Good morning, Vietnam!
The overnight buses pull into Pham Ngu Lao early in the day, giving tourists pressed for time a clear morning before the hangover of the next. Though it’s a bit of an ask with a bumpy trip behind, those who spend their mornings outside are rewarded with the city at its most optimistic.
There is a Vietnamese proverb — duc toc bat dat, “haste makes waste”. Though the working day looms large, even at this early hour you can find the city’s corner cafés packed with people in no hurry to go anywhere.
Working up a sweat
It’s an old tradition, obsolete for some in this age of gyms and Youtube follow-along-at-home videos. But in the parks you’ll still see the fitness oriented twisting and grunting in pyjamas and sweats, cranking along a simple mechanical rhythm on metal resistance machines.
Rush hour is in full swing by 8am, as the city’s arteries are pumped full with motorbikes. For some it’s too much, and they lean on their horns while those in front grimace behind facemasks. The secret to keeping your cool? Respect your neighbour, and avoid those traffic circles.
Pray before day
In practically every home and business, you’ll find a shrine, filled with the burnt ends of incense and some of the best offerings a kitchen can provide. This is ancestor worship in its most visible manifestation. But for some it’s not enough. They must escape the bustle of the coming day and head to the pagodas, incense in hand.
The Beep goes on
Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City isn’t a time-constrained event, it’s a way of life. By 10am the roads have emptied of office and school-bound traffic, but they’re still strangely clogged. And the attention they attract is more than just due diligence on the part of the drivers — here the traffic is a spectacle, as flickeringly addictive as a game of Candy Crush.
On the ground floor
Wherever a construction site springs up, an equally temporary space follows. Glass cases holding com binh dan and metal vats of pho speckle the boundary lines — giving workers comfort in food. Or maybe the workers just leave their place of work for a quick, late morning break.
Com van phong, or office lunches, originally started in the city’s cafes. A relatively cheap set meal in attractive, aircon surroundings was perfect for the growing quorum of office workers. But with the onslaught of food courts and sleek eateries, so the location has changed, as has the meal. It’s no longer just rice, rice and more rice. Now it’s a bit of everything.
Nap time for Mr. Xe Om
Well, he’s got to sleep sometime. And, with legs propped up on the handles he so deftly steers, Mr. xe om is more comfortable than he looks. He might have been a farmer or technician in another life, but he’s given that up to make his living off the streets.
The afternoon paddy whack
There’s no use avoiding it, tourist: bargaining at Ben Thanh Market is a rite of passage. Housed inside this architectural treasure is a square kilometre of tat, from souvenirs to fake suitcases to, erm, trinkets. T-shirt hawkers will pull on your T-shirt until you buy one of theirs. The savvy avoid the daytime mess and head there at night, when it’s that much more pleasant.
There's always time for lookin' good
Working all day does nothing good for the nails. So take a half-day off and enjoy one of Saigon’s live-like-a-king pleasures. Shell out as little as VND80,000 for a mani-pedi — it pays for itself in the free drinks you’re soon to receive.
The kids are alright
Those who remember what it was like to be a kid might bristle at the 10-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week school regimen Saigonese youth are subjected to. But go down to 23/9 Park or the pavement of Le Duan and you can watch this country’s future leaders cut loose, demonstrating a focus sadly missing on their end-of-term exams.
The other rush hour
If rush hours have personalities, this one would be more hopeful than the morning’s — but somehow less patient. But patience is all a matter of perspective, and seeing other people’s live-and-let-live approach to the man cycling or pushing his food cart through the middle of a busy traffic circle puts a more sympathetic face on the commute home.
Watching sunset from across the river gives jaded city dwellers a context for the magnificent nature in which they live. Just across from the skyscrapers lies a landscape dominated by natural rhythms, and when the sun sets, life here grows calmer, as Saigon forgets the pressures of day.
Dinner doesn’t cook itself. Neither does it buy itself, as you can observe in Big C at this hour. Fresh off of a long day of work, hundreds crowd the aisles, a new challenge in front of them — this tomato or that?
Bui Vien packs out
While the rest of the city is subject to the rhythms of working days and ladies’ nights, the plastic chairs on Bui Vien are never empty at this hour. Thirsty travellers and even thirstier Saigonese pack out the bia hois looking to forget the sun and drink away the night.
Dinner of the daring
It’s 9pm and your stomach is rumbling. Tentacles don’t go bad, do they? You take your chances with some bach tuoc nuong and never look back. Maybe next time you’ll try your luck on those tantalising oysters.
Football's on the TV - always
For some, the hour won’t matter if the EPL is in season. From expat haunts like Phatty’s, Baan Thai and Universal to the corner sets in the local joints across the street, these games attract diehards and a unique atmosphere. It’s a brief escape from the usual schedule — unless of course another game is on after.
It’s a simple fact of life. Dried squid served up with chilli sauce and the local version of hoisin just goes perfectly with a beer or five. And it’s brought right to your table, too, grilled to order.
The Highways never sleep
As things slow in the city, trucks start to enter, setting up the commerce of the coming days. The highway of choice is the one winding 1,700km down from Hanoi, National Route 1A — which came in seventh in Lonely Planet’s World’s Best Cycling Routes last time they did one of those roundups. But at this hour, the cycles have cleared out and the rigs own the road.
While the rest of the city is going dark, the nightclubs are entering their native states. There are a growing number of people whose closets contain fewer stiff collars than slinky dresses — except of course when their finery is being worn on the dance floor.
The early bird gets the bid
While the city’s storefronts have trucks to bring in their supplies, the city’s markets depend on a less formal network. Motorbikes and riverboats bring in the lush goods from the Mekong Delta to the wholesale market Binh Dien, not too far from Cholon. These deliveries precede a flurry of buying and selling which will soon extend citywide.
Still in print
The information age hasn’t left the city’s newspaper industry behind. It’s early and the printing houses are in action, running newspapers through their offset printers, before folding and placing each copy in bundles for the delivery men and women to disperse them around the city.
Of all the pocket societies setting up in the pre-dawn hours, few bring as much colour to the darkness as the flower sellers of District 10’s Ho Thi Ky Flower Market. Coming in from the highlands of Dalat and the riverbanks of the Mekong, the flowers usher in hope for the new day.