During a visit to Auckland, New Zealand a few years ago, I was awe-struck by the cleanliness and serenity of the city. As I strolled through the immaculate streets, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of noise and chaos. It was like stepping into paradise. However, as the clock struck 7:00 pm, the streets became deserted. Only a handful of shops and restaurants remained open, and it took me a good 30 minutes to find a place to grab a beer. Auckland seemed to transform into a ghost town at night.
On the other hand, my first encounter with Ho Chi Minh City was an overwhelming assault on the senses. The city was teeming with vibrancy and energy, from the hustle and bustle of daytime traffic to the lively atmosphere that continued well into the night. Ho Chi Minh City knows how to have a good time like no other city in the world.
But here’s the thing about Ho Chi Minh City—it’s hot. The scorching heat is a trademark of the city, and it comes bundled with the rainy season that arrives like clockwork each year. However, the locals have learned to adapt to these weather conditions, and it has given rise to a unique culture that is admired around the globe.
In and around southern Vietnam, the sweltering daytime temperatures force people indoors. Construction sites and other businesses often close their doors due to the unbearable heat, even for the locals. In locations like Vung Tau, the city center becomes deserted in the middle of the day, with scarcely a soul to be seen on the streets. The markets shut down, and many shops take a long lunch break since there are no customers around.
However, Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh City experience a remarkable revival in the afternoon. While Ho Chi Minh City remains bustling throughout the day, Vung Tau springs to life around 3:00 pm, as the scorching sun starts to lose its intensity. Thousands of people pour out onto the streets, and this lively phase of the day carries on well into the early hours of the morning.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the midday heat doesn’t bring the city to a standstill. Taxis, cars, and motorbikes continue to navigate the streets, and pedestrians can be seen walking short distances to reach their destinations. It’s no wonder Ho Chi Minh City is known as the city that never sleeps—its energy is palpable even in the heat of the day.
But it’s the nightlife scene that truly captures the vibrant spirit of Ho Chi Minh City. Though the weather can be extreme, with rain and storms usually passing through by 6:00 or 7:00 pm, the night remains open for locals and tourists of all ages to embark on new adventures and experiences.
|Passengers queue for a night water bus on the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City, December 10, 2021. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre
The concept of having children in bed by 7:00 pm, which is common in Western cultures, does not apply here. Children are as much a part of the nightlife as adults. The “adults only” venues that exist in many Western countries are non-existent in Ho Chi Minh City. Instead, you’ll often find children accompanying their parents or friends, eagerly exploring all the night has to offer.
Ho Chi Minh City offers a wide range of must-visit attractions for any tourist. Nguyen Hue Street, located in the city center, is always buzzing with young people enjoying the cooler night air. You’ll often spot kids making dance videos, taking selfies, and savoring street food on this vibrant street. Numerous cafés are also scattered around, each offering a unique experience. Nguyen Hue Street is the perfect place to immerse yourself in authentic 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
The restaurant scene in Vietnam is a culinary adventure in itself. Whether you’re in the mood for a quick meal like phở (beef noodle soup) or bún bò Huế (spicy beef noodle soup), or you’re yearning for unique experiences like lẩu cá kèo (goby fish hotpot) or BBQ goat and frog, you’ll find a restaurant to satisfy your cravings. These places hold a special place in the hearts of the locals and are often reasonably priced, allowing Ho Chi Minh City residents to dine out three or four times a week.
What sets Vietnamese restaurants apart is their unique concept. In addition to a variety of restaurants that offer dinner at different price points, you’ll find a special type of diner or café that serves quick meals for any time of the day or night. These establishments, known as “quán,” usually specialize in one or two dishes and are open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes even all night.
One of my favorite dining spots is Tan Dinh Market in District 1. Here, you can find a variety of Vietnamese delicacies served 24 hours a day. Late nights are an especially unforgettable experience, as both young and old gather for a late-night snack on their way home or after a late shift. Personally, I love having a late-night meal of cơm tấm (broken rice) served with pork and a fried egg. The fish sauce and chili elevate this dish to new heights of flavor.
|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-style bars are gradually making their presence felt across the city, with more and more establishments opening outside the main foreign areas. Most bars start welcoming guests in the afternoon and stay open until the early hours of the morning. Each bar has its own charm, offering a range of great Western meals and drinks. Some may even have games like darts and pool to enhance your night out. These bars present a safer option for those who prefer a more familiar environment, as English speakers are always around.
However, there’s another side of the city that remains somewhat hidden, confined to certain parts of District 1. Bui Vien, which was once known as the epicenter of backpacker nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City, has undergone significant changes in recent years. The bars here have shifted their focus to cater to young Vietnamese adults who come to enjoy food and drinks, rather than targeting travelers and backpackers. Currently, bars across the city, such as those on Le Thanh Ton and Pasteur Streets, operate throughout the night to accommodate party-goers in search of a more exuberant experience. It’s worth noting that not all bars in these areas may be to everyone’s taste, so some discretion is advised when selecting 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
Yet, while the city buzzes in every corner until the markets open and morning yoga sessions commence, there’s one exceptional way to truly embrace the essence of the Ho Chi Minh City that never sleeps. Every once in a while, I hop on my bicycle or motorbike and ride through the city without a destination or plan. I slowly traverse the streets, taking in the sights of people enjoying themselves, the enticing aromas of street food filling the air, and the sounds of people savoring each other’s company. It fills me with a sense of tranquility and connection to a city brimming with life. And in that peaceful moment, I know I made the right choice in calling Ho Chi Minh City my home.
As you plan your next visit to Ho Chi Minh City or a night out with friends, make it a point to explore lesser-known areas. Venture into the alleys, streets, and any other place where people gather. Indulge in street food and coffee, but most importantly, immerse yourself in 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