What city in the world lays claim to 'The City That Never Sleeps'? Well, if you have lived in Ho Chi Minh City, you will know that the bustle of daytime traffic is only half of the true spirit of this amazing city. As night falls, the hive of activity seems to increase with many areas exploding with people right through until sunrise.
On a visit to Auckland, New Zealand a few years ago, I was amazed at the crispness and cleanliness of New Zealand’s biggest city. I wandered through the pristine streets with people walking calmly and not a horn to be heard. It was like heaven on earth. But come 7:00 pm, the streets were empty. Hardly any shops and restaurants appeared to be open and I had to walk for 30 minutes to find a place to have a beer. Auckland seemed to become a ghost town after dark.
In contrast, the first time I visited Ho Chi Minh City I was overwhelmed by the activities of the city. Not only was it the hustle and bustle of the traffic in the sunshine of the day, but it seemed to become more intense at night as workers commuted home whilst passing young people heading out for food and to have a good time. In Ho Chi Minh City, a good time is a good time like no other city in the world.
Let me tell you the obvious. Ho Chi Minh City is a hot city and always has been. But with the heat comes the wet season that, most years, is as regular as clockwork. And with the weather conditions comes a need to continue living that has morphed the local culture into something that is admired around the world.
All across southern Vietnam, the heat of the day drives people indoors. Construction sites and other businesses often close down because the blistering heat is just too much to handle for any human, even locals. In far-reaching places like Vung Tau, the middle of the day turns the city into a ghost town, with hardly a person seen on the street. The markets are mostly closed and many shops will shut for a long lunch break because there is simply nobody around.
However, Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh City are just two cities in Vietnam that have this amazing revival mid-afternoon. Whilst Ho Chi Minh City continues to operate during the day, Vung Tau seems to have an explosion of people around 3:00 pm. As soon as the heat of the sun dissipates, people come out in their droves and this starts a new part of the day that seems to run well into the early hours of the morning.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the quiet time of the hot midday heat is a little less obvious. Taxis, cars, and motorbikes still get around the city and many people can be seen walking short distances to get to their destinations. This is partly why Ho Chi Minh City is considered a city that never sleeps. Even in the heat of the day, the bustle of the city can still be seen in most districts.
But it is the nightlife of Ho Chi Minh City that brings out a vibrant feeling of the city. The weather is pretty extreme, but the good part is that most rains and storms roll through the city by 6:00 or 7:00 pm and this leaves the remainder of the night open to adventures and experiences for locals and tourists of all ages.
|Passengers queue for a night water bus on the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City, December 10, 2021. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
Many Western cultures have a custom of children being in bed by 7:00 pm, but this is not the case in Ho Chi Minh City. The city is filled with as many young children as it is with adults. The concept of 'adults only' venues is not part of this culture and children are often seen with their parents or friends experiencing almost everything the night has to offer.
The offerings in Ho Chi Minh City are vast and a must-see for any tourist. As a start, places like Nguyen Hue Street in the center of the city are filled with young people just enjoying the fresher night air and doing the things that teenagers and young people do. Most nights you will see kids out making dance videos, taking selfies, and just enjoying some simple street food on this dynamic and vibrant street. There are also a raft of cafés to experience here so just as much happens off the street as it does on the street. It is a great place to take in real Vietnamese modern culture.
|South Korean tourists take a photo in the Nguyen Hue pedestrian zone in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
Restaurants in Vietnam are also unique to the culture. Across the city, there are a range of restaurants serving anything from a quick meal, like phở (beef noodle soup) or bún bò Huế (spicy beef noodle soup), to unique experiences such as lẩu cá kèo (goby fish hotpot), BBQ goat and frog. All of these places have a special place in the hearts of locals and are mostly well priced, so going to a restaurant three or four times a week is often a common thing for most Ho Chi Minh City locals.
There is something special about restaurants that is a little different to most other Western countries. Whilst there are a range of restaurants that are focused on serving dinner at a range of prices, there is also a unique diner or more-café-style place, some open 24 hours a day, that aims at serving quick meals for people to eat any time of the day or night. These places, called quán, will usually offer one or two dishes and serve you from breakfast to dinner, and sometimes all night.
One place I particularly enjoy eating at is Tan Dinh Market in District 1. Here, 24 hours a day, people serve a variety of Vietnamese foods. Late nights are a special experience with younger and older people getting a late-night snack on the way home or coming together after a late shift to enjoy a cheap and simple meal before going home. My favorite late-night meal is cơm tấm (broken rice) served with pork and a fried egg. The fish sauce and chili make it a meal you will never forget.
|A 'cơm tấm' booth in front of Tan Dinh Market in Ho Chi Minh's District 1 has its light on at midnight. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
Western bars are slowly spreading across the city with more and more opening outside the key foreign areas. Most of them open later in the afternoon and will stay open to the early hours of the morning. Whilst each bar is different, you can get a range of great Western meals, drinks and some may have games like darts and pool to help you enjoy the night. They are often a safer alternative because there are always English speakers there and the food is familiar.
The more unspoken part of the city is restricted to some parts of District 1. Originally, Bui Vien was known as the center of the backpacker nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City but in recent years many young locals have flocked to this precinct and much has changed. Now the bars are more focused on young Vietnamese adults enjoying food and drinks rather than its original purpose of accommodating travelers and backpackers. Currently, across the city in places like Le Thanh Ton and Pasteur Streets, bars are open all night to cater for the traveling party-goers who enjoy the wilder side of life. These bars are not to everyone’s taste and some have developed a reputation that might suggest you be careful when choosing which one to visit.
|People enjoy their drinks on Bui Vien Walking Street in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, January 16, 2022. Photo: Ngoc Phuong / Tuoi Tre|
But as the city beats away in every corner until the markets open for the breakfasters and morning yoga participants, there is one special thing I like to do most to take in the feeling of the Ho Chi Minh City that never sleeps. Occasionally, I will just get on my bicycle or motorbike and ride. I don’t have a destination or a plan. I just ride around the city, slowly, and take in all the sights of people having fun, the smells of the food cooking on the street, and the sounds of people enjoying time together. It brings to me a sense of peace and connection with a vibrant city that never sleeps. And, in that moment of peace, I know my choice to make Ho Chi Minh City my home was right.
As you plan your next visit to Ho Chi Minh City or a night out with friends, make sure you explore the road less traveled. Check out the lanes, streets, and any location where people are gathered. Experience street food and coffee, but most of all, experience a vibrant city that never sleeps.
|People take part in the District 1 Midnight Run 2023 in Ho Chi Minh City, March 25, 2023. Photo: Phuong Quyen / Tuoi Tre|