Forgive me readers; it’s been nearly 3 months since my last confession…er…post. And a lot has happened, mostly along the lines of: Holy crap, we opened a bar! (Or if you speak British, Bloody cheeky shite, we opened a pub!*) It’s the Red River Tea Room, named after a now-closed bar in Georgia (USA) which was originally opened by Mitchell’s great great great uncle in the 1920s and frequented by Mitchell’s grandfather in the 1950-60s. The name is a holdover from the US prohibition era when many bars adopted names like “tea room” and served alcohol-infused tea to try to work around laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol. That explains the misleading nature of the name (we are not located on the Red River and tea is basically an afterthought).
[*Ok, British people probably never say this, but it’s the best I could do.]
When I say “we” opened a bar, I mean mostly my husband Mitchell and our good friend Jim, who co-conspired to make it happen. For my role, I’m deciding between the titles of owner-in-law and barwife, but leaning toward the latter. As barwife, my job has consisted mainly of drinking at the bar, occasionally questioning and nagging the owners about their bar-related decisions, and at times dealing with some of the tedious paperwork such as the employee manual and contracts.
When we announced the enterprise to our friends and family back in April, it was as much a shock to me as it was to them. We had, afterall, been making our yearly proclamations that this will be the year for us to bid this lovely city adieu. But, also a yearly tradition, these plans have fallen through yet again. But still, what the fuck? Where did this come from? Some background: Mitchell & Jim had joked about opening a bar off and on in the past due to a shared longing for a bar in Hanoi that feels like ‘our bar.’ You know, the kind of place you get attached to and return to all the time – become one of the regulars. Not too fancy, not too divey, just comfortable and welcoming. There are tons of bars in Hanoi and many that we really like such as Barbetta, Tracy’s, Ete, and Fat Cat. While we like these places, none of them quite has the feel of our favorite haunts back home. I suppose this is a common mission of expat business owners – to bring a piece of home to Hanoi.
When they joked about opening a bar in the past, I just blew it off as drunk hot air. Yes, you two open a bar and I’ll start a polka band composed entirely of flame-throwing, tuxedo-clad monkey robots (wait, who put psychedelics in my beer?). Then Mitchell came home one night and told me that they’re serious about opening the bar. And he was sober. Gasp! I peppered him with questions and then burst into tears, whining something like, “Ohmigod, we’re gonna be here FOREVER! May as well purchase a plot in that graveyard next door and tell our families and friends that we’ll NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN because we’re Vietnamese now!” You see, Mitchell & Jim had spent many days and nights pondering and scheming about this awesome thing they wanted to do, which is a fun process. Since I hadn’t participated in these activities, I saw the endeavor less like a fun adventure and more like a giant, bar-shaped anchor on the boat that is my life. Which, to my credit, it kind of is. It’s in my nature to avoid such life anchors like mortgages, children, and other large investments of money. So yeah, I kinda freaked out.
When my melodramatic display subdued, we talked it out as married people are wont to do. What it came down to was that Mitchell was clearly excited about this thing, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of that. As for business partners, we couldn’t ask for someone better than Jim, who’s not only a smart and responsible fellow, but also happens to be hilarious and rather amusing. As for locations, Hanoi is ideal in many ways. It’s relatively cheap and easy to get things done here (if you have Vietnamese friends, but more on that later), and there are still plenty niches to fill. Taking all of that into consideration, I gave my reluctant approval, still thinking in the back of my head that this thing probably won’t happen. One week later, they had found a location and a week after that, they had given the landlady a deposit. Ack! It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe that this:
turned into this in only two months:
Such is the magic of Hanoi. Seriously, if you want to open a business, direct or star in a play, write for a magazine, design and model clothes, be featured in an art show, be on TV, and/or run a nonprofit, Hanoi is the place for you. As an expat, it’s infinitely easier to do these things here than it is to do them back home. It’s one reason why many people come here with short-term plans but stay for the long run.
