Tra Phuong and her friend were having a good time.
They swayed to the tune of jazz melodies crooned by a French singer, not put off by the sounds of clinking glasses and exhortations of “zo zo tram phan tram” (Vietnamese for “bottoms up”) coming from a nearby table.
Phuong came to the bar after her dance lesson at 9 p.m. The marketing and sales professional ordered a glass of beer, then a cocktail and she and her friend enjoyed the live music while making small conversation.
At 11:30 p.m., the band stopped playing. The sounds of chitchat and clinking of glasses continued, but these were getting feeble, too.
A few minutes later, Phuong and her friend paid their bill and left.
All entertainment and other business establishments in the capital city, bars, pubs, restaurants, shops starting winding down close to midnight, when Hanoi police patrols set out, reminding them to shut down, turn off electricity, clear motorbikes off the sidewalk street – a practice aimed at maintaining public order.
Hanoi authorities do not allow public activities after midnight, except in the Hoan Kiem area during weekends, when they allow until 2 a.m. Shortly afterwards police officers and militia begin to tell people to go home.
Phuong can’t say when exactly the 12 a.m. curfew began, but she left the jazz bar with a feeling of discontent, wishing the city’s nightlife could last longer.
She said there were boiling summer days in Hanoi when she was desperate to plunge into a swimming pool, but she doesn’t finish work until late, and there is no pool that remains open long enough.
“We are still young, we can’t go to bed at 10 p.m.,” a disgruntled Phuong said.
Tra Phuong (R) is a regular at this jazz bar in Hanoi’s Old Quarters, visiting the place almost every Thursday night. Photo by T.M.
Not too far from the jazz bar patronized by Phuong, a night club on Hai Ba Trung Street dazzled with flashing multi-color strobe lights and shook eardrums with trendy remixes. Hundreds of club goers zeroed in on a slim female DJ wearing a black crop top and a cap with her hair let down, standing on a higher platform, singing a remixed song about Saigon in unison.
Quynh, the DJ enjoys working at the club because all the customers are young Vietnamese coming from all walks of life, and sometimes, foreigners also get there.
She works a three-hour shift, three to four nights a week, earning about VND20 million ($860) a month as a DJ. Her DJ heavy makeup and revealing outfit is worlds different from her office attire during the day.
Two years earlier, before Quynh took on the role of a DJ, she had noticed the growing demand for nightlife entertainment among young people, especially office workers. They were people who could afford to spend on different activities late into the night. At the same time, the service industry began booming, and places like bars, clubs, and restaurants that opened late were frequented by many office workers.
She feels that today, the notion of late nights in a bar or a pub has changed a lot from 10-15 years ago. Now, it does not automatically mean getting punch drunk and blacking out – a glass of beer or two with the background of live music is good enough for them to unwind.
Quynh wants Hanoi to be as lax as Saigon where there is no strict midnight curfew and police patrols. The DJ was pleasantly surprised that she and her friends could remain drinking at a bar on Bui Vien Street, perhaps the most popular drinking hotspot in HCMC, completely undisturbed until 2 a.m.
The sounds of police sirens and loudspeakers startled Elle Moore a few minutes before midnight. She was scared she would be punished for drinking beer on the streets and rushed back to her hotel in the Old Quarter. The Irish native could not help but think that if she were in Dublin at this time, she would be heading out to some bar.
But instead she was going to bed early because of Hanoi’s curfew.
“There’s nothing much to do in the evening,” Elle said, shrugging, having arrived at the conclusion after three nights in the capital city that downed curtains at midnight, when, in most urban places with a nightlife, things would just be beginning.
Foreign tourists leaving Hanoi’s Old Quarters at midnight as police tell shops to close. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
Meanwhile, Mrubnal, Monish and Vimlesh from India, who were also visiting Hanoi, were walking towards their hotel about 100 meters from Hoan Kiem Lake. While they felt no need to stay in bars until sunrise, they were disappointed that they couldn’t find a late night eatery.
“We went into this restaurant one time at 10:30 p.m. and they refused to serve us,” Monish said. Ravenous, the young tourists decided to buy instant ramen from a convenience store instead. After eight previous nights spent in Hoi An, Ninh Binh, and Sa Pa – Vietnam’s major tourist destinations where they experienced similar food choice deprivation, the young tourists had resorted to using 24-hour convenience stores to down their hunger pangs.
The night time economy
In Vietnam, the concept of night-time economy made its first official appearance on a government document two months ago.
But this concept is not new globally – it first appeared in the 1980s, when Europe’s industrial cities started having an identity crisis following their transformation from production centers to consumption centers.
The night-time economy was arguably conceived to pull them back from the brink of ruin, and thus warehouses were turned into bars, workshops became dance floors.
In its most basic form, it was associated with self-indulgent drinkers. But these days, it includes a lot of economic activity that takes place between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., including food, entertainment, arts, healthcare, education, transport, and construction.
