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sample chapter: Jenga

The tumbling towers of Saigon

It was mid afternoon. With my big shades, and my Panama hat pulled down low over my eyes, I slouched into Hien & Bob’s Pub like a private eye working a case. Outside, the tropical sun blazed and glared with painful brightness. But inside the bar its shadowy coolness wrapped around me like a trench coat. There she was, behind the bar. Gorgeous as usual, dressed in one of those silk Ao Dai she always wears. She still had that pouty look she gets when no one is there to tell her what a doll she is. Yeah, it was her, the divine Miss Hang. When she turned and looked up at me a lock of her thick midnight hair fell over one eye, Veronica Lake style.

I took a seat at the far end of the bar. Without a word she turned and walked toward the cooler, and through the split tunic of her garment offered me hints of those long long legs that start at the surface of the Earth and go all the way up to Paradise. She opened the cooler and, like she was reaching for a switchblade, she grabbed a cold one. Off came the top in one flick of the wrist, the spent cap clattering on the tile floor and worshiping at those platform shod feet.

She walked slowly down the length of the bar, pouring the suds into a tall glass as she moved. With a cool hand and a keen eye she lifted the bottle ever higher as she poured and walked, skillfully building up a creamy, frothy head that threatened to over excite itself and foam over the top to lave her hand in its whiteness. But at the last possible moment she stopped her tease with a skill born of innumerable such non conclusions. She set the bubbling frustrated drink down in front of me.

“Jenga?” I proposed.

“Beat you again,” she warned. She usually does.

Search the world, but I don’t think you’ll find Jenga as a bar game anywhere outside Saigon. It’s just an Old Saigon thing, played in Old Saigon bars. And Hien’s, the eternal verity of Hai Ba Trung Street, is the oldest of them all. Many have come and gone, but this serene island in a heaving sea of progress remains. And the Jenga towers rise and fall.

Start with a neatly stacked pile of sticks. Pull one out from near the bottom and place it gingerly on top. Repeat. Soon a teetery tottery tower is swaying and shivering and threatening to tumble down upon you. You think the next move will be its destruction, yet it continues to gain its shaky height and the tension continues to rise amid hushed anticipation.

It’s a quiet game, this. So unlike bar dice where misinformed souls hope that the more noise they make in slamming down the cup the greater their chance that Fortune will hear their plea. With Jenga the only noise comes from the crashing tower and the relieved and happy shouts of players and lookers-on. Jenga calls for calm, chess-like concentration and steady nerves, the planner’s forward thinking, the instinctive eye of the architect. And judicious amounts of gin and beer. In an Old Saigon bar, therefore, Jenga makes drinking rather a highbrow pastime. And in the shared tension of the game a quiet bonding, however slight, takes place between the players. I’ve met many new friends and drinking buddies in the ruins of a Jenga tower. And advanced my relationships with others. Including those behind the bar. Can’t say that for bar dice.

Of course the drinks are always simple in such a place. Nothing with a paper umbrella, nothing served by a girl wearing an advertisement. Yet in the conviviality of the game, and the necessarily heightened senses, the gin always seems to have more snap and the beer seems colder. And I never leave drunk. Happy, but in command of my faculties. And though my pockets may be lighter, my purse of memories is increased.

The University of Old Saigon Bar, Jenga campus, teaches a valuable lesson. It isn’t just what, or how much or how little we drink, but how. It’s the context in which we imbibe that matters most. So when we can say that we exit the bar richer than when we entered, then we have drunk both wisely and well.