By the time the deposit was put down, I was on board. Getting involved in all the planning and designing helped that along. It’s really fun to help create something like this. Everything from the paint color, sign font, and furniture to the menu and staff were up in the air. It’s been thrilling to see our ideas turn into reality. Plus, we managed to assemble a fantastic staff, who have turned out to be extremely charming, adorable and dedicated. It’s been great to get to know these guys. Now that the whole thing has proved to be this fulfilling and exciting, I feel guilty for my initial hesitance. Needless to say, I’m now a converted fan.
I don’t mean to suggest that everything has been easy peasy, of course. I’ve found that Hanoi is a place of contradictions, one being that often things that seem like they should be difficult turn out to be simple, while other things that seem like they should be very easy turn out to be complicated messes. We’ve been very lucky to have a circle of trusted and competent Vietnamese friends whom have helped us tremendously. We couldn’t have done it without them with our sanity still intact. The rumors about opening a business in Vietnam are generally true. To get from point A to point B, one must navigate a path that is anything but straightforward. There are all sorts of twists and caveats and players along the way that you have to account for. As Americans, we have expectations about the way things “should be,” while Vietnamese have entirely different notions of the way “things are.” And the disconnect can prove maddening. I believe the epitome of frustration came from a bizarre and unexpected negotiation with our landlady, Han (pronounced “Hun” who we first were calling Honeypie and now Honey Badger after this youtube gem). We expected the process to last 1 hour maximum, but it expanded to an excruciating 3 hours of talking in circles and arguing over minutiae. Our friends were doing the bulk of the talking while we had to sit around bewildered and wondering what the unfolding drama could possibly be about. It worked out obviously, but oi zoi oi. We’ve grown to like her, but Honeypie has been a source of some difficulty. Why? Because Honeypie don’t take no shit!
Overall, though, all the hiccups we’ve faced have been pretty minor. We all still have our normal fulltime jobs, so it can be a little exhausting at times, but since it’s a labor of love, it feels a lot less like work. Given that we’ve never done this sort of thing before, there’s admittedly been some bumbling around. It’s been a work in progress that has almost, but not quite finished developing yet. Each week, we accomplish or add something new. It’s crazy to think how far it’s come since the first week – when the first customers came into the bar who weren’t already our friends, we first cowered in fear, shoving one another to go talk to them and running around in circles before serving them a drink (You go! No, you go!) Yes, we’ve come a long way indeed. Now, we generally go to the bar to relax and socialize. We’re there in case the staff need us, but as they grow ever more independent, the more superfluous we become. Which is a good thing. Basically, we seem to have accomplished our overall goal of creating a place where we can hang out. A fort for grownups.
Shameless plug: I can’t finish a blog about the bar without shamelessly promoting it, can I? Some (but not all) things on offer include:
Beer! Including mainstays like Carlsberg draft, Tiger and LaRue as well as some harder-to-find brews like Cooper’s Pale Ale and Stout (from Australia), Leffe Brune and Blond (from Belgium), Moa (from New Zealand), Suntory (from Japan), and Zorok (from Binh Duong, how can you not try a beer named “Zorok”?).
Wine! Three house reds and three house whites as well as some finer (aka fancy pants) wines for those with more refined palates. All of the wine comes from France, Chile, Australia and the US.
Spirits! Whiskey and gin and vodka, oh my! Some of our favorites are Baker’s 7 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Zubrowka Vodka from Poland, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Cruzan Rum.
Non-alcoholic stuff! Milkshakes, organic tea from Betterday, espresso and coffee, juice, smoothies, etc.
In sum, come to our bar! Although we can’t ensure you money, fame or happiness, you are guaranteed to leave a better human being.
Address: 25 Đường Ven Hồ Tây (street just below Xuan Dieu, lakeside. Right next to Dieu’s Cuisine.)
- Monday – Thursday: 2pm – 11:30pm
- Friday – Sunday: 11am – 11:30pm
Email: redrivertearoom (at) gmail (dot) com