Nightlife in Vietnam
The Vietnam 'scene'
Nowhere in Vietnam has nightlife comparable to that in most major cities elsewhere. For a start, the only places open after 11pm are small street cafés, a few bars and clubs in the tourist areas, the hotels and, of course, police stations.
In Vietnam, the only locations where the term ‘nightlife’ has any relationship to its meaning in developed countries are Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and to a lesser extent, Nha Trang.
Apart from bars and cafés in the tourist areas, things start closing down at about eight o’clock. The early finish has more to do with Vietnamese culture than repressive killjoy authorities. Vietnam was, and largely still is, an agricultural economy where people work through out the daylight hours, and eat and sleep much earlier than those in developed countries.
Saigon's notoriety came with the US soldiers in the 1960's. Access to easy money and plenty of it created a sex industry on a par with Thailand's red light districts. The exploitation and sleaze halted abruptly after the Vietnamese victory in 1975, but its reputation lingers on.
There are a few ‘night clubs’ in most of the big cities but they are usually variations of discotheques. Most fall into two categories – ‘Vietnamese’ and ‘Western’.
The former are dance halls where young people congregate to drink soft drinks and engage in chaste courting, very reminiscent of the fifties youth scene in the US and UK.
The ‘Western-style’ night clubs are more glitzy, more expensive and much louder. They have a bar and, sometimes, a large group of good-time girls who will entertain male customers.
Typically, the 'music' in Western night clubs that attract Vietnamese customers is heavy 'techno' and 'hip hop' played at an ear-shattering volume.
Elsewhere, there are a number of ex-pat and foreigner bands that play mainly in hotels, bars and clubs. The music is more varied - rock, latin, jazz, funk and so on.
A recent development is 'pop' concerts mainly featuring both male and female vocalists. However, Vietnamese rock bands are increasing in popularity.
The main evening entertainment for Vietnamese people is the ubiquitous karaoke. These also come in two varieties. Some are really a bar with a karaoke machine where individuals put their name on a list and wait for their turn.
Unlike karaokes in the West, there’s no sense of a ‘talent contest’ – when you turn comes, you sing to your heart's delight but nobody takes much notice.
The alternative is having a private room where you can operate the machine yourself. Although this feature, coupled with the dim lighting and smoked glass doors of the downstairs bar, suggests all sorts of debauchery.
However, despite their reputation as dens of iniquity, it’s usually reasonably respectable. Some can provide a female companion, but things seldom go further than singing duets and a bit of kissing and cuddling.
Bars and clubs
Minh’s Jazz Club in Hanoi is worth a visit. He and his son are saxophone virtuosos – dad plays tenor with Minh junior on bass. It’s open every evening until 11pm – the live music starts and 9pm, mainly Minh and son with the resident ensemble, but quite frequent guest artists and combos. The food and beer is good, the prices are reasonable, and the place feels more like a real night club.
Of Ho Chi Minh City’s bars, the Allez Boo bar (near the backpacker area), is crowded, raucous, but quite good fun most evenings. Many other establishments of varying levels of seediness and price ranges can be found in the same area.
Ho Chi Minh City’s Conservatory of Music has a programme of regular classical music performances, and the Hanoi Opera House has frequent evening performances, often good classical concerts.
Despite its name, operatic items are infrequent in both of the major cities, and those that do make an appearance nearly always foreign. Vietnamese opera is performed in other theatres that specialise in the traditional forms of 'cheo', 'tuong' and 'cai luong'.
Of all the artistic forms in Vietnam, water puppetry is truly unique. It developed many centuries ago among the peasants of the Red River Delta in the north of Vietnam. The wooden puppets mimic the daily life of feudal Vietnam, sometimes graceful and moving, and sometimes very humorous.
The most accessible venue is at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake where there is purpose-built theatre to cater for foreigners. Normally we shy away from commercial performances, but it's very well done and provides plenty of insights into the rural Vietnamese lifestyle.
There are several cinemas, but films or subtitles in anything other than Vietnamese are an exception. Watch out for Vietnamese films dubbed in English and other languages – they are often an execrable translation done as a single voice-over.
Both cities have several theatres offering everything from classical drama to family variety shows, but all are in Vietnamese and virtually incomprehensible to anyone not grounded in the local culture.
The only exceptions are the Hoa Binh theatre in Ho Chi Minh City that is oriented towards foreign visitors, and the commercial Water Puppet theatres in both cities.
For visitors interested in delving deeper into the traditional performing arts of Vietnam, a visit to a performance of one or more of the main styles of Vietnamese theatre might be useful. They are:
cheo: a ‘people's opera,’ incorporating comic and tragic elements - lots of music and singing
tuong: a classical art form featuring Vietnamese legends - minimal music, and few stage props
cai luong (renovated opera) music and singing - somewhat similar to Western dramas and operas
Hanoi has a permanent Circus building, but it is manly used as a venue for Vietnamese family variety concerts. When the National Circus is performing, or touring circuses from around the region are in town, it’s well worth a visit.
Other evening entertainments
Both the main cities have ten-pin bowling centres that are open in the evenings, but apart from that, the best (and cheapest) evening entertainment is strolling around the town centre, watching what’s going on, and pausing in the street cafés for refreshment from time to time.
In Hanoi, at the head of Hoan Kiem Lake on the opposite side of the road, there is a large building resembling the back end of a cruise ship. The excellent view of the lake from its roof-top bar makes it a pleasant place to while away an evening – a pleasure made greater by making invisible the awful eyesore underneath!