An Ex-Expat’s Take on the Crazy Buffalo Burning

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I logged into Facebook the other day, scrolled down the page absent-mindedly, and froze in my tracks. I was staring at an image that brought up a strange sensation of feelings from deep inside me: shock, disbelief, amusement, and sadness.

The Crazy Buffalo was on fire.

The Crazy Buffalo is a bar in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. It’s actually not located on Pham Ngu Lao street; it sits on the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham. It’s not really a good bar; in fact, it’s pretty terrible. The one time I ventured into the Buffalo, nearly four years ago, the only people inside seemed to be the staff, and they were insisting we party with them. When we went into the bathroom there were video screens at the bottom of the urinals so you could watch the news and pee on it at the same time. My friend inadvertently peed on an image of Ho Chi Minh, which was being displayed in the urinal at the time he was relieving himself. This prompted him to move to Ha Noi; “There’s no f**king way I can live in a city where it’s cool to piss on Ho Chi Minh.” I sort of nodded, sort of agreeing, staring into my beer.

That’s the only time I went to the Buffalo during my time in Vietnam.

But the Buffalo wasn’t really a bar; not really. No one who lived in Vietnam ever, EVER, went to the Buffalo. GO2, across the street, was a better place to get drunk and dance around like an idiot. And Lily’s, 185, Lily’s 2, and all the other seedy little places that line De Tham were the real hotspots, a never-ending mixture of expats, backpackers, bar girls, shady guys parking bikes, children selling things, and book girls. De Tham is the real city that never sleeps; forget New York.

The Buffalo wasn’t really the place to be: it was the symbol of everything crazy going on around it.  It was always there, a giant, obnoxious beacon overlooking everything: all the madness, all the drunken craziness, all the illicit behavior.  In that sense it was similar to the famous Citgo sign overlooking Fenway Park in Kenmore Square, Boston.  There’s not much history surrounding the Citgo sign, and there hasn’t been a gas station there for over 30 years.  It’s simply a hollow symbol: a mirage, the gold at the end of the leprechaun’s rainbow, a non-existent entity that lights up bright at night.  When people see the Citgo sign they think of the Red Sox, Fenway Park, guys selling programs and peanuts, traffic on the Pike, Boston.  But there’s nothing there; you can’t buy any gas there if you’ve happen to run out.

The Buffalo was the same.  I wasn’t looking to get a beer there, but sometimes, if I was out with friends and we’d end up at 185 or some such place, I’d glance up at the big giant electric buffalo above and smile.  That giant, obnoxious monstrosity looking down at us from above always reminded me that I was somewhere unique, somewhere that in my opinion is like nowhere else on the planet.

Pham Ngu Lao.

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Maybe that’s why my shock and amusement at seeing the Buffalo burning was mixed with a deep sense of sadness.  After living in Vietnam for nearly four years, soaking in everything that I possibly could, I’m back living in my hometown: Boston, or more specifically, Somerville. Being back in Boston is great, but it can be a difficult transition at times. It’s just so entirely different from the place where I was living for the last four years that it’s impossible not to miss things here and there.  The other night, I opened my fridge and realized I was out of beer.  So I walked down the street to Downtown Liquor and Spirits to grab a six-pack.  When I got there the lights were on but the doors were locked.  I glanced at my cellphone: 11:16pm.  No beer for me.  I turned around to walk home without any beer and thought to myself, “In Vietnam I could buy a beer any goddamned time of the night.”

Being able to buy a beer whenever I want is just one of the little things from Vietnam that I miss.  They mix together to make a collage of stuff that has become my memory of Saigon.

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The Pham Ngu Lao/Bui Vien/De Tham area is another one of the little things from Vietnam that I miss, although in a more abstract way.  When living in Ho Chi Minh City I would always tell visitors the same things: that Pham Ngu Lao is not the typical Vietnamese experience; that it’s important to leave Pham Ngu Lao if you’re staying in that area, because otherwise you won’t see ‘the real Vietnam.’ And that if you want real Vietnamese food, you MUST venture away from the restaurants of the Pham, if only for a few blocks.

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But as atypical an experience as the Pham is for most of Vietnam, (and it is very ‘atypical Vietnam’), it has also become something unique to Ho Chi Minh City, making it a non-typical, yet uniquely Vietnamese experience.

What I mean by that is that there is probably no other place on Earth quite like Pham Ngu Lao.

Khaosan Road, in Bangkok, is the original backpacker’s area: it’s larger than the Pham, and on the surface it’s wilder. But when you start investigating Khaosan Road, you find that it’s inherently different than the Pham. It’s bigger, sure, and there’s more people walking around drinking beers on the street…but it’s also a little bit tamer. The Thai police make sure to instill the fear of God into everyone (you WILL go to prison if you are caught with drugs in Bangkok), and the other seedy activities that people associate with Bangkok are contained in other neighborhoods. Khaosan Road is like the PG-13 version of the Pham: you can get a suit tailor made from the Indian dudes yelling at you from their shops, or you can get a tattoo applied to your forearm as you sit on a dirty sidewalk, or you can drink beer until you pass out unnoticed at your table, but you can’t get away with anything. There’s a limit to what’s allowed.

In the Pham there’s not much limit to what goes on.  I once saw a drunk British guy headbutt a police officer in GO2, and nothing happened. Motorbike thieves prowl the outskirts of the neighborhood once the sun goes down, waiting for some unsuspecting woman with a bag over her shoulders to leave on a motorbike. It’s an inherently ugly place with ugly things happening: children walk around selling gum and flowers, serving as slaves for their unseen pimps. When a child was severely beaten earlier this year, expats responded with anger and indignation that such a terrible thing could happen. But everyone knew the situation before that child showed up on the street with black eyes. No one who lives in Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t know that the kids who are selling gum at all hours of the day live terrible lives. And no one in their right mind could possibly think that some low-life pimp could ever be a nice person, even if they don’t beat the children that work for them.

