Sunday, May 24, 2009

The search for Brian McNally ends: Your MEN in Saigon IV

PXThis, Vanity Fair,  Abbe Diaz, Schrager Hotels, Brian McNally, new york, Graydon Carter,  Starbucks, Our Man In Saigon, With the headline "Where in the world is Brian McNally" Abbe Diaz begins a forum post on her website that reveals the enigmatic Mr. McNally had moved to Saigon. McNally a former New York restauranteur became the subject of a worldwide search that ended in none other than Saigon when a piece he had written about his travails popped up in Vanity fair in the spring of last year. And the wheels were set in motion that would bring me and a man I had never met before on a collision course amidst the motorbikes, rain, cigarettes, cocktails and ladies of Saigon -- Almost immediately after the piece appeared in Vanity Fair under the post script "Our man in Saigon", I received a letter from Rhona, a reader in New York whom I had previously not known as well stating roughly, "Wait a minute, you're our man in Saigon!". Rhona sent me a copy of the story and a friendship was born out of the unlikely crossing of my blog and the mystery writer/restauranteur.

McNally's first story shows a writing flair unusual to those not working in the business of writing and illustrates quite literally that you can get anything published if you happen to be friends with the editor of a well respected magazine. It gets a good review from me. His second story, published in November of 08, unfolds to show that just as anything can get published that anything can also get edited and the VF staff seems to have had a heyday with this one. Add to that, that now with the masthead of a legendary periodical under his belt, McNally launches into forays on politics corruption and prostitution, or seemingly lack thereof and stumbles pretty badly. I take the time to dissect it rather seriously and wait for the next story, hoping that he comes to his senses. It seems, at least according to my recent conversation with him, that he has - but more on that later.

My day, last Saturday, was pretty damn long. I had awaken early to get it started with the Saigon Digital Marketing Conference (SDM: more on that later as well) but through possibly seven or eight presentations, lunch, too many coffees, a few more presentations and then cocktails, and of course passing out plenty of my now ubiquitous Post-It Note business cards, I was just getting warmed up. Encouraged by the certified Bar Mitzvah band that had been assigned to work the conference (nobody ever accused digital people of having squat for musical taste) I exited the New World Hotel back into the world of Saigon that would barely get one star rating in the world of five star experiences.

Off to a bar known only by a number that I could not remember and the cross- street intersection behind the Sunwah building that I could remember, to a location that has proven to be discoverable by even the most inebriated of conventioneers and local expats alike, I am directed there by a new acquaintance who works for one of the more well known consumer research firms in town.

Arriving at questionmark numbered bar, I enter to find what is a more than common and successful formula for bars catering to the expat working populace in Saigon - an easily predictable combination of attractive young English speaking female staff and graying old men with credit cards. I fit in perfectly, save for the credit card, and find my new found buddy happily ensconced in the attractions of a dedicated employee. We chat for a bit, hash over some shop talk about the conference and he offers me a whiskey and ginger ale. It tastes yummy. But cigarette supplies have diminished and the barmaid tells me that menthols are not on the in-bar menu so I must go out to one of the small street stands and pay an overly inflated price for the same old smokes - so be it.

Walking out onto the street I am confronted by the remnants of a late day shower that has left the street wet but thankfully not flooded as so often is the case in Saigon. A man stands back to me staring into the drizzle but I busy myself across the little road to the ironing board style cigarette stand (you can fold them up and take them anywhere) next to the coffee cafe where Vietnamese yuppies congregate at little love seats to drink Starbuck's priced beverages and decide if they want to get married or not. I procure a normally priced at 15,000 dong pack of Marlboro menthols for twenty thousand after negotiating down from twenty five and dash back across the way to the awning over the front of my numbered bar of choice. As I look up I see a man looking excactly like the man in the photo above and say, "Hi, are you Brian?", recognizing him immediately. I'm quite sure his expression and maybe even his shirt were just like what you see above.

