After spending the day making hard-earned cash on Saigon’s busy streets, the city’s poor find shelter inside 24/7 coffee shops offering a good night’s rest on rented hammocks.
At 9:00 pm inside a coffee shop just a few steps away from Thu Duc Agromarket in the suburban district of Thu Duc, about 20 hammocks were neatly suspended from metal bars fixed to the ground, separated by a walkway.
Turning her dark-green hammock inside out to check for wet spots, Le Thi Yen, a southern woman in her sixties, grabbed a small plastic stool and placed it inside the hammock to mark it as her own.
“I’m lucky that this spot is still available. It’s close to the fans so there should be fewer mosquitoes. The stool is for latecomers to know it’s taken,” Yen explained as she handed the VND15,000 (US$0.67) hammock ‘rent’ to the shop owner.
Yen has a relative who rents a room 30 kilometers away near Mien Tay (Western) Bus Station in Binh Tan District. Her daily routine begins with a shower in her relative’s room and a bus to Thu Duc Agromarket where she sells lottery tickets until she returns to the coffee shop to rest at midnight.
“I still recall my first night in a hammock. I couldn’t sleep because of the constant rocking, the mosquitoes, the discomfort of being in a strange place, and the fear of losing my bag of lottery tickets,” Yen recalled.
Yen said she has grown accustomed to the hammock lifestyle over time and she now falls asleep almost the moment her back touches the hammock.
Sitting on another hammock inside the coffee shop is Pham Thi Hoa, 65, a street-vendor who rented her hammock from 7:00 pm until 9:00 pm to rest before taking to the street to sell her basket of pastries until 2:00 am the next day and returning to sleep afterwards, all at a cost of VND15,000.
“I have a 46 year old alcoholic son, so I’m selling pastries to feed him. My husband left us a long time ago. I have a house in District 1 but have been sleeping on hammocks for years now since it’s more convenient for my pastry sales,” Hoa said as she quickly scooped up her basket and dashed into the night.
Yen and Hoa’s stories are common for customers of the countless ‘night hammock’ coffee shops in the area, mostly rented by street vendors, motorbike taxi drivers, and people who miss the last bus home.
Many customers carry all their personal belongings and perform their daily hygiene routine in the coffee shop’s bathroom, where they can also do laundry free of charge.
“Though many customers use the bathroom every night, I don’t make them pay extra because they’re all from poor backgrounds,” Le Duy, 27, owner of a hammock coffee shop on the National Route 1 in Binh Tan District said.
Some of Duy’s regular customers, such as 30-year-old motorbike taxi driver Le Van Thanh, even find joy in spending their night in the hammocks.
“I have been sleeping here for over a year now and have gotten to know some of the frequent sleepers. We talk and share stories each night to ease our homesickness,” Thanh said.
Thanks to this cheap alternative to room renting, Thanh is able to save a small portion of his security guard salary to send to his parents in their hometown in the Mekong Delta Province of Soc Trang.
Though the rent is cheap, being able to afford a hammock is a dream to some people, such as Madame Hai, a woman of sixty who is famous amongst the porters at Thu Duc Agromarket for her ferocity and unique style of sit-sleeping.
After ordering a single soda bottle from a coffee shop to ‘rent’ a seat, Hai dozes on her seat from 8:00 pm until 2 am the next morning, when she wakes up to wait in line for her turn to unload goods from trucks into the market.
“I have to wait until the afternoon to port for a mere VND80,000. I’ve been doing it for the past 40 years and without it I don’t know how I would feed myself and my son, who is in jail for doing drugs,” Hai confessed.
In these cramped and stifling coffee shops, shielded from the city’s glamour and modernity, human needs boil down to the simplicity of finding a comfortable hammock for much needed sleep and the hope for a night uninterrupted by mosquito bites or the subconscious need to check-up on a bag of lottery tickets.