No blues at Mao's Red Lounge
  • | dtinews.vn | January 12, 2010 03:39 PM

Last week I wrote about my quest to find a bar in Hanoi that I can call my local pub. I'm on a mission and I don't intend to stop until I've tried every bar that can be thrown my way.

I received plenty of feedback after writing about 17 Cowboys, and thanks to our readers, I have been given a large number of suggestions for places that I should visit next.

Mao's Red Lounge is a bar that DTi's readers mentioned numerous times, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Located near Hoan Kiem lake, it became the destination for my Friday night. It was easy to find some information about the place on the net, and I flipped open my Lonely Planet Guidebook for Vietnam to see what it had to say as well.

Over the years, I've noticed that Lonely Planet and its audience have changed in some ways. What used to be a budget backpacker's bible and guide to experiencing local culture and cuisine, has grown into a popular giant that tourists have turned into a resource to define their trip. This has resulted in, often times, a guide book which actually brings a lot of expats together into a not-so-local experience. It can over-saturate your time with a rather unauthentic trip if you aren't careful, but when used sparingly, it can also unlock some great secrets.

Since Mao's is mentioned in this guide, I had my apprehensions, and I approach any guidebook with relevant caution. I was a little concerned about what the vibe would be. Being an expat, it may sound a little contradictory, but I'm not passing through here, I live here. I didn't leave home 4 years ago to experience Asia for foreigners, I came to experience Asia for Asia, the way a local would.

Despite this, I of course have expat friends and occasionally need a nice, hearty, western meal in a place that reminds me of home. Unfortunately, sometimes places overcrowded with expats can lose their authenticity and the mission here is to find a local watering hole.

So how about Mao's?

When I entered the bar, what I saw was a small, cozy place with decent decor. The bar itself is a good 'ol fashioned one with a high counter and stools which was nice to see. For some reason, in Asia, it seems that people prefer a table over the bar. Maybe it's just me, but I'm a believer in sitting at the bar and having a bar that's high enough to lean on is even better. Right away, I liked Mao's. There were some stairs leading up to the lounge where I was due to meet my friend.

The music was good. They were playing some old hip-hop mixes at a comfortable volume. It was about 9:45pm on a Friday night and there was a decent amount of people. The upstairs area was very relaxing and had an ambient atmosphere with comfortable seating.

Beers were the right price, about 15,000 dong, and there was a special on Jagermeister shots. You could see the people below on the ground level if seated in the right position, so there was an interesting view from my vantage point. The number of patrons grew steadily with time, as did the level of noise.

Travelers are always an easy bunch to meet, and Mao's is a good place to meet them. It's quite likely that you'll never talk to or see again some of the people you meet at a bar like this but, nonetheless, they have stories and I have stories, so exchanging them was nice. The majority of the crowd consisted of foreigners with a few exceptions. Most of the people I met and chatted with were just passing through or traveling, a few were living here and there was the occasional local. By midnight, the place felt a bit like a college frat bar. This was due to the crowd, not the bar itself.

All in all, Mao's has the potential to be a great place to spend your time. It's better to bring your friends with you than to come here expecting to meet locals or to have a "Vietnamese" bar experience. It is a good place to mingle with the expat crowd. The vibe was positive and friendly. The area in general is more devoted to the tourist and expat market than to local Bia Hoi's, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, this was a Friday night and my first visit to Mao's, so it may not be a proper representation of the norm here.

The service was good but not excellent and they made up for this by being friendly and efficient. Obviously the service, as can be expected, was better early in the night when the crowd was smaller. There is one thing I would note that could be a negative or a positive side to Mao's, depending on how you look at it. There is only one "W.C." in the entire place. This led to a never-ending queue, meaning a quick trip to the restroom was out of the question. On the other hand, every time I was waiting, friendly conversations managed to spark up with others in the same boat.

As more and more people packed the bar (which held an impressive amount of patrons), my friends and I began taking turns buying drinks. When it was your turn, you had to navigate through the queue for the W.C. which develops on the stairway, and down to the bar, then try to find a way back up the stairs with four drinks in hand... all part of any good bar experience.

Overall, I have only good things to say about the lounge. Good atmosphere, good music, good price, good service and a good night. I'll be visiting Mao's Red Lounge again.

Until next time, over and out. Send your feedback or suggestions to davidcornish@dtinews.com

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