Thailand and Indochina Traveller
January - March 2002

As Saigon awaited liberation by Communist forces, the American-supplied air traffic control system was ripped from Ton San Nhat Airport and installed in Bangkok's Don Muang - Saigon's loss, but Bangkok's gain. A similarly harsh blow came in 1998 when world-renowned Q Bar decamped from its nook in Saigon's City Opera House for Bangkok's Sukhumvit Road. But just as the transportation infrastructure recovered then, so has the nightlife now.

Expats going out in Saigon tend to stick to their "Golden Triangle", consisting of the long-standing Apocalypse Now and relative newcomers Vasco's and the Underground. The weekend begins at the trendy but cozy Vasco's at 16 Cao Ba Quat Street. Upstairs, patrons finish their fine French meals or play billiards at Camarque, the restaurant which takes up the upper floor and terrace; downstairs, expats gather to await "Burned by the Sun" - Saigon's most polished rock/metal band. Drinks run about $2-$4, and partygoers can imbibe at the bar or tables or dance in between as the mood strikes. "On a Friday night, it's the only option," says Craig Bartell, a construction engineer and six year resident of Viet Nam.

If it's Vasco's party on Fridays, Saturday belongs to the Underground - a hit since it opened in March last year. "It's the closest thing to what we've got back home," says manager Dragan Ciric, who is also proud of the club's size and open concept: The single large rectangle manages to contain, but still keep separate , a throbbing dance floor, a hopping bar section and a low key billiards area. People also appreciate the $2 beers and good Western food served in, as one slim French woman enthuses, "American-size portions." Located in the basement of Lucky Plaza, the bar's entrance at 69 Dong Khoi Street is unmistakable with its large neon red and blue London Underground logo.

After years as the city's expat nightlife epicenter, Apocalypse now is still going strong - but the nature of the crowd at any given time is as unpredictable as a Viet Cong ambush. On a good night, this perennial favorite attracts well-heeled foreign executives, grungy tourists, stunning bar girls, ultra-hip locals, and some dodgy expats who look like they just came back from the front in dire need of a $2 beer. True to its theme, the inside is replete with "blood"-dripped lights, "helicopter rotor" ceiling fans and a "Charlie Don't Surf" surfboard. Outside, the Chinese-lanterned terrace offers a slightly mellower atmosphere for those so inclined. As really the first and most popular foreign-oriented nightclub to launch since Communist Viet Nam began its uneasy engagement with the outside world, the place has been a lightning rod for police raids - owner Mr. Zip does not even put a sign outside in an attempt to keep a low profile. However, you'll be hard-pressed to find any cab or motorbike taxi driver who doesn't know exactly where it is. The official address is 2 Thi Sach Street.

For those seeking a less raucous evening out, Maya is a stylish, Latin-themed place with a cozy bar in front and a restaurant in back. Whenever friends of the co-owners go abroad, they are asked to return with two bottles (the legal limit, of course) of specialty spirits, resulting in one of Saigon's widest selections.

The refined atmosphere, which belies reasonable drink prices of $3-$4 for specialty cocktails, and Thursday night salsa lessons, make this a favorite. More upmarket, but with a view to match, is Saigon Saigon at the Hotel Caravelle. For $3 beers and $6 cocktails you can drink in stunning views of downtown Saigon stretching to the west and north of the city center.

Few venues currently cater equally to both foreign and local tastes. "There are three nightlifes in Ho Chi Minh City," says Mark Ketelaars, whose first visit to Viet Nam was in 1993. "One for expats, an 'Asian' nightlife which consists of discos with beautiful Vietnamese girls and old Singaporean men, and then there's the Vietnamese nightlife, which is really more of an 'evening life'." To di choi (go out) for many Vietnamese consists of cruising around downtown on motorbikes. Young couples, flirtatious teenagers, and whole families clog the streets of the city center on Sunday evenings. By ten PM, most have gone home. Another popular local pastime is the "bia hoi", sidewalk "bars" where mostly men gather on short stools to drink locally brewed draft beer for as little as $.25 a liter.

Hipper Vietnamese who are not out to get sloshed on the sidewalk opt for cafes. The classic Vietnamese café is a small, open air shophouse with beach chairs and low tables. Larger, more upmarket versions with courtyards and full-size tables and chairs include Café 343 at 343 Nguyen Trai for the young, rich and hip, and stylish Press Café at 14 Alexandre de Rhodes for the yuppie set.

Western style coffeeshops have also been steadily gaining popularity. The Vietnamese answer to Starbucks is the ubiquitous Trung Nguyen franchise, launched by a med-school dropout and now boasting well over a hundred locations around HCMC (and now a franchisee in Singapore as well). Although not as uniform as we expect from franchise outlets, each Trung Nguyen serves a range of coffees from 5,000 to 14,000 dong, specializing in the dense Buon Me Thuot style. Nguyen Dien, a young robotics engineer, enjoys the atmosphere, but notes that for the true Buon Me Thuot connoisseur, the potent sludge in our cups is "almost like water." For adventure, try the famous Chon (weasel) coffee, roasted from beans that are purported to obtain their richer flavor after heaving been eaten and passed through a weasel's digestive system.

Despite being acceptable to foreigners, most of the cafes and coffeeshops are largely Vietnamese affairs, just as most of the expat bars are patronized overwhelmingly by foreigners. One place which has been enthusiastically embraced by both communities is the highly recommended Carmen bar/café. The interior is a unique and delightful mix of stone walls and steps, open brickface, unfinished plaster, thatched roofing and candlelight for an effect that is cavelike and cheerful at the same time.

With live music that is entertaining but unobtrusive, attentive, friendly waitstaff and drinks in the $2 -$4 range, Carmen attracts cosmopolitan mix of Vietnamese, Westerners and Japanese. Those looking for a fun but relaxed night out or anyone who'd like to mix with the locals without hitting the pavement bia hois can head to Carmen at 8 Ly Tu Trong Street

Cafes and coffeeshops are pleasant, but never let it be said that Vietnamese don't know how to party. Live music is becoming increasingly popular, largely replacing the "MTV" cafes of a few years past in which patrons watched music videos. Tropical (known by its Vietnamese name of Nhiet Doi) at 129A Nguyen Hue is a hopping jungle-decored nightclub with live music and (Vietnamese language) comedy skits. Impress your Vietnamese friends by suggesting a night out at this local favorite.

Live music, however, is still no match for the dance beat. Speed Disco at 79 Tran Hung Dao is the current hotspot, regularly packing in hundreds of revelers, almost all of them Vietnamese. Two levels of tables and stools overlook a tight dance floor, and the disco even boasts its own sushi bar. For the very late night crowd, Diem hen Saigon at 25 Nguyen Thong is a scary-looking dive of a dance club, but it manages to stay open when most other places have closed.

The issue of closing times is a sensitive one: The government anti-social-evils campaign targeting prostitution and drug use has led to new regulations: Officially, all discos and bars must shut down at midnight. In practice, Viet Nam's free market law enforcement means that many bars are able to somehow stay open past the deadline. At the time of writing, the crackdown has dampened, but by no means extinguished, Saigon nightlife.

Expats may grouse about a lack of choices, bar owners may chafe under constantly shifting regulations and campaigns, and the vast majority of the city's nightspots -street cafes and bia hois - may not be particularly suited to foreign visitors. But bustling Ho Chi Minh City will not fail to entertain its guests.