In a lot of ways, the Pham is like the Wild West packed into a five block radius.  It’s an area of concentrated madness, the utmost wickedness in condensed form.  Spending too much time in the Pham is like drinking the lemonade mix without the water: it’s tasty but sour, thick enough to stick in your throat and make you choke.  In that sense it’s different than Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a place with an equally crazy reputation spread out across an entire city, or the Old Quarter, Ha Noi, a much less wild, more spread out and more typically Vietnamese backpacker’s area.

Anything goes for the most part in the Pham, and you tend to see the lesser qualities of humanity on display when you walk around, especially at night. But like anything else you get used to it after awhile and it becomes normal. It became normal to me that there was a part of town that essentially has no laws; it was normal to me because for almost four years I was never more than a ten minute motorbike drive away it. Now that I’m back in Boston, I’m beginning to realize that it wasn’t normal at all; it was f**king crazy.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I stared at an image of the Crazy Buffalo engulfed in flames.

Coming back home to Boston, I’ve noticed more changes than I thought I would.

Some changes are minor; walking through Harvard Square a few days ago, I was planning on buying a drink at the Tedeschi’s on the corner of JFK and Mt. Auburn Street. But the Tedeschi’s isn’t there anymore; now it’s a Tasty Burger. I’ve never even heard of Tasty Burger, although I think it’s the name of the fake burger chain in Pulp Fiction. My initial emotions upon seeing a Tasty Burger was annoyance: Why the Hell is there a stupid burger place here now?  Why isn’t there a convenience store here anymore?  But then I came to my senses and realized that I’ve been gone for four years.  Things change.  If you live with a puppy you see it grow gradually over a period of time, and it’s not too shocking when it becomes a full grown dog; but if you’re a friend who sees the puppy once when it’s little, and comes back a few months later to find it’s full grown, it’s a little bit shocking.  I had a normal reaction to the Tedeschi’s being gone.  I was surprised and annoyed.  But some changes are more unexpected.

I’ve never owned a smartphone.  For that matter, I’ve never even really used a smartphone.  When I left Boston to live in Vietnam four years ago, smartphones were sort of a novelty: some people had them, but for the most part people still had flip phones.  When I got to Vietnam, pretty much no one had smart phones, and I did what most everyone did: bought a pre-paid Nokia for 20 bucks.  There are many more smartphones in Vietnam now, and you can buy cheap iPhones on Nguyen Trai, but as far as I can tell old school phones still outnumber smartphones.

Now I’m back in Boston and everyone has a smartphone.  Except me.  I knew this was going to happen; but what I didn’t realize was how far behind the times I was going to feel.  My parents have officially passed me in the technology game.  I don’t know what an app really is or how to use it.  I have trouble sending emails on a tablet.  I’m not familiar with the green and white bubble text messages that show up on people’s phones now.

Ofcourse I’ll buy a smartphone soon and learn how to use it. But the point is that Boston, and America, has changed.  I jumped on the T the other night to head to Cleveland Circle, and 90% of the people were on smartphones or tablets.  In my eyes, that’s f**king crazy. When I left a few years ago, the idea of there being wifi on a train was unheard of.  Now we’re living in an ocean of wifi with wifi devices everywhere.  The internet is never more than a button’s hit away.  And that shit is scary to me.  It’s scary to me cause I’m not used to it and I didn’t expect it.

I guess that makes me feel just a tiny bit sad.  Shit went and changed when I wasn’t looking.

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I’m sure the Pham won’t be changing much anytime soon.  I messaged a friend who’s still living there to get the scoop on the Buffalo fire; he said he drove by the next day and they have a big sign over the charred buffalo face advertising drink specials.  Apparently the party hasn’t slowed down much.

If I was to return to Vietnam several years from now, a lot of things would be about the same.  The food would be about the same, the weather would still be hot.  I’d still be able to go to a cafe and drink a fruit juice while listening to terrible music, there’d still be geckos running around the walls at nice restaurants, and Hai Ba Trung would still be a long line of lights at night, leading down to the river.  I’d still be able to get a good meal at a restaurant with metal tables and plastic chairs, and people would still be smoking cigarettes, clanging their beer glasses together and yelling “Mot Hai Ba Yo!”

But things will change, and I now I’m beginning to wonder how much.  Will the arrival of McDonald’s be a bad thing for the city?  Will there be a lot more cars on the road in a couple years?  Will everyone be on smartphones within three years?  If I go back and visit a restaurant some night in the future and see a group of guys drinking beers and smoking cigarettes together, clanging their glasses together and yelling “Mot Hai Ba Yo!”, will there be couple of guys who don’t join in because they’re distracted by something on the internet?

I don’t know.  But I know one thing that will be different: the Crazy Buffalo.  Because the face of the Beast that overlooks Pham Ngu Lao went up in flames and got blasted with a fire house.  The overseer of the madness of the craziest street on the planet is no longer what it once was.

And maybe that’s why the whole thing makes me a little bit sad.  Some things change over time.  They have to.  But I don’t want too many things to change while I’m looking the other way.  And if there was one thing that I always thought would be in Ho Chi Minh City, greeting the overwhelmed backpackers stepping off their buses and being swarmed by xe oms whispering things about marijuana and massages, it was the Crazy Buffalo.

I didn’t think that motherf**ker would ever come down.

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