I’ve been to Spy Bar once before. I stumbled in through the heavy iron shutters after all the other bars in the Old Quarter had closed. It was a long, dark hole in the wall, packed to the brim with glassy-eyed revelers, and it reminded me of so many of my favourite dingy dives in New York City.


“This is just like my home bar in my home town,” says Jeppe Haugstrup, one of the men at the helm. He wanted to create a place where expats could gather late at night, an oasis in the sea of Hoan Kiem’s backpacker bars.

 

I returned on a Friday and sat at a table where I could take in the view: the bustling overpass where Chuong Duong Bridge intersects the dyke road, shining bright yellow in the streetlights. An Irish musician was playing an acoustic cover of Sexual Healing while cars and motorbikes criss-crossed in orderly chaos past the front door. I settled in with a beer and a cigarette and listened to Jeppe’s stories.

 

The Mustard

 

 

He moved to Vietnam from Denmark in 2011 and spent his first six months drinking regularly at Spy Bar, then just a small Viet-style watering hole. When his favourite spot started floundering due to management issues, he decided he had to save it. He paid a year’s rent up front and brought on his friend, Luan, former owner of Half Man Half Noodle, to run the place. They redesigned the space with Western sensibilities in mind: dark wood panelling lined with LED lights, cheeky signs about drinking too much, and an upstairs loft complete with a poker table and an ‘eye spy’ mural airbrushed on the wall.

 

Community is at the centre of their vision for the bar. Friday and Sunday are Acoustic Nights, where local musicians play songs on the sidewalk. When the live music finishes, patrons can choose their own tunes via a laptop set up for YouTube DJing. They can even use the bar as a base to park their bikes while they wander the Old Quarter (as long as they come back home to Spy Bar at the end of the night, of course).

 

Any big events coming up soon? “The big event is every night,” says Jeppe. He describes the crowd as “50 percent expats, 30 percent locals and 20 percent daring tourists”, and recounts tales of the bar’s most memorable characters, like the American that often drunkenly waxes philosophical in his underwear, or the girls that once got into a bar fight over their YouTube song choices.

 

The Bacon

 

 

For the hungry boozers, the menu is simple, but it does the job: Viking hotdogs (VND30,000) and artisanal Danish sausages (VND45,000), made by Søren Lee Nielsen, a butcher of 15 years who Jeppe brought all the way from Denmark for his culinary talents. The crew recently added the delicious Spy burger (VND45,000) to the menu — it’s made with a wholly hand-crafted patty, perfect for quelling those drunken munchies. While cocktails like Margaritas and Mojitos start at VND65,000, the focus here is on no-frill beverages like beer (VND25,000) and Gin & Tonics (VND55,000).

 

After all, you didn’t go to the dive bar for a Cosmo, did you? No, you came for the characters, the stories, and that familiar sense of the bars that you used to call home. — Jesse Meadows

 

Spy Bar is at 12 Nguyen Huu Huan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi

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