But this has not been the case in Hanoi. While international visits to Vietnam have quadrupled in the last 10 years (2008-2018), many tourists are still having to resort to instant noodles after midnight when they get hungry in the heart of Vietnam’s capital city.
The lack of night time activities doesn’t just concern tourists, but also long-term international residents in Hanoi.
Andrea Gallo, 35, couldn’t pronounce Xin chao (hello in Vietnamese) correctly in the first five years he lived here.
But the lecturer in Italian culture and language at Hanoi University has made huge progress in his sixth year, being able to play Chinese chess and chat with any local about Vietnamese folktales, holidays, arts and many other topics.
“Hanoi culture is in itself miraculous, but it’s impossible to go watch a cheo performance (Vietnam’s traditional opera) at 10 p.m. here,” Andrea rued.
“Hanoi has many kinds of fun for short-term tourists, but for people who have worked and lived here for a long time, those things are not fun for us. We have different needs,” he said.
The lecturer recalled his experience at Nights of Museums in Rome. For one euro ($1.10), from 8 p.m.-2 a.m., visitors could enjoy many events including art shows, music, dance, theater, cinema, readings, guided tours on a Saturday night.
“Hanoi’s culture and history are great advantages already which should be more exploited. Because anywhere you go there are bars and dance clubs, so it is Hanoi’s unique culture and history that needs greater investment,” Andrea told VnExpress, adding: “I wish Hanoi had a program like [Nights of Museum].”
In international eyes, Hanoi’s nightlife is not only short-lived, but also limited in terms of choices. The city doesn’t provide enough eateries, shopping areas, public spaces for art appreciation and public transportation late in the night.
Vimlesh of India said he would visit Thailand again after his trip to Vietnam, and was looking forward to it.
“In Bangkok, I don’t have to buy ramen,” he said.
Get rid of it
“If we get rid of the curfew, life in Hanoi will be so much more dynamic,” Quynh said. She’s not wary of feeling sleep deprived at work the following day if she goes out the night before, because she “would go out and have lots of fun, come home and go straight to sleep, not clinging to my phone, which helps me rejuvenate much better.”
At the dawn of the 21st century, when the Internet was just becoming a thing in Vietnam, Hanoi youth spent time watching TV (33 percent), listening to music (27 percent), reading comics/books (24 percent), and hanging out with their friends (14 percent) on an average of two hours and six minutes of spare time per day, according to a study conducted by Dr Dinh Thi Van Chi, a lecturer at the Hanoi University of Culture. Young people then sought recreational spaces in or near the home.
Their hobbies have been digitalized in recent years. The majority of entertainment consumed by the young are now associated with electronic devices and social networks. Besides, “young people have formed a night life, leading to increased demand for night entertainment,” said Dr Chi.
Hanoi provides many public entertainment venues, but they are only good for weekends, and more about sightseeing and selfie-taking. Entertainment that involves games and art appreciation are quite limited and costly.
In 2016, when Hanoi opened its walking street around Ho Guom Lake, the heart of Hanoi’s downtown area, Hong Van visited it often on weekends.
Then, the street teemed with activities like Vietnamese traditional games, like tug of war or o an quan – a traditionally children’s game that involves lots of tactics – played by both kids and adults using rocks and leaves.
Foreign tourists who enjoyed the games would photograph the activities and eventually join them. Folk games like this were organized by a group of young people with a desire to preserve Hanoi’s nostalgic childhood memories.
A lion dance performance on Hanoi’s walking street around the Sword Lake. Such activities have diminished in recent years. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.
But now, such games are missing as the same group of people became preoccupied with their work and studies, leaving the walking street flooded with jarring sounds of Chinese toy cars brought by street sellers mixing with K-pop music of street dancers.
The street hosts 3,000 people in the day time and more than six-fold the number, 20,000, at night. Walking itself has become a struggle.
She and her friends would inch their way on the crowded street to get to a lemon tea shop, a favorite beverage among Hanoians. Bored by the lack of games, they migrated to the book street right next to the walking street, but all bookstores had closed by 9:30 p.m.
Deprived of choices, they decided to buy tickets to a late movie showing at a cinema. Van said whenever she has friends visiting from other cities, besides sitting in a café or having dinner on Ta Hien Street, Hanoi’s version of Saigon’s Bui Vien, there’s not much else to do.
Dr Chi of Hanoi University of Culture said that young people’s need for more nightlife activities was legitimate. It would benefit society by allowing the city’s pressure to entertain its citizens to spread out evenly throughout 24 hours a day instead of squeezing it into the “waking hours.”
The city can only relieve this pressure when healthy recreational activities are created late into the night, Chi said, adding that an absence of such activities could result in “spontaneous, impulsive activities” that can have adverse social consequences.
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