Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Warning: this is a cringe-worthy story.
Cody and I had just finished dinner; a fancy affair, about $10 each, at a French cafe that we’d even dressed up for (read: I was wearing my only skirt and he was had on jeans instead of his usual basketball shorts). We were wandering down one of the side streets near Flamingo Hotel (whose large, fancy metal sign actually now read Lamfingo Hotel for no apparent reason). We’d passed plenty of karaoke bars, but just wanted a drink without having to listen to amateur pop stars belting Vietnamese love ballads. That’s when I spotted a cute place down a quiet lane: colorful stained glass, opaque windows, a flashing orange sign that read “lounge” in curly script, and a fake cherry blossom tree dangled over its vintage wooden door.
“Let’s check this place out!” A lounge sounded lovely; I imagined comfy couches, multicolored cocktails, mood lighting, and low-key electronic beats just ambient enough to enhance a drunken conversation. I bounced up to the door, gave the knob a twist, and swung it open.
But instead of a dimly lit, trendy room filled with people in slinky black outfits sipping Martinis, I found myself staring at a very plain, florescent-lit, wooden bar. And all the barstools were occupied by young Vietnamese women wearing different versions of the slutty sailor outfit girls wear on Halloween back in college in the United States.
Twelve pairs of curious eyes turned to me. Most of the girls were on their phones or chatting with each other and I could see wide eyes and dropped jaws across the room.
“Oh,” I muttered. I shut the door and stepped backward down the steps, falling into Cody’s chest. He had been right behind me and seen the whole scene.
“I don’t think that’s a lounge,” I said.
“Nope,” he said.
“Did you see the sailor outfits?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he laughed.
“I kind of want to take a picture - do you think I can?”
“Yeah, but really quick. It’s weird.”
I ran up the steps, opened the door again, holding Cody’s iPhone to my chest so it wouldn’t be visible that I was photographing the room, and slipped the door open. Once again, the whole room turned toward me. I snapped the shot and closed the door, bounding back down the steps like I’d just committed a ding-dong-ditch.
We power walked away, Cody a few paces ahead of me in the darkness. Then I heard the door opening again. I turned to see a sailor girl poke her head out and wave at me. I stopped and she came out of the bar. She had a little purse tucked under her shoulder and she walked up to me, asked me if I needed help. I don’t think she saw Cody ahead of me; he hadn’t heard the door and was now halfway down the block, hidden in the shadows.
“Oh, I was just looking for a bar,” I said, blushing. I noticed that I could see the top of her head; she couldn’t be taller than five feet. Her straight, black hair was cropped short into a bob and on one of her cheeks there was a trail of thin, dark, raised scar tissue that broke her otherwise clear complexion.
“Well, we have drinks. And music. You can drink here if you like. No problem!” She stared up at me, her eyes gleaming earnestly. She wasn’t wearing any make-up, which I thought was strange for a hooker. I couldn’t tell how old she was. Maybe my age? The shiny, blue polyester of her uniform reflected the glow of the flashing sign above us.
“Well, um. Let me just ask…” I called out to Cody in the dark, waving him back. But when he appeared from the shadows, the sailor girl pursed her lips together, peering past my shoulder at his figure.
“Oh, it’s 500,000 a girl.” She stated matter-of-factly. My eyebrows raised. Oh, there it is.
“No-no thanks? We’ll just go somewhere else.”
“Okay!” She waved at me as I walked away and then hopped back up the steps. Her pleated skirt bounced with her movements and the lounge sign flashed again. There was a big smile on her face that glowed a warm orange under the light, her scar casting just a sliver of a shadow across the arch of her cheekbone.
- Fancy French dinner for two with a bottle of wine: $20
- A sailor-themed Vietnamese hooker: $25
- Beware of anywhere labeled “lounge” with opaque windows. It’s definitely a brothel.