’ve lost over the years,” she said on a recent evening. “I don’t want to remember.”
The city’s insane protocols dictate that she can only sell on about a dozen white tiles that make up the shop’s interior—enough space for the toilet, the refrigerator and four chairs. Every night, she gambles on stretching her customers down into the gutter, providing about sixteen lucky people a nice place to sit, chat, smoke and drink in the open air. Her clientele is always a mix of fresh arrivals, adventurous locals and pickled long-stay expatriates (ahem).
Without questioning the rationale, we all got into the habit of looking out for scores of middle-aged men in dull green uniforms running in to steal “grandma’s” plastic chairs.
The sidewalks of Pham Ngu Lao, it should be noted, are functionally useless. They widen to ten feet promenades in front of some shops only to vanish altogether before others. They drop and dip. There is no single sidewalk, per se, so much as a veritable archipelago of slanted tiles and sloping concrete. None of the islands connect in a way that would permit even the soberest of pedestrians to refrain from looking earthwards as they navigate the streets.
So why do they take this old lady’s chairs?
“They’ve always done it,” Ba Sau cried, as though I’d asked her why the sky is blue. “They’re just trying to keep the sidewalks clear.”
But when asked if last Sunday’s mega-crackdown had been any different, she simply shrugged.
“No,” she said. “It’s the same thing over and over again.”
Which wasn’t exactly true. I’d noticed a stack of folded drink cartons lying on a chest freezer at the rear. At roughly six o’clock, Ba Sau began pulling in her plastic chairs and handing customers strips of cardboard. After the briefest instance of confusion, all of her sidewalk customers had splayed out like drunks on Sunset Boulevard. All up and down the street, all of her neighbors had followed suit.

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