“Hey, what’s with that guy?” I laughed, gesturing to a deeply tanned, middle-aged man who is dancing with two shady-looking Vietnamese women, one over six feet tall. We’re next to a small bar in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City. The six-footer clawed at the man’s shrunken black disco shirt, desperately trying to peel it off, but the man beat her back and turned his attention to the shorter one, gyrating to music that no one else could hear.
It was 9 a.m. in Saigon and this man was rounding out his night. He eventually notice and my companions and me laughing at him, snapping pictures. He swiveled and danced his way out to the curb to greet us.
“Toppa the mornin’ to you boys!”
“Thanks, are you having a good night?”
“Nah, not really. I’m trying to have me a shag with that one over there, but the tranny won’t let go of me.”
He invited us to join him, but our early morning hangovers forced us to refuse. He squeezed two fingers into his tight jeans and withdrew a business card, which read, Keith Bartlett, Chairman, The Office and Boardroom Bar.
Keith invited us to The Office and Boardroom. “It’s a sports bar for Aussies and Kiwis, but you guys’ll be alright,” he reassured us. And, before I could say “crazy Kiwi,” Keith Bartlett was drifting into the Saigon morning, tranny in tow.
For our part, we made our way to the Reunification Palace, the imposing Severist building that served as the headquarters for the brutal American-backed government of South Vietnam. In the basement bunker, radio transistors that once buzzed with bad news from the front, now sit silent. Upstairs, the hallways carved sharp right angles through an ostentatious display of 1960s interior design. Important men used to sit on these suede couches, one pressing for more tanks and cash, the other trying to prop up a South Vietnamese “domino” that was tilting under the weight of its own graft. In the evenings, the farce moved onto the roof, where a grand piano and musician’s stage are still on display across from the bar. Not so long ago, the rooftop rang with American jazz and accented English. Swimming in music, women and fine scotch, the Vietnamese junta and American generals could forget that they were losing a war.
The party ended on the late morning of April 30, 1975, when Tank 390 of the People’s Tank Brigade 203 crashed through the gate of the Palace and ended the Vietnam War. After three decades of “reeducation camps”, Stalinist economics, reform, investment and renewal, Saigon is once more a vibrant city, with half the violence and twice the decadence of the American era.
Darkness fell over Saigon and our first stop was Apocalypse Now, the most famous nightclub in the city. The toughest, least friendly bouncers in Vietnam patted us down, and we were ushered inside to a mesmerizing display. White men, many older than my father, sat at high tables, an island archipelago of sexual energy in a sea of underdressed Vietnamese women plying their wares. Unsure how to handle ourselves in this primal environment, we settled at a table on the far side of the courtyard. We sat there in the red light of Chinese lanterns, sipping overpriced drinks, watching overweight businessmen pick up curvy girls in tube tops.
We had come to Vietnam to learn about the American War and we now had a vivid image of what a Saigon nightclub would have felt like in the late 1960s. Apocalypse Now was a fascinating reconstruction of wartime Saigon society, but since none of our group wanted to hire a prostitute, we quickly got bored. “Keith!” someone yelled, “Let’s go to Keith’s bar.”
We found Keith at the third floor lounge of The Office and Boardroom, spanking a giggling bargirl, while he danced like Charlie Chaplin at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. Our entrance made him burst out laughing and he gave us all wiggly hugs. I can’t speak for all, but I wasn’t accustomed to being hugged by fifty-five year-old men wearing embroidered jeans and newsprint-themed disco shirts that are at least four sizes too small. “Would you lads fancy some E?” he queried nonchalantly, as if offering us a beer. Keith Bartlett had been rolling on ecstasy nearly every hour of the past six days. “Ahhh, well, no worries. Phoung, go fetch us a bottle of Bacardi,” Keith wailed and for half an hour we stood in a circle, making confused toasts and hearing Keith’s life story.
Back in New Zealand, he owns a portfolio of magazines, real estate, and an entertainment company. He’s a highly successful businessman with three kids and (by his description) a stable, 27-year marriage. Keith Bartlett had it all, but four years ago he decided he wanted more, so he came to the Gotham of Southeast Asia and created a small nightlife empire that consists of three bars and a club. Once a month, he flies to Saigon to “manage” his kingdom. For one week of each month, this swanky sports bar is quite literally his office and boardroom.
Keith took us to Lush, a more traditional nightclub where not all women were for sale. The DJ played the latest remixes of “Sexy Back” while the lights flashed blown-up nonsensical comic strips. Keith ran into a hard-bodied Vietnamese woman and was lost in the crowd, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the tumult of a thousand people simmering in vice. A young Indian banker started talking to me and introduced me to his sister, Rohini. “Nice to meet you,” I said, patting her shoulder. “Nice to meet you,” she replied, licking my neck.
At four we were piling into a taxi when out of nowhere, Keith emerged and dove into the front seat. “Say, you lads ought to come with me to The Carnation!” he panted. We eyed each other and broke the news to him—we were going back to the hotel. Keith’s eyes narrowed and he pounded his fists on the car seat. “Well to Hell with you ninnies!” he blasted, jumping out of the car and slamming the door. Keith Bartlett stumbled onto the street and drifted through the rest of his mid-life crisis.