He responds that yes, he is Brian and I tell him that I recognize him from the Vanity Fair stories of the past year. I introduce myself as David, tell him about my blog and give him one of my rubber stamp Post-It Note business cards. From then on, it's just another two old blokes outside of what could be one of a hundred other bars in the city. We talk of past lives and present pursuits. I ask him if he knows Abbe Diaz, mentioned at the beginning of this story, and he chimes back "I fired Abbe!" from one of his more than many noted restaurants in NYC. I didn't ask why - that being a business that doesn't exactly reward employee loyalty. He tells me that he's found an export business in the way of neon and Bakelite signs that it's entirely possible for one to make $150,000 a year just by doing that - and as anyone who might understand the financial differences between Saigon and New York can tell you, would be like making a half a million or better in the Big Apple. I talk of my advertising past and he encourages me to think beyond that and into more export oriented businesses. Indeed there are things you can get done cheaply in Vietnam that are just plainly cost-prohibitive in more advanced economys and I think about that for a few seconds - and then move along. Those businesses just don't interest me much.

I prod the conversation along into the two articles that he had done so far for Vanity Fair, fully aware that although I was a fan of the first had pretty much taken the second apart for being factually and culturally inaccurate - but also knowing that I had chosen to take the VF editorial staff to task for that and not McNally himself. "Nah, I'm not a writer", he plainly states, in response to my question about whether he would be doing any more stories. I tell him I like his writing, which is true, and encourage him to keep on (not exactly anyone can get a first story in Vanity Fair). He then tells me that VF had sent him a contract and was interested in pursuing the series but that he's busy doing other things. A golf course was mentioned. Illuminating the pay structure for VF stories though, what I can say, without giving up too much information that was given to me in confidence, is that any writer in Vietnam certainly wouldn't turn it down. Without other income it would be insufficient in New York, but here a person could live on it, and not too shabbily at that.

We talk further about living accomodations and he riles a bit about rents going up - a landlord wanting $5000 a month and how that's getting on New York prices. Shit, for that around here the landlord is either a friend of Graydon Carter's or has at least seen a copy of Vanity Fair magazine with Brian's story in it. "Fuck", I exclaim. We talk about Ahn Phu and Phu My Hyun, two of the newer, pricier neighborhoods in town, and those are summarily rejected by him as not having the charm and grit that makes this place endearing - but the Stepford wives could live there. I direct him towards District 3 with the idea that a thousand bucks or two will have you living like a Buddha.

By this point I'm reasonably drunk but still have at least two more stops to go on the evening's tour. I say nice to meet him and we shake hands as I head back inside the bar. He seems more than content just out of the drizzle and gazing at the street - and I forget to put in a plug that I might be more than happy to take up the writing job that he has plainly claimed he doesn't want anymore.

All in all, nothing more and nothing less than I might have expected from all I've learned about the man in the last year (I didn't ask about Madonna or all the other famous people who used to hang out in his places. I've met my share as well). Nice, unassuming, chilled and more than comfortable in this element. As "Dick Johnson" says to Mr. McNally on Abbe's blog: "I wish you all the best and admire that despite your 'crazy' reputation within the industry, you are apparently, a pretty good sport. aww. you really are just a big fucking softie inside". And about a man who's obviously kicked up his share of shit through Schrager hotels and the like in NYC, that's quite the fucking compliment. I agree. I hope to see him around and talk more.

For the entire "You man in Saigon Experience" check below:

IV: The search for Brian McNally ends
III: The second Vanity Fair Story
II: The first Vanity Fair story
I: Your Man In Saigon"


  1. "...I ask him if he knows Abbe Diaz, mentioned at the beginning of this story, and he chimes back 'I fired Abbe!'...."eeheee heeee hhahahaa HE DID ?! REALLY ??!

    well hells-- if i had KNOWN that, maybe i could have filed for unemployment!

    from now on if anybody asks me if i know Brian McNally, i am going to chime back: "i turned down Brian McNally's marriage proposal!"

    he's so silly.

  2. I really agree on the point that a writer has to know the editor well in order to get every article published. This world is all about who you know but not you know, man... even in a democracy machine.

    Seems like you have some great companies in Saigon, man.

  3. ...please where can I buy a unicorn?

  4. Not sure I understand the unicorn comment...


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