Ho Chi Minh City puts on its boldest face at night. This sprawling metropolis of 7.4 million locals, ex-pats, backpackers, street vendors, moonlighters, xeom drivers and so on and so forth comes alive as the sun (and the heat) comes down. It’s as if the Vietnamese turn on a massive generator that powers up the sleeping beast of Saigon. Come evening, millions of lights suddenly outline everything; from the tallest skyscrapers to the dinkiest little phone shops. All of a sudden it’s easier to navigate the city. Places you wouldn’t give a second glance at during the day become vital landmarks at night. And you feel as if it’s time to get up and do something.
Your focus turns to what is illuminated. People eating together on the sidewalk. Hustlers on motorbikes trying to sell tourists ‘massages’. The Vincom Mall and Bitexco Building, towering commercial infrastructures pushing brands like Gucci which noone can afford. Little children running in and out of the shadows. War veterans with missing limbs, holding out their caps to people sipping on Saigon Beer and munching on vermacelli. Restaurants, spas, hotels with gawdish signs explicitly telling you in misspelled English you should go there. The torrential drone of engines revving. Karaoke bars and private karaoke rooms based in huge buildings. Yes, for this small few-hour gap in time (unless you are in the backpacker district where the Vietnamese cleverly stay up late to cater to our party-hard Western sensibilities) the good, the bad and the downright contrasts of Ho Chi Minh City come to light in the dark.
That’s not to say HCMC is just a place catering to the drunken masses. There’s a lot of culture here. Creativity, passion and artistic flair sing through the streets in several outlets. Interior design can be quirky. Fashion is taken seriously. Cinema and the theatre are immensely popular. There are public open-air concerts in tennis and basketball courts. Parking lots become pop-up markets, where local clothing and jewellery designers display their wares. Dance classes take place in the park – “Mot, Hai, Ba, Bon!” shouts the instructor over speakers blaring catchy K-Pop tunes. In it’s own way, Saigon’s got soul.
It’s acoustic night at E-house. This is a popular little cafe on 14 Đặng Trần Côn, Bến Thành, that has a primary focus on English-language learning (hence the name, ‘E-house’. Geddit?). The owner, Chau, is a bottle of sunshine, always smiling and welcoming visitors with open arms. Private English classes with foreign tutors take place here at really affordable prices, with the upstairs floor newly renovated to take on recent demand. There are also free ‘English clubs’, which take place 3 times per week – a great time to sit with locals and make new friends. Acoustic night is a feature where many locals come and wet their whistles, singing and strumming into the night.
So we’re sitting in this cafe, watching these very talented young folks belt out pop classics interspersed with Vietnamese tunes. There’s one guy with an amazing talent for beatboxing providing the beat to almost every song. Somehow it doesn’t flow with Celine Dion. As members of the audience come up and take their turns to sing, we’re all pretty impressed. Yes people love karaoke here; but by gosh can some of them perform. There’s one particular performer that really sticks in my memory. I noticed this small, older lady sitting a few booths in front of us. She was diminuitively dressed, wearing glasses and rocking a Beatles-esque haircut, casually sipping on her virgin mojito. As the current song ended, the invitation goes out to the crowd. This lady slowly rises, takes hold of the communal guitar and sits under the dim spotlights, adujusting the microphone stand to suit her height. It goes quiet for a few seconds. Then with a precision and skill heard in the likes of Leonard Cohen, she strums out a beautiful, soft, soothing melody. And then sings. In French.
J’adore Saigon, j’adore.